Boston’s Balkan Music Night – Over 30 and Still Going Strong!

In the mid-1980s, there was a small, but established, Balkan music scene on the East Coast. Groups like Novo Selo in Philadelphia, Ženska Pesna in New York and Evo Nas in Boston had been learning, playing and singing Balkan music in traditional styles and using traditional instruments since the mid-1970s and before. The establishment of a Balkan Music & Dance Workshop on the East Coast in 1983 (see Kef Times, Fall/Winter 2001-2002) injected further energy as well as synergy, as Balkan music enthusiasts from all over the Northeast (and beyond!) got to meet each other, share musical skills and interests, and be exposed to teachers that EEFC brought from elsewhere (e.g., Stewart Mennin and his jumpstarting of Balkan brass band music, leading to the formation of Zlatne Uste in New York City and BAMCO in the Washington, D.C., area).

However, starting up a new camp on the East Coast came with additional costs, putting financial strains on the organization. (This was one of the reasons that, in the first year orientation session, campers were told that meat would be offered on the menu “at least two or three times,” triggering the East Coast flare-up of “The Great Meat Rebellion” (see Kef Times, Fall/Winter 2002-2003.)

Fig. 1. Month of Balkan Music, 1986.

In late 1985 and early 1986, EEFC campers and others around the country received a request to put on local Balkan music events during March 1986 as part of a nationwide “Month of Balkan Music” celebration, sponsored by EEFC. This drive was intended to create a wider awareness of Balkan music and the opportunities to learn more about it at the camps, which would in turn hopefully increase attendance rates and income. There was a nationwide response (Fig. 1).

In Boston, area musicians who had attended the camps, plus others from around the region, joined together to produce a marathon Balkan music event. The Boston group Evo Nas, whose members had the most experience with EEFC and the camps, spearheaded the organizing, but members of some of the other bands also participated in coordinating the event, as did other folks who liked the music and wanted to help out. This gathering was the first joint appearance of many Boston-area groups who played traditional Balkan music but had come to it from so many different sources: the “folk dancer” world, the academic music and ethnomusicological world, the early music world, the feminist/women’s music world, and those who had come from their own ethnic heritage. (We also had music from “another” world—“Zurla Team Drushtovo”! [sic]) We had no idea how it would turn out!

In the auditorium of a church in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass., we started off the evening with a sit-down concert instead of a dance party. This was because some of the groups did not perform dance music, and also because we felt that we could attract a larger potential new audience that way. Following the concert, we had an intermission during which we stowed away all the folding chairs, and continued with a dance party to live Balkan music that extended into the wee hours of the night—another Balkan music first for Boston.

The event was a big success, with 200 people showing up, and it was so much fun that we resolved to do it again. The following year, in the same location, in the midst of a snowstorm, we had a huge crowd—a lot of people could not be admitted because we had already filled every square inch of the hall. It was stressful at the time, but it showed us that there was clearly an audience for the event!

Fig. 2. Balkan Music Night 1988 at Masonic Hall; Evo Nas is playing.

For year three (1988), we moved to a larger hall (The Masonic Hall in North Cambridge, replete with American flags, Fig. 2) and began selling advance tickets, so that we and prospective attendees would know when we had exhausted our capacity. We used that location for only two years because, during the second year’s event, the building’s neighbors called the police, reporting that it sounded like there was “a marching band playing in the hall at 2:30 a.m.!” (that would have been Zlatne Uste, Fig. 3). So we were forced to move again. That year was also when we sought sponsorship from the Folk Arts Center of New England, so that we would have nonprofit status. However, the event maintained its own independent organization and finances and has been self-supporting since the very start.

Fig. 3. Balkan Music Night 1989; Zlatne Uste is playing.

Fig 4 Balkan Music Night in Concord MA BN16 1915671_973814316034580_7814060753295522227_n

Fig. 4. Balkan Music Night in Concord, Mass.

After a single year at another location—only an interim solution because we were required to end by midnight (!)—we moved to our current location in historic Concord, Mass., about 15 miles west of Boston and Cambridge, to a historic town armory (built 1887) that has been transformed into 51 Walden Performing Arts Center, which offers a large main hall with a sprung wooden floor (Fig. 4) for dancing, and concert seating for approximately 400 people.

