Profile: Eva Salina

With Peter Stan, Live at Jalopy, 2017, photo by Nina Galicheva

Although Eva Salina represents the younger generation of American teachers at the EEFC workshops, she has been on staff off and on over the past 18 years. She has taught song survey courses, introductory singing, singing classes for kids, and Romani singing. As an American who grew up at Balkan camp,” she is a professional performer and teacher whose work is steeped in Balkan music. 

“When I was seven years old, someone gave me a cassette of some Yiddish songs,” Eva says. It was a recording of a 1970s-era LP recorded by members of Aman, the Los Angeles-based folk dance performing ensemble. Eva really connected with the voice of the singer, Pearl Rottenberg (later, Pearl Taylor). “These were not-so-well-known, beautiful Yiddish songs, and the lyrics were all transliterated in the liner notes,” she says. “I taught myself all of them.”

Her parents, Mark Primack and Janet Pollock, were not musicians but wanted to support their daughter’s enthusiasm for that style of music and started looking around their Santa Cruz community for someone who could give her lessons. They couldn’t find anyone singing Yiddish songs, but they did find a band, Medna Usta, performing Eastern European music in local cafes and clubs. Mark approached one of the members, Ruth Hunter, about the possibility of the 7-year-old Eva taking some lessons with her. Eva remembers Ruth walking up the hill to their house, accordion on her back.

Luka and Eva taking a lesson with Ruth Hunter, Santa Cruz, 1992

“It was as if somebody had lit a pilot light inside me,” Eva said. “I was so moved and inspired by the music.” She continued to take lessons; Mark started taking accordion lessons with Ruth, and eventually Janet took singing lessons with her as well.

Around the same time, a neighbor, Susan Wagner, started hosting monthly gatherings called večerinkas, featuring folk dancing, live music, eating and socializing. Eva remembers Susan and another dancer/musician, Karen Guggenheim, welcoming her family into the gatherings, where they started to experience the music in a social context, integrated with food, dance, and community.

After a year of lessons, Eva’s teacher Ruth announced that she would be moving to Boston and suggested the family consider attending the EEFC workshops to continue learning the music. So in 1992, they went to three days of Balkan camp at Mendocino. Eva was 8 years old and her brother, Luka, was 2. The family loved the experience and began to attend camp every year for the full week.

Eva’s arrival at camp coincided with a shift in the teaching community from mostly American-born instructors to a gradual influx of teachers from Eastern Europe, especially Bulgaria, as a result of the fall of communism in the Balkans in 1989 and the subsequent opening of borders. Besides experiencing dancing and a variety of singing styles at camp, Eva began to study Bulgarian traditional singing, both at camp and with various Bulgarian teachers coming through town. She studied with Petrana Koutcheva, Svetla Angelova and Tatiana Sarbinska, with whom Eva took her first trip to Bulgaria, in 1996, at the age of 12.


Navigating music as a teenager

Eva, shortly after her return from Bulgaria, wearing an antique costume she purchased there; at home with her brother, Luka, and a small friend, 1996

“While I didn’t learn very much actual musical content on that trip,” Eva says, “I learned so much about the context and the history and the language and the land and the people that informed the music. That was critical for me in terms of not seeing Balkan music as something that existed once a year, in a little magical forest in northern California. It provided an opening into the complexity of the cultures surrounding the traditions, the history, the politics, religion, language, all of that.” Even at age 12, Eva found herself learning about the tensions that existed; the instability of the economy and the currency, and the active conflict going on in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The following year, in 1997, Esma Redžepova and members of her ensemble, from Macedonia, came to teach at the workshops for the first time.

“The music Esma brought was electrifying and vibrant and expressive,” Eva says. “I felt a freedom in terms of how much room there was for each person to put their own emotions into the music. Not just freedom, but somehow an obligation to commit 100% to its soulfulness and spirit. That was a jumping-off point for me in terms of exploration, really wanting to feel that fullness and engagement all the time when I was playing music.”

Before that, Eva had been questioning her involvement with this music in the first place. It certainly wasn’t something she shared with her teenaged peers, and her ancestry didn’t link her to the traditions. She felt pressure to execute songs perfectly, rather than express herself through them. But learning about Balkan Romani music was the turning point.

“As much as technical precision or skill is prized within the different Romani musical genres, there’s also a tremendous value placed on a unique interpretation and a specific voice, an identifiable voice, whether it’s an instrument or a singer,” she says. “In working with Esma, I started to understand that that was not just a suggestion, but a requirement, and the more I explored that, the more I realized I could simultaneously study to improve my skill and also expand my own creativity.  That it wasn’t just about, ‘do this for 25 years and maybe you’ll get it right,’ but that those two progressions could, and should, be happening simultaneously.”

When Eva was 14 or 15, she was asked to teach at Sweet’s Mill, a folk music camp northwest of Fresno, in the Sierra Foothills. Back in the ’70s, Sweet’s Mill had been the site of the earliest West Coast Balkan music and dance camps, but for years before and since then it has mainly been the home of general folk music camps with many traditions represented. Eva found it to be a looser context for learning and sharing, as opposed to what she perceived as a more academic approach at Balkan camp, which she also continued to attend. She discovered that the better she became as a teacher, the more confident and self-possessed she felt as a performer. She enjoyed helping people access their own power and expression.

She was invited to teach her first Balkan camp class in 2003, at Mendocino, a survey of Balkan singing. Although she felt “under a bit of a microscope” as one of not so many young people who have grown up in the community, her class and the ones in the years that followed were well received. In 2012, now that children occupied a larger space in the camp community, she suggested starting a children’s singing class at Mendocino—the class she wished she had had as a child.


Being a kid at camp

Dancing rŭčenica with a local boy, Bulgaria, 1996

A recurring cause of growing pains in the community throughout the history of Balkan camp has been the community’s stance on the presence of children at camp. (See the “Kids at Camp” story in our Fall 2007 issue.)  Eva says that 20-plus years ago she felt like an unwelcome guest in some of the classes; her presence as a very young and quick learner could be disruptive for the adult students.

“It’s beautiful for me to see, especially now, the incredible amount of support, resources, time and energy surrounding the young people in our community, which is so different from how it was back then,” she says. “As destabilizing as it can feel to have a 14-year-old show up in your class who can grasp something very quickly, it’s actually the most hopeful thing that can happen to a community: to have young people who are just there blazing, building on the work of the generations before them. I think the best thing that we can do is support and trust the young people.”

Having felt “like an island out in the sea” when she was a teenager in the community, Eva is happy to see the many teenagers and young adults coming to today’s camps. In her most recent in-person class, at the 2019 Iroquois Springs camp, were numerous young people who had just been on the YAMMS (Young American Musicians to Macedonia and Serbia) trip.

“The kids who had been on that trip were so fired up, they wanted to talk about identity politics, cultural appropriation, gender dynamics—all these things that I feel we have to talk about now in order to work in these traditions responsibly,” Eva says. “It was so exciting to me to feel like I could both share my perspective and encourage them as they move forward on their journey.” In that same class at Iroquois Springs there was a 65-year age range of from the youngest person to the oldest in the class. Eva found it an exciting challenge to create a language of learning that could equally engage an 11-year-old and someone in their late 70s.



When you become an adult in a community, Eva points out, you shift from everybody older than you being an authority, to being in a position where you can choose who your mentors are going to be. She feels grateful to have had a few close mentors in the community. The three that stand out the most for her are Ruth Hunter, Tzvetanka Varimezova and Ethel Raim.

We’ve already talked about Eva’s early work with Ruth Hunter. It was later, when Eva was 17, heading off to UCLA to study ethnomusicology, that she met Tzvetanka Varimezova, who arrived in Los Angeles at the same time. The Bulgarian singer was beginning a residency as an adjunct professor at UCLA. She has since become a favorite instructor at the EEFC workshops (see a profile about Tzvetanka in Kef Times, Spring 2013).

Eva Salina at Re:Orient Roma Festival, Stockholm, 2017

“[Tzvetanka] brought me back to Bulgarian music and helped me find my unique expression within the tradition that had been  such a major part of my childhood,” Eva says. “She showed me how it was possible to be a complete and total musician and an extraordinarily generous teacher at the same time—to model that with grace and presence and great skill and diplomacy, and be confident enough in yourself and your abilities that you could empower everybody around you. She was, and still is, a huge influence on me, and a big inspiration.” Along the way, Eva completed a Bachelor of Arts in ethnomusicology from UCLA.

In 2007, when Eva moved to New York, through her friendship with Catherine Foster she came to know Ethel Raim, a singer well known to the EEFC community and a groundbreaking leader in folk arts research, preservation, documentation, programming, presenting and teaching, as well as the founder of the Pennywhistlers Balkan choral group in the 1960s.

“Ethel helped me to understand lineage and legacy,” Eva says. “Through knowing her I have come to identify the kind of cultural worker I want to be, and the lineage that I hope to be a part of in my work, particularly as a teacher. She has been tremendously generous and supportive with me on both a professional and personal level, and is an extraordinary musician, not to mention the work she has done to bring Balkan song, Yiddish song, and many other musics to new ears all around the world. Practically every time I teach, someone in their 60s or 70s who is in the workshop will come up to me and say, ‘45 years ago, I took a workshop with Ethel Raim, and it changed my life.’” [A note from your editor: Me, too.]



