Bringing Bulgarian musicians to North America

Photo courtesy of the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive (1987).  

Q. The other thing, of course, is that you had the opportunity to bring a number of master musicians from various cultures to teach at UCLA. That includes the Varimezovi.  Could you talk a little bit about bringing the next generation of Varimezov family members to UCLA to teach?

A. My bringing of Bulgarian musicians to North America began at the University of Toronto. I always felt an obligation to all those musicians who helped me during my fieldwork in Bulgaria. They did so at some personal risk in the Communist period, hanging out with an American, a capitalist, a fascist, a member of a despised foreign group.  I was very grateful for all the time that they put in teaching me. So I invited my principal teacher, who was Kostadin Varimezov and Todora Varimezova who I wrote about in my book, I invited them to the University of Toronto in 1978-79. And then when I got to UCLA, obviously we had this amazing legacy from the Mantle Hood days of all of these performance ensembles.  So for a while there, from 1987, I taught. There was some tradition of faculty teaching ensembles, and I taught a Bulgarian music ensemble. And then we had some graduate students who were interested. I remember one year we had Valeriu Apan teach a year-long course on Romanian music. But then Communism fell in Bulgaria and all of a sudden Bulgarian musicians could leave the country, and many of them did. Because they didn't feel that their art was really going to be supported much any more by the Bulgarian government, so many many musicians and their families emigrated to the United States, and when that happened, I began to hire those musicians here. Before the Varimezovi came, we had three different musicians, each of whom taught here for one or two years. And so we began that tradition, the faculty supported it, and that was wonderful.  And then the Varimezov family informed me that they would like to emigrate. This was the year 2000, which was already six or seven years after we had already been hiring Bulgarian musicians. I of course supported that; they were almost like family to me. And they came here. They are, without question, the best and the most successful of all these Bulgarian musicians. One of the things that I have always looked out for when I ask people to come and teach was that they should be good human beings as well as good musicians. They are all good musicians, and they are all good human beings but the Varimezov family is like, from another galaxy or something. They are just amazing human beings, amazing people. They've been wonderfully successful here.  And I've been happy to just have them continue, which is one of the traditions at UCLA: that people come and they often stay for many many years teaching. It is one of the strengths of the program.

Q.  It has evolved to them taking students to Bulgaria and you made a film...

Scene from the film May It Fill Your Soul (2012). Left to
right: Ivan Varimezov, daughters Tanya and Radka, and Tzvetanka Varimezova.

A. Among their successes have been three trips of the UCLA Balkan Music Ensemble to Bulgaria to perform there and those have been wonderful trips because the Varimezovi know everyone, all the musicians in Bulgaria. These students get to go to Bulgaria and meet the greatest traditional musicians in the country, travel around and see the history of the country and its architecture, and perform in major concert halls. They've done it three times and it has been very very successful. And then I ended up making a film that I call May it Fill Your Soul. I call that the next chapter in the book that I had written. It's a lovely documentary, not least because they are such lovely people, and their story is really interesting. I take their story as a kind of metaphor for the immigrant experience in the United States: people who sacrificed a lot in their home countries—high positions, respected positions in their home country—to come to the United States and just start completely over, often doing manual labor, for the sake of their children and their children's future. That's what the Varimzovi did. That's what many immigrants from Latin America, from the Middle East, and from all over the world do: they come here, sacrificing their own life's project for the sake of their children. So that is what the film is about at a broader level, rather than just about Bulgarian music and the Varimezov family.


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