The building has a second venue: a smaller dance studio on the second floor. We named that second room the “Kef-ana” because we were not allowed to bring food or drinks up there, so it has always had “kefi, not kafe.” At first, we used it only for jamming and other informal (and even non-Balkan) sets; more recently, we have used it as a formal second venue, scheduling groups up there as well as in the main hall, essentially doubling the number of groups that can perform. The building’s lobby offers space for generous offerings of complimentary refreshments and hot and cold drinks, and attendees can browse the CD, sheet music and other offerings of “The Little Shop of Horas®,” operated by the Folk Arts Center.

Over the past 31 years, we have presented performances by a multitude of Balkan music luminaries, including local and regional performers as well as special guests from across North America and from the Balkans. A complete list of performers is on the Retrospective page on our website.

In addition to the concert and dance sets, Boston’s Balkan Music Night has had a number of other signature features. In keeping with the original goal of increasing awareness of (and participation in) Balkan music, we have included a number audience participation events during the evening, generally during the breaks between the formal music sets. We always have Horo na Pesen (“dance to singing”), when we distribute song lyrics and audience singing provides the music for the dance. These have included many village songs collected in Bulgaria by Martha Forsyth, as well the a cappella Ličko Kolo and more modern songs with instrumental accompaniment. The Ladarke Sing-Along has also been a long-term feature (years before it became an institution at East Coast camp!). In addition to these singing events, we have had many instrumental “extravaganzas,” where we encourage anyone who plays (or used to play) a particular instrument to bring it and play along to a simple tune. The very first was the tambura extravaganza in 1987, when we persuaded the many Boston-area people who had obtained Macedonian tamburas in the 1970s to get them out of the closet and play along (or just drone along) to Neda Voda Nalivala. We had over 20 players show up and, although tuning beforehand probably took longer than the actual piece, it was a big success! Since then we have also had the recurring tapan extravaganza to accompany the tapan-only dance Kopačkata from Dramče, Macedonia, as well as group efforts on gajda, bitov instruments, brass, frame drum and more.

Fig 5 ValleTona (Albanian dance group) BN14 20140315_CLR_37303

Fig. 5. Valle Tona (Albanian dance group).

We have also made efforts to include our local ethnic communities in the event. We have had the pleasure of presenting music sets by groups from the local Greek, Bosnian, Macedonian, Serbian and Turkish communities, and we have presented short performances by local community dance groups (including Albanian (Fig. 5), Bosnian, Bulgarian, Greek and Serbian) on the dance floor during the music group transitions on stage. In recent years, we have also presented Mladost, our local young people’s dance group that was formed as a group of second-generation folk dancers, directed by Andrea Taylor Blenis, herself the daughter of Conny and Marianne Taylor, who were leaders in establishing folk dancing in the Boston area.

We maintained the original format for the evening (a sit-down concert, followed by the “moving of the chairs” ritual, and a dance party into the wee hours) through 2015. Responding to perceived changes in audience preferences, the format shifted in 2016 to “all dancing, all the time” in the main hall, and “all listening” in the Kefana. We often discuss finding a new, more accessible location closer to Boston, but finding a site that is big enough, offers multiple venues, is accessible enough, allows an event to run late, offers sufficient parking, and is affordable—is a tall order!

This year’s event will take place in Concord, Mass., on March 18, 2017, from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Lots of information about the event, including our exciting performer lineup, and links to videos of past events, can be found on our website. We hope to see many of you there!

Henry Goldberg plays and sings in severalNestor, Mark and Steve K with light bulb cover Balkan music groups and organizes Balkan music events in the Boston area. He attended his first EEFC workshop in 1978 and has been involved in putting on Boston’s Balkan Music Night since its inception in 1986. Little known fun fact: he created the paper-cut bags that covered the bare light bulbs in the Mendocino dance hall for a number of years into the 1980s. (Henry’s cut-outs but not Henry are featured in this photo.)