With Aurelia Shrenker, promotional shot for their duo, Æ, 2010

Eva has made guest appearances with many bands, toured internationally with Slavic Soul Party! and recorded with Édessa, Opa Cupa, and SSP!. She has produced four albums since 2009, available via streaming platforms and via Bandcamp and Apple Music (and you can always email her for hard copies:

In 2007, Eva started working with Aurelia Shrenker, a singer from Massachusetts she had connected with through Larry Gordon and Patty Cuyler of Village Harmony. They formed a duo called Æ, named after the printer’s symbol, pronounced “ash,” which provides an appealing typographical combination of their initials. They performed traditional music of the Balkans, Georgia, Corsica, and Appalachia; toured in several states; and produced a CD. Both women had studied multiple traditional singing genres; in this project they explored them together, playing between traditions.

“I grew to love the intimacy of a duo,” Eva says. “The Bulgarian women’s choir has a massive sound, but it’s also a created tradition. The brass band sound basically obliterates anything within a hundred yards of it sonically, and that’s great, it fills your body. But there’s almost a concept of chamber music in terms of how two people have to stay so present to each other. There’s no smoke and mirrors, there’s no artifice, there’s no fancy lighting, there’s nothing you can hide behind. Creating an intimate listening space around traditional music was something that I thought was important, and wasn’t happening enough.”

With similar intent, over the past 15 years, and more consistently in the last five, Eva has been touring together as a duo with accordionist Peter Stan. Peter was born in Australia but grew up in Queens; his family are Roma from Banat, the border region of Serbia and Romania. Together, they explore the listening side of Balkan Romani music.

“Everyone thinks that Serbian Romani music is only brass band music,” she says, “but actually, there’s all this listening music that gets mostly overlooked, outside of the Balkans. There are songs that were written equally for the accordion and the voice.

Eva and Peter Stan (promotional photo: Deborah Feingold Photography)

That was something we felt we could represent, just the two of us, and it would feel complete.” The two have appeared in many cities, including three European tours, and in two Library of Congress broadcasts. Information about their 2018 CD, Sudbina: A portrait of Vida Pavlović, can be found via Eva’s website.


Teaching: If you sit around waiting . . .

For the past six years Eva has directed a chorus at the Jalopy Theater and School of Music—a community chorus of about 35 people who sing traditional harmonies from the Balkans, Caucasus Georgia, Ukraine, Corsica and Sardinia, as well as from a variety of American folk singing traditions. She also sits on the organization’s nonprofit board. The chorus reunited this fall for their first outdoor season since March 2020, culminating the season with a performance at the Brooklyn Folk Festival in November, 2021.

At her 2019 Balkan camp class and in a series of online workshops over the past year, Eva has enjoyed working with students in a more solo- and performance-oriented way, helping singers access and develop more of their personal expression. She found the shift to online instruction actually aided this work, given that people were living and working from the comfort of their own homes and often felt more free to experiment without the pressure of an in-person group (and with the option of a mute button).

“If you sit around waiting for people to give you permission to be yourself within a tradition that you weren’t born into, you will be waiting a very long time,” she says. “I try to facilitate that [sense of permission] even with people who have never sung this music before. A lot of people have trouble accessing their own expression. Sometimes singing in a language that you don’t speak fluently can give you a little bit of a filter so you don’t feel quite so vulnerable, and so you can express or emote based on the melody. . . . You understand where the song comes from and what you’re singing about, but you also start to make this little secret story that’s just about you in the song, and what moves you within the song. I believe you can do that without compromising the language and the integrity and the history of the tradition.”

Eva also imports textiles and other items, visiting flea markets and local markets wherever she travels and bringing things home to share, and sets up booths at festivals where she’s also booked to perform. Since the onset of the pandemic, she has built up an online shop linked to her website to feature these imports, including jewelry, Turkish scarves and towels, and a proprietary skincare line (with a cult following) that she has created.

With Rosa, 2021

Eva and her partner, Ron Caswell, also a musician, have a two-year-old daughter, Rosa, and split their time between New York City and a small farm in Upstate New York. She’s eagerly looking forward to the opportunity to come teach at an in-person camp again, and introduce her daughter to the loving and family-friendly community of Balkan music and dance lovers.

“I’m very excited to raise a child in a healthy, intergenerational version of the EEFC community,” Eva says. “I think intergenerational communities are the richest resource we have right now because of how far we’ve gotten away from traditional ways of living. Being able to be in a dance line and have little kids running around, and for that to be okay, is so important. Children learn what they live, and I think the more inclusive we can be to them, the better off we’ll be in the long run.”

Profile: John Morovich


John Morovich

Whether leading a tamburica[1] ensemble in the kafana, trading licks with another musician at a picnic table, or assembling an impromptu group to perform Emil Cossetto’s immortal Ladarke suite in the dance hall, John Morovich is a vibrant presence at Balkan camp. Having grown up surrounded by Croatian music in Seattle, he has taught classes in Croatian singing, klapa and/or tamburica ensemble at EEFC camps since 1987.

John Morovich’s ancestors (his dad’s parents and his mom’s grandparents) moved to the U.S. from Dalmatia, a region on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, and settled in the Seattle area. The neighborhood his mom grew up in had so many Croatian residents that it was called “Ich-ville” because of the prevalence of last names ending in “ich.”

John in an early performance.

When John was growing up, there was always Croatian music around: at family gatherings, folk dancing to recorded music; at community events, performances by the Seattle Junior Tamburitzans (SJT)—a youth group that would later play a big role in John’s life. His mother, Cathryn, was a singer (she still sings). She sang and recorded with a band that played European folk music. John’s paternal grandmother was the family’s main link to the old country, teaching John and his younger sister, Joanne, songs and traditions, and speaking Croatian to them, which their parents encouraged.

John loved music. His cousin, Andy Mirkovich, was a professional accordionist and gave John his first accordion. His parents asked if he’d like to take lessons. He said, “Sure, why not?” and soon was studying with his cousin’s professor, Joseph Spano. He didn’t like the standard repertoire that beginning accordionists were expected to learn, though.

“It was really corny,” he says. “I said, ‘I want to play our music.’” While continuing his formal studies with Joseph Spano, he started teaching himself Croatian folk music by ear. Within a couple of years, he was performing in both arenas: perfecting the standard student repertoire for youth competitions, and playing Croatian music in community settings.

In 1974, at 9 years old, John was invited to perform as a guest musician at an SJT show. That’s the first time he remembers hearing tamburica music live. He liked it. At that same show, another guest performer was Macedonian singer Dragi Spasovski who had recently moved to Seattle; John liked his music as well.

Learning instruments

When John was in seventh grade, he joined SJT. The director, Thomas Krmpotich, Jr., was a master tambura[2] player and worked with John to teach him prim (the smallest tamburica instrument), along with the general musical and dance instruction all SJT members underwent. John eventually shifted to some of the other instruments, brač, then čelo and, over some years, gradually learned how to play all the different instruments in the ensemble. He also played accordion, tambura or bass guitar with the band his mother sang in.

Up-and-coming brač player.

Around the same time, his family attended a summertime Slovenian picnic. “My dad had put my accordion in the trunk in case there might be an opportunity for me to play,” he says. “One old Slovenian man was so moved by my music, he took off his baseball cap and put it down between my legs and people started throwing money in there. I came home with, like, 150 bucks, and said to myself, ‘I think this is a good reason to pursue this music.’”

The traditional tamburica orchestra is made up of stringed instruments, and some experts turn up their noses at the inclusion of any other instruments with a tamburica ensemble. But, particularly in Western Washington, John points out, many Croatian immigrants were from the Dalmatian/Adriatic coast or, the Gorski Kotor region, which borders Slovenia near Italy—a triangle of land where Slovenia, Italy and Croatia come together—and people there played accordion with their tamburica music.

“Actually, you have all kinds of combinations with a tamburica band,” John says. “Playing accordion worked to my benefit, because I was able to play a job by myself with accordion, or play tambura or accordion with the band.”

In 1981, John and his sister Joanne got to tour what was then Yugoslavia with SJT; in fact, the whole family went along. They saw sights and met relatives they’d never known. John bought songbooks and records. He and his sister, excellent as they were in their Spanish language studies back home, had trouble picking up the Croatian language they were hearing. They realized that what had stuck from listening to their grandmother was mostly “kitchen Croatian”—literally, things around the kitchen and some basic conversational terms; they didn’t understand much of what was being discussed around them now. John resolved to start studying the language.

(photo credit: Mendocino Folklore Camp)

Branching out

In preparation for that trip, John and some of the other guys playing for the dance sets with the Tamburitzans—they were 17, 18, 19 years old—decided to start a regular tamburica band on the side. The other members were George, Tom and Tim Jovanovich and Jeff Suhadolnik. They all sang and played. Dubbing themselves the Sinovi Tamburitza Orchestra (sinovi means “sons”), they were soon playing for community picnics and dances and weddings throughout the Pacific Northwest as well as at Tamburitza Extravaganza—an annual festival that moves from city to city, produced by the Tamburitza Association of America. Sinovi is now in its 39th year and includes George’s son Nick and Tom’s son Jake.

After John graduated from the Seattle Junior Tamburitzans, he joined Vela Luka Croatian Dance Ensemble and Ruže Dalmatinke , a semiprofessional ensemble located in Anacortes, 80 miles from Seattle. There he had the opportunity to work with professional choreographers and teachers from Europe, and was a featured performer, including in such prestigious settings as at the Rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 and for the Washington State Centennial Celebration in 1989. The group toured Croatia three times.

Experiencing Balkan camp

One night in 1986, Sinovi was playing in Eugene, Oregon, where Mark Levy, founder of the week-long Balkan Music & Dance Workshops, had recently moved with his wife, Carol Silverman.

“Mark came up, introduced himself and said, ‘We’re looking for someone to come to Balkan camp to teach tamburica,’” John says. “I said, ‘Where is it?’ And he said, ‘Mendocino, Calif., and Buffalo Gap, W.V.’ I didn’t know where those places were, but I said, ‘Well, okay, why not?’”

