Sunday, August 25, 2013

Bulgaria's "Lilly of the West" studying bluegrass in the USA on a Fulbright

Lilly Drumeva performing in Prague. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Congratulations to Lilly Drumeva, the Bulgarian singer and instrumentalist who founded and anchors the Bulgarian country/bluegrass group Lilly of the West, who is in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to study bluegrass music and the bluegrass music industry. She plans to write a book about bluegrass, for publication in Bulgaria.

Lilly has been profiled in or given interviews to several local publications, in which she has described her fascination with American bluegrass and country music and her experience in bringing this type of music to Bulgaria.

Here's an excerpt from her interview with Kevin Willis at Western Kentucky University NPR station:

What made a nice girl from Bulgaria get interested in American bluegrass and country music? 
“That’s a long story. It started 20 years when I was a student in Vienna, Austria. I was studying economics, and I heard country music for the first time when Emmy Lou Harris had a concert in Vienna. So I got hooked and started buying CDs. 
I had a boyfriend then who played guitar, and he taught me to play a few chords. And I started buying bluegrass and country music CDs, and when I returned to Bulgaria I formed a bluegrass band, and I called it “Lilly of the West”, because Lilly is my name and also my favorite flower. And—for the Bulgarians—I came from Austria, which is in the west, so I was the “Lilly from the West.” 
In 1998, we went to the Netherlands where there was a big bluegrass festival and competition. And we won it—we were voted “European Bluegrass Band of the Year.” And since then we started touring Europe, and we’ve released nine albums to date.” 
When you gathered these fellow Bulgarian musicians, did you have to explain to them what U.S. country and bluegrass music was all about? Did they have any knowledge about it before you spoke to them? 
“When I came back from Austria, I brought lots of CDs, so we had lots of material to learn from. But also, the three guys I found—a banjo player, a guitar player, and a bass player—they already knew a little bit about bluegrass, because in 1990 Tim O’Brien visited Bulgaria. So the American Embassy invited bluegrass musicians from the states to celebrate the fall of communism. So in 1990, the U.S. Embassy brought Tim O’Brien, Laurie Lewis, and Sam Bush who gave a concert. And that’s when my colleagues heard bluegrass music for the first time.”
Read the full interview, with a link to sound file

Another interview with her appears in

In June, she organized Bulgaria's first country and bluegrass festival, "Country West Fest," in Bankya.

"We had about 300 people," Drumeva said. "It was a little small, but it was great."

This year, she won a Fulbright scholarship to come to the United States to research the history of bluegrass and country music as well as the music industry.

She's been researching in Bowling Green at Western Kentucky University's folklife archives. And Thursday and Friday, Drumeva was in Owensboro researching in the archives of the bluegrass museum.

"This is a bluegrass paradise," she said. "These archives are so great."

"Lilly is one of the rare beauties whose music is as gorgeous as she is," said Gabrielle Gray, the museum's executive director. "She has everything it takes to succeed in any form of roots music. She's an extraordinary talent, quite brilliant with a huge heart. She's the total package."

Earlier this week, Drumeva visited Bill Monroe's grave and boyhood home in Rosine.

There was also an article in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer.

Lilly says she is humbled by all the media attention.

She reports here on her plans for September:
* I will move to Nashville, TN, where I will work closely with the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), researching bluegrass and country music as industries: record labels, promoters, management, publishing, songwriting etc. 
* I will attend the Americana Music Conference in Nashville (18-20 Sept.), where I will be part of Aristo Media's international panel. Before that I will make another trip to Owensboro, KY, where I will take part in the bluegrass mandolin camp (13-15 Sept.). 
* The main event of the month will be IBMA's annual conference in Raleigh, NC (23-28 Sept.). I am very proud that one of my original songs, 'Turn away', has been selected for the songwriters' showcase on Thursday 26th at 1.00 p.m. I will perform it then, and later the same evening I am part of the 'Foreign affairs' suite with a short set at 11.00 p.m. See this article.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Colosseum Country Festival (and more) brings imaginary wild west to Rome

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Italians seem to be succumbing to the public expression of the Imaginary Wild West.

The phenomenon isn't as widespread as in some other countries, but it's certainly now there, or beginning to be there -- as testified by the upcoming "Colosseum Country Festival" to be held near Rome at the beginning of October, whose main attraction seems to be line-dancing.

Western riding and horsemanship have long been at the heart of the trend in Italy

Already half a dozen years ago I attended the "Western Games" at a "ranch" near Lake Bracciano northwest of Rome, which was a mini-rodeo and riding competition set among displays, Indian dancing, and general wild west themed family entertainment attractions. There were even "live" American cowboys brought over from Oregon.