Golden Festival Turns 30

Golden Festival 2014. (Oresti Tsonopoulos)

Golden Festival 2014. (Oresti Tsonopoulos)

The landscape for Balkan music in the United States was very different 30 years ago. Zlatne Uste had formed two years earlier. It was composed of amateur musicians, many of whom were folk dancers. Their sound was not polished. Their repertoire was mostly dance music that had been presented at the EEFC East Coast Balkan Camps in 1983 and 1984. The only audience for their music consisted of folk dancers in the New York area. There was only one other group of Americans playing Balkan music in the New York area, the Balkanizers, led by David Skuse. In an effort to create a venue to play, Zlatne Uste decided to organize a party, and to invite our colleagues to join in as performers. We called it the Golden Festival. The architects of the party, Drew and Laine Harris, informed by their experiences at Buffalo Gap and at other dance extravaganzas, had a clear and simple idea of how to make a successful party: to provide good music, an attractive space, and ample food and drink to fuel good feelings and dance energy. This is essentially the same formula that communities from the Balkans use for their own parties.


Zlatne Uste plays at one of the early Golden Festivals, 1987. (photo courtesy Mac Francis)

The early Golden Festivals were planned and executed by members of Zlatne Uste and by Cathie Springer, who hosted many of the Zlatne Uste rehearsals. Drew and Laine took care of most of the details concerning food and Emerson Hawley took care of providing liquid refreshments; still others in the band contributed by helping with publicizing the event. It was held at the Ethnic Folk Arts Center on Varick Street, a space where weekly Friday night dances were held. The walls of the Varick Street venue were painted white, with a hard and shiny surface. Cathie immediately ran home to her loft and brought back loads of handwoven Balkan rugs and blankets to help improve the sound—those textiles have been the backdrop for the festival stages ever since.

The first Golden Festival was attended by about 100 people and was considered a great success.

Golden Festival 2014. (Oresti Tsonopoulos)

The band Ralph and Friends (L to R, Henry Goldberg, Dean Brown, Ralph Iverson) moves a line of dancers under the chandelier’s twinkle at Golden Festival 2014. (Oresti Tsonopoulos)

The design of the festival has not changed over the years. Gradually, more and more musicians requested to participate. At the same time, there was a slow and steady growth in the number of people playing Balkan music, mostly spurred by the success of the EEFC workshops. In addition, some of the ethnic musicians in the area asked to participate as well. Ramiz Kurtali, Souren Baronian and Avram Pengas were the first of such musicians. Souren and Avram continue to be a part of the festival every year.

The Varick Street space became unavailable after the seventh Golden Festival, and Zlatne Uste needed a new venue. Michael Ginsburg spearheaded a search that resulted in the festival move to Context Studios on Avenue A. The number of musical groups that wanted to play had increased to the point where it was feasible to have two stages going on at the same time, which was very appealing to members of Zlatne Uste. The move to Context Studios made this possible. Also, Context Studios was located in an area of New York that was just becoming a hip neighborhood and therefore attracted a new subculture of people to join us. One of the attendees, the late Mirjana Laušević, an emigre from Bosnia who heard about the Golden Festival at a chance encounter with Jerry Kisslinger (a drummer with Zlatne Uste), was so moved by the festival that she chronicled her experience there in the book Balkan Fascination. She came back to the Golden Festival as a performer the following year.

Golden Festival 2014. (Oresti Tsonopoulos)

ZU at Golden Festival 2014: drummer Seido Salifoski. (Oresti Tsonopoulos)

Despite having no permanent home, the Golden Festival experienced slow growth over the next few years. Finding a space with room for multiple stages became essential.

Emigres to the U.S. from Eastern Europe in New York also gradually discovered the festival. Part of the mission of the festival was also to provide a venue for fledgling music groups. The Golden Festival was the first gig for a number of developing young ethnic musicians. They would be accompanied by their friends and families, and many of these people would become fans of the festival. In addition, many well-known musicians from the Balkans who have emigrated to the U.S. perform at the festival. The roster of notable musicians who have performed includes emigres Yuri Yunakov, Raif Hyseni and Merita Halili, and non-emigres such as Loretta Kelley and the musicians of Sviraj.