The next summer, at the age of 22, John taught at his first Balkan camp. Since then he has taught on the East Coast about a dozen times, and more frequently on the West Coast.

“I was blown away by the people that were there,” he says of that first workshop. “Particularly the staff, who really had an impact on me as a teacher and as a researcher. People like Carol Freeman, Carol Silverman, Mark Forry, Mark Levy, Miamon Miller, Lauren Brody and Michael Alpert—all these incredible people. These were people that were American-born but were going over to Europe and were doing fieldwork and looking for the oldest and most authentic repertoire.”

The tamburica ensembles John knew were playing music that had long been standardized, with sheet music printed in Pittsburgh or Zagreb, with dance choreographies based on what the national ensembles were doing. In contrast, the teachers at Balkan camp were learning Balkan languages and conducting original research. It seemed to John that that kind of scholarship was exactly what the Croatian community needed, and he realized that he could do it—in fact, that he needed to do it.

Most of the Balkan camp staff members were 10 years older than John and had quite a bit of work under their belts already. They encouraged him, handing him cassette tapes of styles of music that were completely new to him. They introduced him to techniques of collecting traditional music, songs and dances, going to the oldest sources and getting field recordings.

“It was a lot more difficult to find things back then,” he says. “You really had to search high and low. Now you can just type a few words into Google and boom, everything pops up. Although you have to have a little bit of a starting point. It can be difficult if you don’t speak that dialect because folk songs are not written in literary Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, etc.; they’re written in the dialect of that village. If you don’t know that dialect, you really need to go to a person from there.”

He also got even more serious about learning the language.

“Now I’m fluent,” he says. “It took me a while to do it. It’s good for business, too. Because when you’re playing a gig somewhere and you’re a musician, it’s important to know if somebody’s requesting a song or wants to buy you a beer. If you also know where your audience is from, then you’re going to know what songs to play for them. There are a lot of regional songs in the Balkans and it’s great to know songs from a person’s particular little microregion.”

John conducts a rendition of the Ladarke suite at Kolo Festival 2018. (screen shot from a Kolo Festival 2018 video)

Working a day job

After graduating from high school, John attended a local community college and worked full time in retail clothing sales. Wanting to make a career change after 15 years in retail, John attended the Art Institute of Seattle and graduated with a degree in audio production/sound engineering, with a focus on live sound reinforcement for acoustic instruments. His first job out of college was at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, where he was house engineer for the theatre. To this day he still loves to do live sound for acoustic instruments, particularly for Balkan music, but after the museum job ended about five years ago he went to work for a catering company.

Today he is a senior sales associate and event coordinator for that company. Arista Catering does corporate catering for law firms and tech companies, including Amazon and Facebook, in Seattle’s South Lake Union area. “I have my hands in just about every part of the operation except for the cooking part, even though I can cook,” he says. “We have a really great staff of chefs.” He enjoys the work and it gives him flexibility to play music and pursue his folkloric projects. And there are a lot of those.

A panoply of projects

Since 1994, John has been artistic director of the Seattle Junior Tamburitzans. He co-directs the 50-member group with his sister, Joanne Abdo, who is dance director. Members start out at 5 years old and graduate at 18. If they would like to continue, they can join the senior/alumni group, called Kišobran (“umbrella” in Croatian). The two groups have performers from 5 years old to 60+. Last year SJT toured Croatia, performing at two large youth festivals; this was the group’s seventh tour in Croatia.

John playing brač.

As an applied ethnomusicologist, John has researched and collected numerous old songs from elders and amassed a music library of hundreds of recordings, books, sheet music and resource materials of tamburica and traditional Croatian and South Slavic folk music, dances and traditions.

Besides learning to play all the different tamburica instruments and mastering the skill of arranging in those parts, over the years he has also learned to play Slovene button accordion, lijerica (a lyra-like fiddle), and gusle (a one-stringed, bowed instrument).

John was longtime conductor and arranger for the 30-voice Jele Croatian Women’s Choir and Ženska Klapa Ružmarin, both of Vancouver, B.C., and has been a guest choreographer/music arranger for several Croatian folk ensembles in the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada. He was honored by being selected as guest conductor for a Croatian Fraternal Union Junior Cultural Federation Tamburitza Festival in 2005, conducting more than 1,000 young tamburaši.

He’s taught dance at Kolo Festival in San Francisco and taught dance or Croatian singing at many camps and seminars across the U.S., including being on the roster to teach at this year’s grand finale Mendocino Folklore Camp (the week before Balkan camp, in the same location). He has choreographed for ethnic folkdance ensembles across the U.S. and Canada.

He sits on several boards: Croatia Fest, a large public festival that takes place in Seattle in October; the Ethnic Heritage Council, which promotes communication and understanding among Seattle’s ethnic communities (not just the Balkan ones); and, along with EEFC teachers Ruth Hunter and Christos Govetas, Balkan Night Northwest, a one-night festival in Seattle that, among other things, has raised funds to send youths on scholarship to one of the EEFC Balkan Music & Dance Workshops.

In 2016, John, along with his mother and sister, was awarded the Gordon Ekvall Tracie Memorial Award for excellence in ethnic performing arts by the Ethnic Heritage Council of the Pacific Northwest. Last year he was inducted into the Tamburitza Association of America’s Tamburitza Hall of Fame.

Apart from a mostly Croatian focus, he has performed and/or recorded with local groups including Kultur Shock, Virginia Vulgaris, Children of the Revolution, Lara Lavi and Balkan Cabaret.

What’s next? Right now, the Seattle Junior Tamburitzans’ 50th anniversary celebration, coming up this September, is a burning project, followed by, in October, Croatia Fest, also in Seattle.

Thoughts on Balkan camp

“Back in the late ’80s, most of the teachers at Balkan camp were American-born,” John says. “Now we have quite a few people on the staff that are were actually born over there, in Europe. It’s a nice mix of people that are bringing new material to camp; and I’m ever inspired by the scholarship of the people that are actually doing fieldwork, that are not just listening to YouTube but actually are going over there and working with folks, collecting old songs and old dances, old tunes, learning to play those archaic instruments.

“We’ve had the opportunity to learn from so many people, and I was one of the benefactors of that,” he says. “I went to Balkan camp as a teacher, but I ended up being a student at the same time and learning not just songs and dances, but how to conduct fieldwork by their example—how to go in, who to look for, and to share that knowledge with others. I think that’s really important.

“Folk music is always evolving; it’s always changing,” he adds. “Whatever bug bites you, whatever is going to inspire you to learn, to dig a little deeper, I think is good.


[1] Tamburica or tamburitza is a family of stringed instruments and a musical style indigenous to Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Vojvodina. The EEFC uses the spelling “tamburica,” based on the original Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian spelling, while many groups in the U.S. prefer the spelling “tamburitza,” including the Tamburitza Association of America, the Duquesne University Tamburitzans and the Seattle Junior Tamburitzans; hence, the different spellings used in this article..

[2] The term “tambura” is used interchangeably with “tamburica” or “tamburitza” to refer to the music and instruments of this style. This can be confusing, as, at the EEFC workshops, the term “tambura” is mostly used to refer to the Bulgarian and Macedonian instruments that bear that name.



John plays accordion for this piece with Sinovi.

Profile: Paul Brown

Paul Brown (photo: Sasha Pyle)

Paul Brown (photo: Sasha Pyle)

Paul D. Brown (the D is for Douglas) has been house bassist, a non-teaching staff role, at the EEFC workshops since 1996. He is known for his easygoing personal style and intense musical chops on both electric and acoustic bass. While consistently providing a reliable bass line in the many ensembles he plays with, he is also inventive and adventurous in his melodic playing. With an eye from the bandstand on almost every flavor of music presented at camp, he has a unique perspective on the scene.

 When Paul Brown was a sophomore in high school, in Sunnyvale, Calif., he borrowed an electric bass from a friend and started trying to play what he heard on records he liked—progressive British rock bands like Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull—music featuring a lot of melodic bass. He started taking lessons from a bass teacher at a local music store, who, he says, “set me on a path of studying music as opposed to just listening and playing it . . . learning modes and music theory.”

Paul’s family was not particularly focused on music. His two older sisters participated in school choirs and sang in the shower, but Paul is the only musician among the siblings. At age 18, he enrolled at UCLA, where he continued to play electric bass. By year three he had declared his major as music; he also started taking lessons on upright bass, although he was not to pursue that seriously until a couple of decades later. In his third year at UCLA, he learned about Berklee College of Music in Boston, a school based in contemporary music, which seemed a better fit than UCLA’s then classically based undergraduate program. At 20, Paul moved to Boston and earned his bachelor’s degree from Berklee.

“My degree was in professional music, so it was about playing bass and learning the role of the bass in a lot of different styles,” Paul says. “Berklee was a jazz school and I learned to play jazz there. I wouldn’t call myself a jazz player, even though I understand the idiom and can play it. But Berklee gave me a background in knowing what bass does in music and has done throughout the history of jazz and with specific types of rock and roll music.” His experience at Berklee opened his ears to many different styles of music, although the main kind of “world music” he learned about there was Latin music; he didn’t discover Balkan music until later.

After graduating, Paul moved back to the West Coast and eventually landed back in Los Angeles. Supplementing his musical life with temporary jobs usually centered on computers, he played with original rock bands, cover bands, and “at the height of income generation” an Irish folk/cover band that played three to four steady gigs per week. He toyed with the “music industry,” but never really latched on to it.

“I did peripheral stuff, kind of art music—cabaret rock, I think is what we called it back then—and contemporary and pop music,” he says. “That was where I met James Hoskins, who’s in this community. We were living in Los Angeles in the ’80s, playing in alternative bands, and crossed paths.”


