Although our original destination was the Koprivshtitsa Folklore Festival, when we learned of a kaba gajda festival in the tiny village of Gela at the end of the July, we extended our trip to include a loop through the western Rhodopes.
Infrequent bus service made getting there a challenge, but it was nothing compared to the difficulty of finding a place to stay. Dozens of emails, even those carefully translated into Bulgarian, went unanswered. Finally, with the help of Katya from True Bulgaria, we made contact with a Sofia dentist who was willing to rent us a room in his summer house in nearby Shiroka Luka.
On the day of the festival, we negotiated a ride to Gela from a row of private cars lined up in the village center and ready to take people up the hill. We were surprised when our driver dropped us off about a kilometer from the village and pointed us to a two-rut track. But wandering through the waist-high grass and rousting the grasshoppers and the hummingbird hawk moths (so named because they couldn't decide if it was a hummingbird, a hawk or a moth?) was a lovely way to arrive at the festival, and we rounded the hill to the plaintive wail of kaba gajdas tuning up for the day's assault.
It is lamentable that my Bulgarian isn't good enough to have captured the names of the performers — they were all wonderful, and some of them were truly remarkable. I planted myself next to the stage, stuck my camcorder periscope style over the railing, and recorded as much as I could.
In addition to a wealth of music and dance, there were dozens of vendors selling fresh roasted lamb, corn on the cob, potato salad and the traditional shopska salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and sheep cheese. And there was music everywhere, even in the food tents.
There were plenty of crafts for sale, too, including bagpipes , of course, but also colorful rugs, aprons, table linens and other textiles. JoAnn G. found her bagpipe there, and caused quite a sensation when she not only took an interest, but knew how to play it!
As the day unfolded and the sun grew hotter, we ended up seeking refuge on the porch of the lovely Church of the Holy Trinity, where there was shade and a place to set down. And that's where we bumped into Anton, a Bulgarian musician who lives in Tucson. Several other musicians collected there including a Hungarian bagpipe player, and a crowd gathered as we pieced together three-part harmonies for Bulgarian folk songs with the thrilling addition of a gajda.
We caught a ride down the hill with Vladimir, a policeman from Plovdiv, and his friend Zlatko. By then, the crowd on the hill had been greatly inflated by serious party-goers with at best a passing interest in Bulgarian folk music.
Vladimir not only shared his car, but also his feelings about Rhodopi music. He said that the sound of the bagpipes always takes him back to this place, and that music doesn't sound the same anywhere else. He's got that right!