Michelle Tsigaridas Weller puts finishing touches on a sumptuous dessert platter. (Rachel MacFarlane)

Michelle Tsigaridas Weller puts finishing touches on a sumptuous dessert platter, 2014. (Rachel MacFarlane)

Today, the Golden Festival is planned and operated by a committee of volunteers that includes members of Zlatne Uste along with other talented and dedicated people. In 2011, the festival moved to the Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn, a high-end catering facility. This was a timely move, because the festival had outgrown the church hall that had previously hosted the festival. However, moving to the Grand Prospect Hall meant taking a large financial risk—the rental fee was about five times that of our previous space. Nevertheless, Brooklyn has proven to be a great place to hold the festival. Many of the local musical groups that had emerged over the years were from Brooklyn and had developed fan bases there. Attendance almost doubled immediately and continues to grow (about 3,000 combined for Friday and Saturday in 2014).

While the principles of the early festivals continue to guide decisions about the festival today, the changes in the size and scope of the festival have created new issues for the organizers. For example, Zlatne Uste felt uneasy about keeping the event profits, since all other musicians performing were volunteers. After the onset of the Balkan Wars, it was decided that all profits would be donated to the International Rescue Committee, a group actively providing relief in the Balkans. Since then, each year profits have been donated to several groups providing relief in the Balkans or serving to educate people about the Balkans.

Batja Bell expertly supervises the busy Golden Fest kitchen crew (photo: Rachel MacFarlane)

Batja Bell expertly supervises the busy Golden Fest kitchen crew, 2014. (Rachel MacFarlane)

With the growth of the festival have come new challenges.  Publicity has become a major concern because of the financial obligations of putting on an event of this magnitude. Security is a major issue as well as a major expense. Insurance was not a concern at the early festivals. The Golden Festival is still put on by volunteers (including musicians and the organizing committee) but expenses have skyrocketed. The Grand Prospect Hall is very expensive, and it also costs a lot more to provide food and drink for thousands of people. Sound enhancement must be provided for four stages. Programming the festival has become a giant puzzle. Many of the musicians perform with multiple groups and care must be taken not to schedule those groups at overlapping times.

This year’s festival is the thirtieth, and in almost all aspects, it is 30 times larger than it was the first year. Its most important publicity has come through word of mouth. The Golden Festival takes place on Friday and Saturday nights during the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Events associated with the Golden Festival occur before and after the actual festival at various clubs around the city.

Golden Festival 2014. (Oresti Tsonopoulos)

The ballroom of Brooklyn’s Prospect Hall is packed with happy festival-goers, Golden Festival 2014. (Oresti Tsonopoulos)

None of us in Zlatne Uste envisioned the Golden Festival becoming the event it is today. It has taken on a life of its own, appealing to all generations and to people in all walks of life. Zlatne Uste has performed at great venues around the world, has been the subject of the documentary film Brasslands, and has represented the United States at the brass band competition in Guča, Serbia, but the Golden Festival is our signature event. It represents the best of Zlatne Uste, and the best of our community.

Don Godwin's sousaphone rests between sets in the Prospect Hall bridal lounge shower stall. (Rachel MacFarlane)

Don Godwin’s sousaphone rests between sets in the Prospect Hall bridal lounge shower stall, 2014. (Rachel MacFarlane)

The next Golden Festival will be January 16-17, 2015. Learn more here.







Michael Ginsburg. (Oresti Tsonopoulos)

(Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos)

Michael Ginsburg has been director and lead trumpet player of Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band since 1983. A native of New York City, Michael has led regular Balkan folk dance classes for many years there, and been a featured teacher at the Macedonian Pearl seminar in Berovo, Macedonia, and a regular teacher at the EEFC workshops. With Zlatne Uste, he performed in 2010 at the Guča Trumpet Festival in Serbia, representing the United States in the first-ever international band competition held there.

Balkan Night Northwest

KT_2014_fall_bnnw_mainPhotoYou know when it’s January? And you haven’t seen the sun since September? And the long, grey spring stretches out ahead of you with that little twinkle called Balkan camp at the end of the tunnel? And everybody else is partying out at Golden Fest? Every year at that time we would think, we really need to have something like Golden Fest that we can go to! In our town!

Then, at Mendocino camp in 2011, we were sitting around the smoking table with Christos [Govetas; Ruth’s husband], and the three of us looked at each other and said, “Let’s do it!” We pulled Steve Ramsey in to help, and that is where Balkan Night Northwest began.