Encountering Balkan music

With Polly Tapia Ferber (photo: Biz Hertzberg)

With Polly Tapia Ferber (photo: Biz Hertzberg)

In the early ’90s, Paul met someone from the Los Angeles-based Balkan women’s chorus Nevenka, who gave him a cassette tape her group had just released.

“That was where I first heard the local Balkan music of California,” he says. “I’d heard the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, and may have heard Ivo Papasov, but this was somebody locally doing it.” Shortly after that he left L.A., moved to the Bay Area and met the community there, which started him on the path to Balkan music.

He attended a memorable event in spring 1994, probably at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley: a concert by Savina Women’s Folk Choir followed by a dance party. The tamburica band Zapadne Lole was playing: Mark Forry, Bill Cope, Joe Finn, Suzanne Leonora and Allan Cline.

“I saw them play and I saw the people dancing and I said, okay, this is different . . . and very interesting,” Paul says.

At that concert, he picked up a copy of Bill Cope’s Balkantunes newsletter and learned about Balkan camp. That summer, he drove up to Mendocino Balkan camp for a day and saw his friends from Zapadne Lole—and many others—playing music. Everybody wanted to know who the newcomer was.

“It was a great night,” he says. “I left the next day for a gig in Los Angeles and realized I wanted to go back to that.” A year later, he returned to the Mendocino Woodlands for the weeklong workshop, spending much of his time understudying with then-EEFC house bassist Allan Cline, who invited him to sit in on a few sets.


Paul attending a greek ensemble class at the 2013 Mendocino workshop (photo: Bill Lanphier)

Paul attending a Greek ensemble class at the 2013 Mendocino workshop (photo: Bill Lanphier)

Allan was about to go to Turkey with his wife, Nancy Klein, an accomplished folk dancer and doumbek player. He was going there to study oud; they were to be gone for at least six months. Zapadne Lole needed a replacement bass player while Allan was out of town. At the request of band leader Mark Forry, Paul agreed to sit in. At this time Paul was living in Castro Valley, Calif., and continuing to play many other kinds of music.


While Allan and Nancy were driving in Greece that summer, a car accident killed Allan and injured Nancy severely. Besides being a personal tragedy for their families and friends, this was a blow to the EEFC organization and community. EEFC asked Paul to replace Allan as house bassist at both workshops—Mendocino and Ramblewood—the following year.  He has been house bassist at the Mendocino workshop every year since, and at East Coast camp in many of those years.



Paul Brown Playing the upright bass (photo: Margaret Loomis)

(photo: Margaret Loomis)

The way the rhythms groove

What was it about Balkan music that attracted him? “For me, being a bass player, it was the rhythms,” Paul says. ”The odd rhythms and the way they groove so easily. I also liked the harmonies and dissonances, especially vocally. The vocal music was some of the first music I heard that I loved—especially styles like the Macedonian diaphonics with really close second intervals—that just blows me away. And the Bulgarian arranged Kutev-style material.

“And then the improvisational music of the old styles in Ottoman music has fascinated me,” he adds.  He had the opportunity to explore those styles with Orkestra Keyif, an ensemble grounded in Ottoman Turkish and Balkan music, made up of musicians scattered across North America, including, originally, Haig Manoukian. Current and sometime members include Brenna MacCrimmon, Beth Bahia Cohen, Lefteris Bournias, Paul Brown, Polly Tapia Ferber, Adam Good and Phaedon Sinis.

“That opened up another world of music for me in the New York scene,” Paul says, “with Haig and Souren [Baronian] and the band Taksim. That band married a lot of my musical paths and passions—wonderful music, including original compositions, with a lot of improvisation and unison lines.” Paul played with Taksim from 2003 to 2009, including at the Montreal Jazz Festval in 2004, and continues to occasionally sit in with the band.


With ________ (photo: Biz Hertzberg)

With Christi Profitt (photo: Biz Hertzberg)

Being the bassist

Being house bassist is, Paul says, “the best job at camp. I don’t teach a class, but as house bassist I play with the faculty and staff and a lot of the campers, many of the pick-up bands, because it’s fun and some of that music is amazing. The job is just to be available to play for the evening dance parties and for some of the classes, and also in the kafana when it’s needed.” Many of the faculty members ask him to sit in with their ensembles.

“Some of the music needs it, like the tamburica music, and some of the Greek island music wouldn’t need it. So . . . role-appropriate. Why Pontic Firebird works is anybody’s guess.” (Pontic Firebird is another band Paul plays in. It’s a bi-coastal ensemble playing Western Pontic dance music: Greek music from Turkey’s Black Sea coast. Paul plays acoustic bass; the other players are Beth Bahia Cohen, violin; Adam Good, oud; and Jerry Kisslinger, daouli.)

Paul’s main Balkan music project is with the Bay Area-based dance band Édessa (George Chittenden, Lise Liepman, Ari Langer, Sean Tergis and occasional guest artists). Added as “the bottom we didn’t know we needed” in 2001, Paul travels with them to many dance events around the country, such as: Ahmet Lüleci’s World Camp in New York; Razzmatazz, a weekend camp held in early June at Mendocino Woodlands Camp 1; and to an annual glendi (Greek dance party) in Santa Rosa. The group has been hired to play for many dance camps over the years, including in Mexico, and several times a year plays dance parties at Ashkenaz Community Center in Berkeley, including many New Year’s Eves.

Paul’s current band at home in Santa Fe is Evet. The word is Turkish for “yes.” Consisting of Paul, Polly Tapia Ferber, Nicholas Kunz, Willa Roberts, Char Rothschild and Melinda Russial, the band plays pan-Balkan and some Middle Eastern music. “Everybody sings in this band and everybody plays multiple instruments, although only Char plays them simultaneously,” he says. “It’s very exciting.”

Paul also performs several times per year with Boulder-based Sherefe, a band that plays Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern music; Paul’s longtime friend James Hoskins is a member, along with Jesse Manno, Brett Bowen, Julie Lancaster, Dexter Payne and, sometimes, Beth Quist. When in New York (or at Balkan camp or Golden Festival) he performs with Kavala Brass Band (members and alumni of Zlatne Uste Brass Band), which focuses on Greek Macedonian Aegean repertoire, and Pontic Firebird.

An enviable rhythm section: Paul Brown, Jerry Kisslinger and Matt Moran at the 2015 Iroquois Springs workshop (photo: Margaret Loomis)

An enviable rhythm section: Paul Brown, Jerry Kisslinger and Matt Moran at the 2015 Iroquois Springs workshop (photo: Margaret Loomis)

Within the last few years Paul earned an associate’s degree in nursing from Santa Fe Community College. He worked as a nurse briefly but is not doing so now; he says he really enjoys nursing work and will probably go back to it.

As a professional musician, Paul is not limited to Eastern European or Middle Eastern music. From his home base in Santa Fe, he plays a weekly upright bass gig with a pianist playing original Latin jazz improvisational music, and sometimes plays locally with other jazz artists. He often plays with the duo Round Mountain (Char and Robbie Rothschild, a “two-man singing folk orchestra”) when they are in town. From time to time he has taught, including at the College of Santa Fe, and has had a few private students, but he depends more on performance than on teaching.

Besides the bass Paul also plays oud, some piano and sousaphone. He is interested in exploring a specific style of laouto playing, inspired by Boston-based Vasilis Kostas’s work with master clarinetist Petroloukas Halkias (see link and link).

“But the oud is challenging enough,” he says. “I really like it and I have a beautiful instrument that I got from Haig, after Haig passed away [see Kef Times, spring 2014, that I love playing.  But the bass has always been my instrument. It’s just the thing I’ve always liked doing.” Paul originally studied oud with Haig Manoukian and Necati Çelik in 1995 and in the last year has taken a workshop with Yordal Tokcan to improve his skills.



(photo: Bill Lanphier)

(photo: Bill Lanphier)

Tips for bass players

How do you learn to play bass for such a variety of genres? Besides listening to a lot of source recordings, Paul says it’s a matter of understanding the role of bass in music.

“Bass is similar in different genres,” he says. “Tone might be different, or the attack, but the role is similar: it’s a rhythm instrument but it’s also a melodic instrument. You have to bridge that gap, making sure that you’re keeping the rhythm—especially since a lot of this music is dance music—propelling it in a good rhythm for dancers and make it interesting musically, because it’s a musical instrument, while not stepping over the other instruments.

“Have fun with it,” he says. “That’s always a good thing if you’re playing music. It’s an energetic thing, too. If you’re having fun, that energy spreads to the people listening and watching.”


What’s Up with the Keyboard Sheath?

Raif at Iroquois Springs, 2009 (photo: Margaret Loomis).

Raif at Iroquois Springs, 2009 (photo: Margaret Loomis).

Raif often performs with a black satin fabric panel covering his accordion keyboard. Here’s how that got started.

Back in elementary school, Raif attended regular school in the mornings and music school in the afternoons, where he studied classical music on accordion. After school he would practice his scales and exercises while his mother was doing the dishes.

“Can you please stop that and play some folk music?” she would say.

One night she playfully tossed the dish towel at him. It hit him on the shoulder and covered the keyboard. He told her to leave it there.

“I started playing,” he says. “It was cool! The towel was thick, so when I would try to hit one key I would hit two sounds by accident. That didn’t make me happy, so I started working with it, trying to get more precise.” He asked his mom to make a thin cover for his keyboard using her sewing machine. When she asked why he needed it, he said, “I want to invent something.” He was a competitive teenager; many of his friends played accordion, and he wanted to do something different.