Western Games, Bracciano, 2005. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

The prime mover behind that festival, Andrea "Drew" Mischianti, has long been a key figure in Italy's western, horse, riding and cowboy scene for many years and long wrote a column about the cowboy life for an Italian wild west magazine. He and his wife Natalia Estrada run a "Ranch Academy" to teach and take part in "buckeroo" skills and lifestyle. They also take part in competitions and exhibitions of skills.

But country music -- unlike in other countries -- had little, if any, attraction. At festivals I've attended in France, Germany, CZ, Austria, Switzerland and PL, for example, music and line-dancing were major and something THE major, draws. But at the Western Games, this band played to an audience of ZERO. 

Western Games, Bracciano, 2005. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Line-danging, bluegrass and country music now seem to be making some inroads in popularity, particularly in northern Italy, where there have been some festivals. The Genoa-based Italian bluegrass group Red Wine is considered one of the best in Europe and tours in the U.S. The Rome-based banjoist Danilo Cartia also has been making a name for himself. This month, the American banjo great Tony Trischka will be performing with Red Wine before going on to at banjo workshop in Urbino.

Even in the little village festival in Collelungo, in Umbria, a (sort of) country duo called Western Strings was one of the acts chosen to perform in the piazza. Among the songs they played were the two all time European favorites -- Country Roads and Sweet Home Alabama.

Italy also, of course, has a thriving Cowboy Action Shooting scene -- I'm a member of the Old West Shooting Society and have attended a number of events, which I have posted about.

OWSS match, 2009. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stunning 19th century photos of the American West

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Daily Mail newspaper online has published a series of stunning photos of the American west taken mainly in the 1870s by Timothy O'Sullivan, a pioneer of  U.S. field photography. Click the link to see the marvelous pictures of landscapes, raw towns and mining camps, and portraits of Native Americans.

"Not only was O'Sullivan one of the most intrepid and successful of the U.S. government expedition photographers who roamed the West under appalling conditions in the late 1860s and 1870s," wrote Margaret Regan in the Tucson Weekly wrote in 2003, "he was one of the best of the Civil War photographers. His photos of the war's anonymous dead, lying bloated in the bloody fields of Gettysburg and elsewhere, are emblazoned into the consciousness of Americans."

O'Sullivan,  Regan wrote, worked  with Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner.

Brady had a nasty habit of not crediting his photographers for their work, and Gardner soon broke away from the studio, taking O'Sullivan with him. The young photographer went on to shoot gripping images in the aftermath of most of the war's major battles, from Second Manassas to Appomattox.
"There are no actual battle pictures," Etherton notes. "He did camps, troops and atrocities, not the battle while it was happening. That would have been incredibly hard. With the camera and the wet plate negative in the field, that was not going to happen."
Until the Civil War, photography had been a refined, mostly indoor craft, geared toward people in their Sunday best stopping by the studio for a family portrait. The Civil War changed all that. Its photographers essentially invented photojournalism, though McElroy says they were not always above staging their scenes. In these days, the wet-plate collodion technique required them to haul around a portable darkroom--the soldiers nicknamed them the "what-is-it wagons"--to develop the glass negatives right after shooting the image. 
The drill, says McElroy, went like this: Set up the camera. Quickly coat a glass plate with gooey collodion. Put the glass in a plateholder. Insert it in the camera, expose it for some seconds. Rush the plate to the darkroom tent and immediately bathe it in the developer chemicals and the fixer.
Later, he accompanied survey and exploration missions into the West.

In 1867, Clarence King, a 25-year-old Yale graduate, hired the Irish tough guy for his Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. Funded by the War Department, the plan was to survey the unexplored territory between the California Sierras and the Rockies, with an eye toward finding the best place to lay railroad tracks while gauging mining possibilities and the level of Indian hostility. In May, the party sailed to Panama, crossed the jungle by narrow-gauge railroad and continued on to San Francisco. There, O'Sullivan bought a leftover war ambulance to serve as his traveling darkroom, and four mules to haul it. 
Beginning the climb up the Sierra Nevada mountains in July, the team crossed the Donner Pass at night, "when the mountain air froze (the snow) into a crust firm enough to support them," writes Snyder. Most of the crew, excluding O'Sullivan, came down with malaria in a mosquito-plagued valley, and King himself was struck by lightning on Job's Peak and was temporarily paralyzed.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review of On the Trails of the Iroquois Exhibition, in Germany

Prof.  Wolfgang Hochbruck, of the English and North American Studies department of the Department of English / North American Studies at Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg visited the exhibition "On the Trails of the Iroquois" in Bonn -- the exhibit (as per my prior post) is soon to open in Berlin. 

He has given me permission to post his review of the exhibition, which was posted in the American Indian Workshop listserv.