So, on the one hand, it was a self-serving act. But underlying it was a very clear and specific goal: to bring in people from the cultures of the Balkans, as well as local “American” groups. Ethnic groups stick with themselves, and know their own cultures, but it is a revelation to them to see that their Balkan neighbors share some of the same traditions, and certainly the same passion for music, dance and community.

It was a bit of a gamble. We ran a Kickstarter to get seed money for the festival and rounded up more than a dozen bands (just locally). We made the decision that all performers at the event would volunteer their creative time and forego payment for services or travel; bands would be able to sell their recordings and merchandise with no commission taken.

KT_2014_fall_bnnw_subPhoto1We got the hall, arranged for the Seattle Junior Tamburitzans to run the kitchen and bar, crossed our fingers and did it. We remember when we opened the doors at the first Balkan Night—the hall was full from the 4 p.m. start time; it was like stepping on a conveyer belt that was running a little bit too fast, but in a great way. Everyone was so thrilled and excited by what was happening, and we are just trying to keep that feeling continuing.

The first year Balkan Night Northwest (BNNW) had over 700 people in a hall that holds 350! Everyone came and no one left until the end. At one point the cops showed up, looked around, crossed their arms, nodded and said, “Yep, that’s illegal,” and left!


There are two stages, the main dance stage and the Kafana stage. The first year we had more than a dozen bands; the second year we expanded to two nights (Friday and Saturday) and ended up with 24 bands! The problem was that we still had the same number of attendees. So we went back to one night in 2013 in a bigger venue, and by all reports it is better than ever. We generally have about 100 performers and about 700 attendees.

KT_2014_fall_bnnw_subPhoto2BNNW was held at the Russian Center in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, it moved to St. Demetrios Hall and we expect to keep it there. Dates have ranged from as early as February 21 (scheduled for 2015) to as late as March 16. Why the roaming dates? We are trying to keep it on the weekend of Apokries (Orthodox Mardi Gras). That way, all the Kukeri and Babouyeri (traditional Balkan mummers) make sense!

We charge $25 per person (youth 10-18 $10; under 10 free). Traditional Greek and Croatian food, along with beer, wine and soft drinks, are available for purchase. Funds are used to secure the hall, help with publicity, and bring world-class acts to the event from outside the Pacific Northwest. We sell advance tickets online and publicize the event heavily through Facebook and other avenues, with the help of local marketing genius Devon Leger.

KT_2014_fall_bnnw_subPhoto3Another part of our motivation is to inspire and support young people to play Balkan music, so we take whatever proceeds we make to fund scholarships to the Mendocino Balkan Music & Dance Workshop and balkanalia!. It takes a lot of work and support from community members to pull this off, and thankfully, people have been willing to work hard and help by volunteering at the festival. So far we have been able to fund three full scholarships to the Mendocino Balkan Music & Dance Workshop, and seven scholarships to balkanalia!.


KT_2014_fall_bnnw_subPhoto4Each year we bring in a featured band from a specific region, and present a separate event the following night that just focuses on that band. This year we brought Kalin Kirilov and his group, and on the night after Balkan Night, the local Bulgarians put together an amazing evening of games and rituals that was delightful and meaningful. The year before, we brought Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni, and they sold out the Triple Door, full of Albanians from all over Albania—it was just electrifying!

In 2015 our featured artist will be Chris Bajmakovich and his band—and as always, there will be local community bands, ethnic ensembles, choirs (Mary Sherhart has an amazing choir of Bulgarian women, many of them older women, that will cut straight to your soul), young avant-garde people new to the genre. We are always in search of willing volunteers to help with the festival, so please contact us if you are interested.

Read more at and the BNNW Facebook page.



Ruth Hunter has been an active participant at the Mendocino Balkan Music & Dance Workshops since the early 80s, and has been a resident of the Pacific Northwest since 1998. Ruth plays Greek and Balkan music in Drómeno with her husband Christos and their kids, and she directs the youth choir at Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle. Ruth and her family were profiled in the Spring 2010 Kef Times.

John_MMusician, singer and teacher John Morovich specializes in the folklore of Croatia. He is artistic director of the Seattle Junior Tamburitzans, and Ženska Klapa Ružmarin. He performs regularly with the Sinovi Tamburitzans, a group he co-founded in 1979. He has created dozens of choreographies, scores for tamburitza orchestra and choirs, and has taught regularly at EEFC camps since 1987.