He ended up asking her to make two extra covers, and then he took them back to his friends. “Now the battle began!” he says. He would challenge them to play the same piece; he would play with the cover and do it better than they could, since he’d been practicing that way.

“When this happened I was so happy,” he says. “I started practicing even harder. It was harder to play, so it was like pushing yourself to become a better musician. Playing with the cover makes me feel much better psychologically and you develop better technique. Even a lot of great players have a tendency to look at the keyboard, if you have a cover, you can still look but you don’t see anything.”

Profile: Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni

Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni.

Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni.

Singer Merita Halili and accordionist/composer Raif Hyseni, world-class performers from Albania and Kosova, respectively, began teaching at the EEFC camps in 1997. Merita captivates students with her extraordinary vocal range, filigree-like ornamentation, knowledge of regional styles and heartfelt approach. Raif inspires with his virtuosic playing, innovative arrangements and humor. At Balkan camp they often intertwine the Albanian singing class with the Albanian/Kosovar instrumental ensemble class to create unforgettable music and learning.

Singing like a bird
Merita Halili was born in Tiranë, the capital of Albania. She was the youngest in the family and the only girl, with six older brothers. One of her earliest memories is of being in a play at the age of 5 at day care. “I had to sing in a cage, wear a bird costume and look like a bird,” she says. “I don’t remember the song but I remember that when they opened that cage and I came out in the bird clothes, all the teachers said I sang so beautifully.”

At home, music was always present. Her mother had a beautiful voice and the whole family sang; when people would come over, it was customary after lunch or dinner to sing together—folk songs or popular songs of the day.

During elementary school Merita participated in the local Young Pioneer group, which sang at festivals. That was the beginning of her musical training. By the time she was in fourth grade, her teachers at school started taking her to other schools to serve as an example in singing class to help teach other children to sing.

Merita in concert around 1982-83.

Merita in concert around 1982-83.

Later she auditioned for and was accepted into music high school, where the teaching was at a level comparable to college in the U.S.—highly professional and very difficult. She trained in classical music, including opera. On the side, Merita participated in two amateur folk music groups, Ensemble Tirana and Ensemble Migjeni. In 1983, she attended the Gjirokastër National Folklore Festival, a prestigious festival that takes place every five years in southern Albania. Representing her home city, the capital, she performed a difficult song, “Dore për dore,” and received an award.

Merita excelled at operatic singing and performed a 1.5-hour concert for her recital at the age of 16. It was unclear whether she should pursue a career in classical opera or folk music. But before she could finish high school, the State Ensemble for Folk Songs and Dances snatched her, hiring her as a soloist because of her unique voice.

“I wasn’t disappointed [to leave a classical opera path],” Merita says. “I was confused in the beginning, but being hired by the ensemble felt very prestigious. The State Ensemble was the highest-ranking cultural institution in Albania at that time—the very top. Working there would allow me to travel outside the border, which was a big deal at that time. I would be able to represent our country to people in other countries.”

She toured with the ensemble in Europe until 1989. Soon after she left the ensemble, communism fell and everything changed. In 1991, when Merita was invited to sing at a wedding for someone she knew in America, she got a visa and went.

We’ll catch up with Merita in the U.S. presently . . . but first, let’s backtrack and look at Raif’s story.

“I want one son to be an accordion player.”
Raif Hyseni is from the Republic of Kosova, which has a large Albanian majority. He grew up in Mitrovicë, the oldest of five children—three boys and two girls.

“When my father was a young man,” Raif says, “he had a conversation with himself. He said, ‘If I get married some day, I would love to have at least two sons. Why? One to be an accordion player and the other one to be a pilot.’”

Raif as a 4th grader with his first personal accordion, 1975. He kept this instrument until the war, when it was stolen, along with the family’s other possessions, by occupying military forces, who then burned the apartment.

Raif as a 4th grader with his first personal accordion, 1975. He kept this instrument until the war, when it was stolen, along with the family’s other possessions, by occupying military forces, who then burned the apartment.

One day when Raif was in fourth grade his father came home from work and told Raif he was going to sign him up for music school. Raif didn’t want to go. His main interest at the time was the movie star Bruce Lee; he asked if he could go study martial arts instead. His father said no.

Music school was a separate school held in the afternoon, after the regular elementary school day. The school offered instruction in Western classical music on various instruments, singing and choir. Raif loved the music but expected to be able to play fast, challenging tunes right from the beginning. Instead, he was assigned “boring” exercises, like having to hold each note of the scale as a whole note for the count of four.

After a few months, he quit the elementary music school because he found the exercises so boring (his father wasn’t pleased), and continued trying to learn to play accordion on his own. But after three or four months, Raif says, “something clicked in my mind and I asked my father to please send me back to music school. He did, and since then I’ve never stopped.” (By the way, Raif and all his siblings finished elementary music school, but he is the only one who continued with music. One of his brothers did, indeed, pursue studies and pass all his tests to become a pilot, although due to various factors, some of them political, he did not actually become one.)

“It’s a big difference.”
Raif loved folk music. He mused about the differences between playing music at school versus the folk band wedding musicians he had seen: at school, it was just your teacher, yourself and a musical score in front of you. But at a wedding, there was folk music, dancing, food and drink. “People are happy,” he said. “It’s a big difference.”

By the time Raif was in high school, he knew he wanted to do music as a career. He started playing in different folk bands and orchestras, always as the youngest member. One of those bands was Hasan Prishtinë and another was Rilindja. With these ensembles, while still in high school, he toured in Germany, Austria and many states in Former Yugoslavia.

Raif pauses for a laugh during his accordion class, Iroquois Springs, 2011. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

Raif pauses for a laugh during his accordion class, Iroquois Springs, 2011. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

After high school, Raif enrolled in the Academy for Performing Arts at the University of Kosova in Prishtinë, attending college in the mornings and working as a high school music teacher in the afternoons. Around that time, Isak Muçolli, first violinist of the Radio Television of Prishtinë (RTP) Symphonic Orchestra, snagged Raif to play accordion with that orchestra. “It was my dream,” Raif says. “Being invited to play with Isak Muçolli was like being invited to play with Paganini.” He appeared with the orchestra on radio and television and had the opportunity to accompany some of the top singers in Kosovo and Macedonia.

He also started playing with a young group called Besnikët that became very successful—a superstar group, comparable, he says, to the Backstreet Boys. Popular internationally on radio and TV, they toured in Kosova, Macedonia and Montenegro, selling out concerts wherever they appeared—even 5,000-seat halls.

In 1989, when Raif was a third-year student, the Albanian community in New Jersey hired Besnikët to perform in a restaurant in North Bergen, N.J., for six months. They paid for his airfare and room and board during the engagement, so he left his teaching job and came to the U.S. on a temporary work visa. His position back home was to be held for a one year.

Within two months after Raif’s departure, the Milošević regime began shutting down institutions in Kosova, including the academy where Raif was still enrolled as a student. Albanians in all institutions were laid off their jobs, including Raif’s father; many university professors, teachers and political activists, including musicians and performers, were sent to prison.

“I had a wonderful life back in Kosova,” Raif says. “I wanted to go back to Kosova and hoped that the situation would change for the better.” He headed back to Kosova in May 1990, after Besnikët completed its six-month contract. But given the upheaval in Kosova, he came back to the U.S. about six months after that.

Playing for an outdoor dance line, Iroquois Springs, 2009. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

Playing for an outdoor dance line, Iroquois Springs, 2009. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

Meeting in America
Merita had been performing in New York for a few months. Her friends were worried about her, since she was a professional and needed someone at a high level to accompany her. Then, one night in 1991, she attended a concert in Staten Island as a guest artist. Raif was playing in the band and was asked to accompany her.

“I had heard about him and his talent, and that he had recorded with famous singers in Kosova,” she said. They arranged a meeting and every song she asked him about, he knew. “It was really, really good,” she says. “After that I fell in love with him. First I was attracted by his talent, then we were attracted to each other. It was luck.”

Later that year the couple headed back to Europe and lived in Belgium for several months, then Switzerland for about 6 months, performing for Albanian communities in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. Later, amidst increasing political tensions in the area, they lived in Albania for more than three years, performing in Macedonia and, later, Sweden and Germany.

In 1994, Merita took part in a 12-week televised festival and competition sponsored by the Albanian state television featuring singers from all over Albania and the Albanian diaspora and evaluated by a jury of European judges. Of the 100 singers competing, Merita was awarded first place, accompanied by a prize of $10,000, and received the prestigious award of “National Ambassador” from the President of Albania.

Raif and Merita at Balkan camp, 2012. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

Raif and Merita at Balkan camp, 2012. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

She and Raif had not planned to come back to the United States. But because of the political situation, the war in Bosnia and Croatia, the change of Albania’s system from communism to democracy, and steadily worsening conditions in Kosova, they made the decision to move to the U.S. and “start from the beginning.” They moved to Caldwell, N.J., in 1995.

After that, the situation in Kosova became even worse, with war breaking out in 1998. For about two months there was no communication from anyone in Raif’s family, while the headlines blared horrific details about the ethnic cleansing happening in Kosova. Eventually Raif’s parents and brothers were able to get to safety in Tiranë, in Albania, where they stayed with Merita’s family.

“It was very difficult for us because we are very close to our family, and they are back there,” Merita says. “I don’t consider myself an immigrant, but leaving Albania as a famous singer it was very hard for me. My community here likes me, and they hire Raif and his band and me all the time, but it wasn’t like what I left in Albania.”

Life in New Jersey
Now Merita is pursuing her studies to become a licensed music teacher in the school system. “I really enjoy teaching,” she says.