I saw this exhibition with my 11-year old son yesterday in Bonn -- a four-hour trip each way, but worth the time and the effort at least for me: this is easily the most comprehensive collection and presentation of things Haudenosaunee ever to be seen in Germany so far. Or elsewhere, for that matter.
The fact that the Seneca Art Project in the 1930s left so many reconstructions and reminiscences of earlier arts and crafts is of course an historical factor that aided the curators, but the wide variety of artefacts and documents brought together from North America and a variety of European countries including Russia is still amazing.
There are a number of gems and rarities -- the Iroquoian show troupe members on 1920s postcard photographs from Munich, all decked out in the obligatory 'indian' headdresses. The treaty of 1701 at the end of the Beaver Wars and the years of fighting the French. 
 Some items remain puzzling -- are the bows and arrows sports and childrens' toys? With their wooden tips they couldn't have been used for serious hunting. A bit more on military strategies might have been helpful to explain, how and why the Iroquois managed to keep their position of power between the Colonial forces for so long. Their early acquisition of guns from the Dutch, and formation of rifle units. Or else the fact that in Pontiac's Rebellion Iroquoian and Wendat/Huron fight side by side, but then the whole topic of trans-tribal alliances still needs research. And i might have provided a couple of old copies of the Akwesasne Notes. 
Never mind. 
The exhibition is quite big anyway -- anyone wanting to see everything in detail should count on at least three hours, and allow for breaks. And unfortunately, the whole setup and layout is a lot more scholarly and conservative than the Iroquoian warrior and his graphic-story background at the entrance makes one assume: There is very little for even an interested 11-year old to keep his attention focused for hours and hours of showcases upon showcases and gargoylish museum wardens to ward him off any painting that he came closer to than a foot-length distance -- maybe, upon second thoughts, it is a good idea that the measly museum shop did not sell replicaed war clubs (but all sorts of junky books and movies, and the very detailed and highly recommendable catalogue only in German). 
It is to be hoped that the traditional-style Longhouse erected outside on the premises somehow goes along to Berlin; it is absolutely magnificent and for once kids can sit on the mats and touch things - if they still dare to do that after the experience in the museum. Also, the Bonners charged extra for a visit inside; not a nice move after you have shelled out 16.- € for two family members already. 
Summary: definitely worth the visit, but as an educational experience more arduous than would have been absolutely necessary.


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Upcoming exhibition on the Iroquois, in Berlin

This looks as if it will be a fascinating exhibition -- it already has been shown in Bonn.

On the Trails of the Iroquois

18 October 2013 to 6 January 2014


Niederkirchnerstra├če 7, 10963 Berlin ‎

Of the hundreds of Native American peoples, only a few have over the centuries engaged the European and Euro-American imagination to the extent that the Iroquois did. This fascination is in a large measure due to the outstanding role the Five (and later Six) Nations played in the arena of colonial encounters in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America, which gained them a reputation as fierce warriors and skilled diplomats and is also reflected in a host of fictional literature. But European interest has always far exceeded this pre-occupation with political and military excellence. Western intellectual struggle with Iroquois culture has left enduring imprints not only on the history of anthropology, but also on popular culture, the peace and women’s movements, and even efforts to establish the foundation of alternative lifestyles. 
The present exhibition will attempt to trace the development of Iroquois culture from its origins up to its vibrant articulations in the present-day United States and Canada, following their varied history through colonial times characterized by war, trade, and European missionary efforts; the subsequent weakening of their power through loss of land and political autonomy and the eventual break-up of the League after the American Revolution; the cultural transformations during the Reservation period; and their strive for sovereignty in the twentieth century up to very contemporary concerns.
Presenting approximately 500 objects this large-scale exhibition On the Trails of the Iroquois brings together for the first time historical paintings and drawings, precious ethnographic objects, and extraordinary examples of Iroquois contemporary art from major collections in Europe, the United States, and Canada.
Conceived in close cooperation with Iroquois artists, curators, and intellectuals, the exhibition aspires to a multi-layered representation of Iroquois culture as well as contemporary indigenous voices on their history and present-day identities. As Tuscarora artist and writer Richard W. Hill expressed it, “it can safely be said that today, the Haudenosaunee [self-designation of the Iroquois as ‘People of the Longhouse’] define themselves through their diversity”, as each generation “adds to that layered definition, taking the artistic expressions of the past, the oral traditions of their ancestors, and add that to their own life experiences”.
Aside from Prof. Dr. Christian Feest, former director of the Museum of Ethnology Vienna, it was possible to cooperate with important Iroquoian scientists and artists from Canada and the USA, including Dr. Thomas Hill, former director of Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario, and Peter Jemison, manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site, New York. 
The catalogue accompanying the exhibition (published in a German as well as an English edition) provides insights into the historical and cultural context of the exhibits and their makers. In addition, it also highlights the importance of the ethnographic collections held by museums today for an understanding of a fascinating people and their culture. The catalogue is published by Nicolai Verlag Berlin.