From L: Polly Tapia Ferber, Merita with daughter Engji, Jerry Kisslinger, Alan Zemel, Michael Ginsburg and Raif at Balkan camp, Ramblewood, 1998.

From L: Polly Tapia Ferber, Merita with daughter Engji, Jerry Kisslinger, Alan Zemel, Michael Ginsburg and Raif at Balkan camp, Ramblewood, 1998.

She and Raif perform around the region and the country at festivals and community weddings. They usually travel with five instrumentalists; for a local wedding, six or seven instrumentalists. Raif serves as the manager.

“Back in Kosova and Albania, there were institutions—the opera or the folk ensemble—that organized the concerts,” he says. “Our job was just to decide what repertoire to perform and to give those tunes to the band leader; he would arrange rehearsals. We didn’t have to deal with the tickets, how many people will show up, the sound system, who’s going to be our makeup artist, how we will get there, who will perform. Here, we have to substitute that institution with one person. It’s not easy, because we want to do the best.” They feel fortunate that Ethel Raim, Artistic Director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance (who, by the way, taught singing at one of the earliest U.S. Balkan camps—Sweet’s Mill, around 1975), has connected them to opportunities to perform on some of the best stages in the area.

One year (2012) the Albanian Ensemble got into the spirit sartorially as well as musically.

One year (2012) the Albanian Ensemble got into the spirit sartorially as well as musically.

Raif completed his bachelor’s degree in music from Caldwell University, then earned a master’s in music from Montclair State University. He has stayed at the university, working as an adjunct professor of music. He wrote a curriculum and got it approved to teach Albanian music, and the Balkan-Albanian Ensemble he directs is the first of its kind at a university. In recent course evaluations, one student wrote, “Many of the teachings here are able to be applied across multiple platforms into classical music playing, jazz music playing, and a different approach to a teaching method.” Another stated, “This [ensemble] has helped me to grow both as a learning musician and an overall lover of music.”

In addition, Raif has composed and arranged dozens of songs and instrumental melodies for accordion, and has written music for plays and documentary films. He is currently working on a CD project that includes his own compositions and traditional folk tunes, and features many musician friends. “I don’t know when we will be able to finish it,” he laughs. “I have high standards.”

At home the family speak Albanian and English. Raif and Merita have three daughters: Megi, 27; Engji, 20; and Rea, 13. The older girls played music as children but now Megi is a teacher and Engji is working to become a dentist.

Megi, Engji and Rea. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

Megi, Engji and Rea. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

“I like singing like my mom,” says Rea, who has been playing violin since first grade and is already an accomplished singer. “I think folk music is very fun; it’s upbeat. It excites you. At camp, when people play folk music, everybody gets excited and dances.”

Experiencing Balkan camp
“I was very, very surprised,” Merita says, when asked about her first Balkan camp. “What kind of place was this? I had never seen people together so fascinated for Balkan music. What were they doing with this music? What attracted them to it? And, oh, my God, how should I represent my music?” Starting with Jane Sugarman as her translator, she plunged in. (Jane is a Balkan camp veteran who has taught Albanian singing many times at the workshops; she’s profiled in the Fall/Winter 2002-03 issue.)

Merita, Jerry Kisslinger and Raif, Iroquois Springs, 2008. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

Merita, Jerry Kisslinger and Raif, Iroquois Springs, 2008. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

Merita says the students liked her voice and her singing, but some found the styles very difficult, even scary. Step by step, she says, she has worked to bring them more understanding and mastery of those styles. By the way, Merita’s brother Gëzim Halili taught clarinet at Balkan camp on two occasions.

“I see the people here looking for different cultures,” she says. “It’s good for me and everybody, and for this society. I give so much credit what they are doing. Everybody came from somewhere. It’s very good to bring a different culture and share food, history and beautiful lyrics and expressions.”

Raif was surprised by camp, too. “Living in Kosova,” he says, “we saw Americans as jazz, rock and roll, movies and MacDonald’s. To come here and see these Americans studying Balkan music, we thought, ‘these guys must be something very special or . . .’ [he makes a gesture that indicates “funny in the head”].” He tried to find a reason why these Americans were doing this music; maybe they all had ancestors from that part of the world? Eventually he noticed a parallel with the way some of his music school friends back in Mitrovicë had been drawn to American music. They played jazz, soul music, Beatles and Rolling Stones—some of them, masterfully—even though they weren’t Americans.

Musical communion: Esma Redžepova dances to Merita’s singing at Ramblewood, 1998.

Musical communion: Esma Redžepova dances to Merita’s singing at Ramblewood, 1998. (photo: Margaret Loomis)

“I understand that something is missing in people; that’s why they’re doing this,” he concluded. “Human beings are always looking for something that’s missing in their life—something spiritual. Music is spiritual; it’s soul.

“You know, you have things around you that you value but you don’t see from an outside point of view,” he said. “Later on, I realized Americans have a right to go crazy about Albanian and Balkan music. Because there is a lot in this music that people can find themselves within.”

What’s Up with the Keyboard Sheath?

Raif at Iroquois Springs, 2009 (photo: Margaret Loomis).

Raif at Iroquois Springs, 2009 (photo: Margaret Loomis).

Lise Liepman

At Balkan camp 2011. (photo: April Renae)

At Balkan camp 2011. (photo: April Renae)

Known for her warm and welcoming teaching style, Lise Liepman has taught santouri (Greek hammered dulcimer) or Greek ensemble off and on at EEFC Balkan Music & Dance Workshops since 1988, mostly at Mendocino and several times at the East Coast Workshops, and taught Turkish dancing at balkanalia! when that camp was produced by EEFC. She’s also a carousel-restoration artist.

When Lise Liepman was in eighth grade, she had to create a family tree for a school project. She wrote the whole family tree, filling in occupations where possible.

“Under my name I put ‘Artist? Musician?’ and ended up being both,” she says. “Who knew?”

Growing up in Southern California and moving to Marin County (Northern Calif.) at age 14, Lise was part of a musical family. Her great-great-grandfather was a double-bass player, her maternal grandfather the first-chair violinist in the Boston Symphony, and her German father’s family claimed classical musicians as far back as the 1800s. All four children studied classical music, Lise on piano. (Lise’s two brothers perform with classical orchestras to this day.)

Her first exposure to Balkan music and dance was a folk dance physical education class at her high school.

“It was probably the Israeli dancing that grabbed me first,” she says. “Probably something like Mayim—it was fun, like running. The dances were kind of organized but also free. It wasn’t like the modern dance some of my friends were doing, which I didn’t understand at all. I liked the structure of folk dancing and the fact that you could put your own style into it.”

At the age of 17 Lise enrolled at UC Berkeley, where there was folk dancing outside on the grass every Friday at noon to recorded music, the UC Folk Dancers danced Friday nights at the women’s gym, and Sunni Bloland was teaching international folk dancing in the Physical Education Department.

Lise and Sunni Bloland in 2014.

Lise and Sunni Bloland in 2014.

“My biggest influence in college was Sunni,” Lise says. “I took all her dance classes and eventually worked as her TA (teaching assistant) for many years. I learned a lot about teaching from her and how to break down dances so they made sense to people.” Although Sunni Bloland’s specific focus was Romanian dance, she taught dance from many countries; her three levels of classes—beginning, intermediate and advanced—were tremendously popular, drawing up to 150 people.

Lise became one of the organizers for the UC Folk Dancers, helping to run the weekly party. “Then we would all go up the hill to the International House and keep dancing until much later—every single Friday,” she says. Other nights they would go to Aito’s, a Greek restaurant, or one of the international folk dance groups in the area.

In 1976, as part of a bicentennial celebration of 1776 that Sunni produced, Lise became part of a clogging group, made costumes and performed—her first experience with performing folk dance. At about that same time she started going out with a folk dancer who would have a big influence on her life.

Carousel Art

KT-2015-12-Lise-carousel-horseHer boyfriend’s parents did carousel restoration, and Lise started learning about the craft. Not long after, barely making it through college due to dancing six nights per week and having taken most of the art and folk dance classes available at Cal, she dropped out of school and began working an apprenticeship with the parents. Their son later started his own carousel restoration business and, though he and Lise were no longer romantically involved, she worked for him for years, eventually opening her own business in 1987.

In the late ‘70s she went back to Cal and designed her own independent major based on the classes she had taken and the work she’d done. She has the only degree ever issued at UC-Berkeley in American Folklore: Carousel Art and History.


Shortly after the bicentennial celebration, Lise saw the folk dance group Westwind perform. She thought, “Wow, I want to do that!” and auditioned and got in. One of the directors was Dennis Boxell, an “amazing choreographer and teacher, with impeccable taste. He really knew how to put a performance on that was brilliant,” she says. Although controversy and scandal later eclipsed Boxell’s creative reputation, he had a great, positive influence on her.

In Westwind she quickly rose through the ranks and became choral director of the ensemble’s mixed chorus of about 40 singers, including some extremely gifted singers and instrumentalists. During this era Lise sang with the group Savina as well. She later became dance director and eventually artistic director of Westwind, in a shared position with Joe Finn and Allen Nixon.

Early camps

In 1981, Lise got together with George Chittenden, a winds-playing musician who had recently returned from an extended trip to Turkey, where he had studied zurna. The next year, Lise went with George to her first Balkan camp, at Mendocino.

“I got a scholarship to work in the kitchen,” she says. “In those days it was an eight-hour commitment. Pretty much you did that and got to take one class. We worked so hard in the kitchen, but it was so exciting, and we were in our 20s, so it was no problem to stay up and party all night.”

Camp was different in those days than the family-friendly scene it is now. Lise remembers everyone being more or less the same age at the camps, with “a lot of hanky-panky and hooking up going on.” She remembers taking walks down to the creek (something she rarely does now); in those days it seemed there was more time to enjoy nature, despite the kitchen duties.

“I remember the singing classes,” she said. “It was Carol Silverman,1 Carol Freeman2 and Lauren Brody.3 It was hierarchical—you had to take the beginning class, and then you graduated to the intermediate class. Only if you were good enough did you get to take the advanced class.” (These days, although different levels of singing are still offered, there is no such hierarchy.)

By 1984 Lise was playing percussion, tambura and tamburica music, and singing and dancing. That year at camp she heard a santouri for the first time.

“I heard it and thought, ‘Whoa. What’s that?’ and ran over to the room where it was being played. I couldn’t believe what I heard. It was so lyrical—a light sound, but also strong because it was percussive. It was harplike; not a drum, not a wind instrument. It was so different.” A woman named Lisa Rose was playing.4 The next year, Lise and George went to East Coast camp at Buffalo Gap; Lise ordered her first santouri from longtime EEFC workshop teacher Yianni Roussos5 and started studying the instrument with him.


Practicing in Athens in 1986.

Studying santouri and travels abroad

The next year she and George took a year off from work and lived in Athens, Greece, for six months, to study music. But first they traveled from northern Greece to Eastern Turkey with Joe Graziosi6 and David Bilides (both EEFC Workshop instructors)—neither of whom they knew very well at the beginning of the trip. The four ended up having a great time.

“In those days, there were no cell phones or Internet,” she says. “If you wanted to call home, you had to go wait at the post office for two hours. All our mail went to poste restante [general delivery] in whatever city. Such a different time than it is now, when everybody just calls everybody on Skype. There’s no getting away. But we were really away for a year, out of touch.”

In Athens, Lise studied with master santouri player Tásos Dhiakogiórgos, a classically trained musician. This was in contrast to the folk musicians with whom George was studying gajda, zurna and clarinet, whose teaching methods seemed completely random. Lise also had brief studies with two other santouri masters: Yiannis Sousamlis, a.k.a., Kakourgos; and later Marios Papadeas.

 Wedding and work life

In 1987, back in Albany, Calif., Lise and George rented the Mendocino Woodlands (the Balkan camp site) for a four-day wedding celebration with dancing to live music played by many friends, including Yianni Roussos, whom they brought in from the East Coast. They showed slides of their travels in Greece, Turkey and Africa.

Lise and George's wedding party at Mendocino, 1987.

Lise and George’s wedding party at Mendocino, 1987.

Lise’s full-time return to her carousel business coincided with a peak in the carousel-collecting world; there were conventions where she would be invited to speak. and she would go speak at them. People were spending tens of thousands of dollars on carousel animals. That’s not the case anymore, she says.

“I hit at just the right time to build a business when interest in carousel collecting was on the rise,” she says. Although there are many carousel restoration specialists in the U.S., Lise is one of only about a half dozen that do high-quality work. “I still have good business, but it’s not like it used to be, where I was backed up for two years and people would get on the waiting list. I feel like I came into this at a very, very serendipitous time.”

Ziyiá and Édessa

Joe Graziosi had been telling Lise, George and drummer Dan Auvil that they needed to meet Christos Govetas7 and Beth Bahia Cohen,8 who were playing Greek music in Boston. At the 1990 Mendocino Balkan camp they all met and formed the bicoastal band Ziyiá, to specialize in regional traditional music of Greece.9

Soon Ziyiá got involved in the Greek Orthodox Folk Dance & Choral Festival known as FDF (for Faith, Dance and Fellowship)—a large festival held annually in Southern California—and started to really build repertoire together. In the early days Bob Beer and David Bilides often performed with them. They started becoming known in the Greek community and were hired for weddings and workshops and camps all over the country.

Edessa in Japan.

Edessa in Japan.

In the early ’90s, in connection with one of those workshops, they learned some music for Dennis Boxell, who was teaching dances from Édessa (a city in northern Greece, near the Macedonian border). Boxell sent them recordings of some brass band music from the area. The music called for accordion.

George had a student accordion with 12 buttons on the left and two octaves on the keyboard side. Lise learned three tunes on it and they played those tunes at the workshop, with David Bilides on tupan, Dan Auvil on snare and George on clarinet. Little by little, as they got called to play other gigs, Lise would learn a few more tunes on the accordion. (Eventually she got a full-sized accordion.) Later they were joined by Ari Langer on violin and Paul Brown on bass. Numerous other musicians, including several guest singers and various percussionists, have been part of Édessa for shorter or longer periods.

“This was one of the first American bands to play that Florina/pushteno kind of repertoire,” she said. “Look at how many people are playing it now! But this was one of the first live bands that people had heard, and it was so exciting.” Dubbed Édessa Power Block by some of their folk dance fans, the band soon became known as just Édessa.

Lise and George also played in a rebetika ensemble, Rebetiki Paréa, that toured in Holland in 1995. Lise played baglama and santouri, George played guitar, Bob Beer sang, Vaggelis Fragiadakis played bouzouki and Nancy Klein played percussion.

At Mexico camp with Riri Hughes.

At Mexico camp with Riri Hughes.

With either Ziyiá or Édessa, Lise and George have played and taught at many dance and music workshops, including three in Japan,10 and all but one year of World Camp, an East Coast dance and music camp that celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

With Souren and Haig

Another important influence has been the music of Souren Baronian and Haig Manoukian, brilliant Armenian American players playing clarinet and oud, respectively, who have been frequent instructors at the EEFC workshops.

Lise, George and Dan met them in the late 1980s at the then-annual Hawaii folk dance camp Makahiki Hou, where Souren and Haig were regulars. Together with percussionist Polly Tapia Ferber the group started playing Turkish/Armenian repertoire and released a recording. After Haig’s death in 2014, the group re-mastered and re-released that recording, “Near East Far West.”

Next generation?


Playing at Ashkenaz with Edessa.

The EEFC’s Program Committee, on which Lise serves, has been talking a lot about the young generation that’s been coming to the camps. Most of them are not coming to it from dancing; in the Bay Area there are clubs where 500 people will come to hear a brass band play. Those people are not so interested in traditional dances that line up with the music, but they do love to dance—freestyle, energetically and preferably to fast music.

“Do we want those 500 people at camp? Maybe; it would be a different camp. And is that what we’re working toward? Is that really the mission? It could be,” she says. “There are not many young dance teachers. Alex Marković is the youngest person we’ve seen. There are some in the Greek community, but they’re not interested in coming into our community, and it’s not for lack of asking. No matter how wonderful our older dance teachers are, if you’re a 20-year-old and you see an old dancer, it just might not be as exciting as seeing a really hot-shit 25-year-old. We need dance teachers like that and we are trying to find them.

“We’ve talked about having some young folks do some very simple dance lessons before some of these hipster gigs in the Bay Area. It wouldn’t have to be a great dancer, or even someone we would hire as a teacher at the camps, but someone young and enthusiastic who could tap into that hipster crowd to get them to actually start to like line dancing. I think that might be the future, to find young people like that who then tap into this younger crowd that’s going out for brass music.”

The EEFC and life

(photo: April Renae)

(photo: April Renae)

Lise served on the EEFC Board in 2000 and 2001 and has worked on the Program Committee for many years.

“I enjoy the work,” she says. “It’s like a big puzzle, putting together 25 teachers for an interesting week. You can‘t please everybody; there will always be people that kvetch about something. But more often, people are just thrilled. They can’t wait for camp and then they get there and say, ‘Oh, wow, I can’t believe you got that person.’

“The camps have provided George and me an environment to meet so many amazing people we might not have met otherwise,” she adds. “I think that’s why I want to do the programming work. It’s challenging work and there’s no compensation for it, not even a work exchange; if I want to go to camp and am not on staff, I have to pay to go to camp. But I feel like this is a way of giving back. Balkan camp has given George and me an unbelievably rich life and continues to do so.”






1. Profiled in KT Spring/Summer 2001.

2. Profiled in KT Spring/Summer 2000.

3. Profiled in KT Summer 2006.

4. Years later, Lise bought that very instrument from Lisa Rose, and it’s currently on loan to Nesa Levy, another musician in our community.

5. Yianni Roussos has declined to be profiled in Kef Times.

6. Profiled in KT Spring/Summer 2003.

7. Profiled in KT Spring 2010.

8. Profiled in Spring 2009.

9. See the story of Ziyiá’s first 10 years in the Spring/Summer 2000 Kef Times.

10. Read about Édessa’s teaching in Japan in our Fall/Winter 2001-2002 issue.

Catherine Foster

Catherine Foster

(Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos)

Catherine Foster attended her first EEFC Balkan Music & Dance Workshop at Buffalo Gap in the early 1990s and has taught brass band ensemble or clarinet and saxophone at the East Coast workshops numerous times since 1994. But she has been performing Balkan music for more than 30 years. Currently a member of Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band and director of the Catherine Foster Brass Band, she has also toured with Yuri Yunakov and worked with Roma brass band musicians in Serbia.

Catherine Foster grew up on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, Wash., one of five sisters. Their parents, immigrants from New Zealand, played various kinds of music, including early music on recorders. Their mother taught the girls to read music and play basic things on the piano when they were very young.

“I can’t remember not knowing how to read music,” Catherine says. “I’ve always had that.” She also has a good ear, as does everyone else in her family.

Eventually the daughters developed their own musical interests. Catherine’s oldest sister, Susan, sings and for a time played viola with the Seattle Philharmonic. The next oldest, Elizabeth, lives in Australia, where she is working on a doctorate in piano pedagogy. Catherine’s twin, Leslie, lives in Tacoma; she plays Scandinavian fiddle with Hale Bill and the Bopps and composes music. And Mary, the youngest, is a professional piano teacher on Bainbridge Island.

When Catherine and Leslie were going into sixth grade, their mother said, “You can play in the school band. What do you want to play?” Catherine said, “The drums.” Her mother said, “Not in my house.” That was the end of Catherine’s drumming career. Instead, she and Leslie started playing clarinet, but Catherine hated it. She switched to trumpet and played that through middle and high school.

“When we were in high school, somehow Leslie discovered folk dancing and dragged me into it,” Catherine says. “We went to the University of Washington and danced with that group. That was very important in those formative years for us; it gave us a way of surviving high school. I was not a rock concert kid.”

By her late teens, Catherine was dancing two to three nights a week. At a dance camp in Oregon, she and Leslie met Atanas Kolarovski and were surprised to learn that he lived in Seattle and, along with his wife, Ljupka, had a restaurant called Yugoslavia. The restaurant became like a second home for the two girls. Catherine remembers Atanas coming out of a back room into the restaurant with his accordion and playing. Sometimes there would be other musicians as well.

“He was very important to our dancing in those days, and he figured prominently in our developing sense of style,” she says. “He’s a great teacher and has the energy of a lot of people. He would walk into a room on a Friday night where we’d be folk dancing and the energy level would jump up a few notches. It was amazing. You could be three or four people down the line from him and feel his energy through everyone’s hands.”

From Scandinavian Fiddle to Balkan Brass

Catherine with her sisters playing Scandinavian fiddle; left to right: Elizabeth Foster, Catherine Foster and Leslie Foley. (photo courtesy Catherine Foster)

Catherine with her sisters playing Scandinavian fiddle; left to right: Elizabeth Foster, Catherine Foster and Leslie Foley. (photo courtesy Catherine Foster)

After high school, Scandinavian music came into Catherine’s life. Leslie was working for a man named C. Alan (Bud) Johnson, who had an artwork business on Bainbridge Island. He and his daughter Laurie played Scandinavian fiddles together. Leslie took up the violin and began playing with them, then Elizabeth joined, and finally Catherine. The five named themselves the Rollingbay Fiddlers (after the name of their neighborhood) and started playing for dance parties and festivals. They played almost exclusively Swedish music.

“When I play the violin now, the only thing I can do is Swedish,” Catherine says. “My hands only know that ornamentation.”

In the early ‘80s, Catherine was taking classes at Seattle Central Community College when she heard about a brass-style Balkan band starting up. She called them up, offering herself as a trumpet player, but there wasn’t an opening. Not long afterwards, they called her back and invited her into the group. That was the Borozan Brass Band, which included Peter Lippman on trumpet, Sonia Tamar-Seeman on clarinet, and others.

“That was a great funky brass band,” she says. “That was my beginning playing brass. Peter had been overseas a few times and had tapes from the Guča (Serbia) Festival (Sabor Trubača) and other interesting source material, which we learned by ear.” Even though Catherine is comfortable with sheet music and notates tunes to teach them, she says she can’t learn a piece of music from reading it. “But if I listen to it and play, learning it that way,” she says, “I’ll have it forever.”

In 1986 Peter Lippman moved to New York and Catherine went to work in Alaska on a fish processing barge, a seasonal job she describes as “extremely exhausting and interesting and boring and difficult and wonderful.” At the height of the season, she was one of 100 people living on a 200-foot “shoebox,” with a keen sense of community and camaraderie tempering the hard work.

After returning to Seattle and working at some unmemorable jobs, Catherine moved to New York City in 1988. Peter Lippman had told her about Zlatne Uste. Catherine contacted Michael Ginsburg, the director, and told him she played trumpet and was interested. She was invited into the band.

Going to Guča

Catherine’s first trip to the Guča Festival, in 1990, was Zlatne Uste’s third. It was also her first time in Eastern Europe.

“The level of musicianship across all the bands that came to play and compete at Guča was eye-popping, really amazing,” she says.

Working with a Roma band called Zlatni Prsti, Catherine remembers discovering how much she didn’t know, and how elusive authentic styling was.

“I was struck by how much passion is in the music, and how hard the lives are of the Roma people who struggle to make a life, a living,” she says. “It took away any romantic notions of ‘gypsy’ music. Their lives are really difficult, and they make this fantastic music. Also, I saw the music in its own element, not separated from daily life—music has an important function at a wedding, funeral or war sendoff. It is always played for life events and purposes, not just a recreational party. It was interesting for me to see all of this.”

Playing with the Rom Ensemble, Ramblewood, 1994.

Playing with Yuri Yunakov’s clarinet/sax class, Ramblewood, 1994. (Margaret Loomis)

Around this time, Catherine attended her first EEFC Balkan Music & Dance Workshop. She remembers being struck by the level of community at camp, and by the luxury of having “a whole week of days in a row to spend in my music head without thinking about anything else.”

Working with Yuri Yunakov

In 1994, Yuri Yunakov came to the States from Bulgaria and taught at East Coast Balkan camp. Catherine, who was teaching brass band ensemble that year, wasn’t really aware he was coming, but she had brought a clarinet, which she “didn’t really play.” Because Yuri was there and the schedule was in her favor, she decided to take his clarinet class. It became clear to her almost immediately that she could really understand what Yuri was doing.

After camp, Catherine, who had been attending classes at Hunter College, applied at the college for a scholarship to take private lessons from Yuri. Although she had unsuccessfully applied for a scholarship every previous term she had been there, this time she received a departmental scholarship for private lessons.

She then had to call Yuri and make sure he would be there, wasn’t planning to go back to Bulgaria, and would give her a certain number of lessons and a grade. Not being a Bulgarian speaker, she was nervous as she dialed his phone number. But when his answering machine clicked on and she started talking, someone picked up and a voice said, “Catherine?” It was Carol Silverman; she had been sitting in Yuri’s apartment at the moment Catherine called. Carol helped with communications, Yuri said yes and Catherine began taking lessons.

“It was most amazing,” Catherine says. “A lesson with Yuri meant I would schlep on the train to catch a bus and walk to his apartment, come up to the third floor, he or his wife would make Turkish coffee, there would be some sitting around and smoking cigarettes, then we’d start working and somebody would bang on the door and everything would stop while he greeted the visitor. A lesson would take three hours.” Yuri’s visitors were often shocked to see an American play Bulgarian music and a woman playing clarinet.

Catherine Foster and Yuri Yunakov, Ramblewood, 1995.

Catherine Foster and Yuri Yunakov, Ramblewood, 1995. (Margaret Loomis)

“He is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had and he was very generous with me,” Catherine adds, pointing out that Yuri significantly cut his charges so that Catherine could continue studying with him after the scholarship money ran out.

“He gave me access to how to style this music that I had not had until that point,” she says. “I’ve rarely had the opportunity to work with someone over an extended period like that.”

In 1999, Catherine was invited to participate, along with Yuri, Neshko Neshev on accordion, Salif Ali on drums, Lauren Brody on keyboard and Carol Silverman on vocals, in the World Music Institute’s Gypsy Caravan national tour. The show also included five other ensembles, groups from Russia, Hungary, Romania, Spain and Rajasthan.

“Playing with Yuri was both incredibly amazing and wonderful and at times frustrating and humiliating,” she says. “I was not a musician of that caliber, and it was hard to stand up on stage next to a giant like that and play.”

Leader of the Band

Catherine and Lefteris Bournias [VERIFY] performing at Balkan camp in the Kavala ensemble.

Catherine and Lefteris Bournias performing at Balkan camp with Kavala. (Margaret Loomis)

Besides performing with Zlatne Uste, Catherine performs with the Kavala Brass Band, made up of some members and alumni of Zlatne Uste and guests, focusing on Greek Macedonian brass repertoire. In that group she plays clarinet except when Lefteris Bournias joins; on those occasions she plays saxophone. Four members of Kavala, including Catherine, play biannually at the Obersteinbach dance camp in Germany, which features Balkan dance primarily.


Catherine Foster Brass Band at Golden Festival, 2014. (Reuben Radding)

And then there’s the all-women Catherine Foster Brass Band, which had its debut at the 2014 Golden Festival and plays mostly South Serbian Romani repertoire. Unlike Zlatne Uste, in which most of the members are older and came out of the folk dance scene, the new ensemble’s members are relatively younger and trained musicians. Starting a band from the ground up is quite different from joining an existing band, or pulling together a band of people who already know and play this music, Catherine notes.

“It’s a lot more work and a different kind of work than being in ZU,” she says. “Being the leader of the band, and having members who aren’t necessarily familiar with this tradition, I need to learn ways to help them. I played the tenor horn at camp this summer to help me better understand that section. I loved feeling that end of the band’s energy. I’m a very melody-driven person—I have melodies in my head all the time—but the vertical structure of the music does not come as naturally to me. I’m looking forward to working with this band as it grows and develops; I see it being a few years before it really gels.

“The all-women aspect of this band is particularly important to me,” she adds. “It’s a serious statement. There are so very few women musicians in the Balkans. There are singers, but hardly any instrumentalists. Sometimes girls play, but as soon as they marry, that’s the end of that. Playing the music of someone else’s culture has always been complicated for me. I try to always be respectful of musical form and culture. I don’t feel I can just shout from the outside that women should be allowed to play instruments. But I can be a model. Among my goals is to play with this band in Serbia and Macedonia and just do what we do and be seen and heard.”

Life in the City

Throughout her years in New York, Catherine has worked at various day jobs, including a brief stint teaching driving in Manhattan and later doing office work for that company. These days she works in the publishing industry for a small company that makes indexes for books. She recently switched from full time to part time there, which is financially difficult but gives her more time for music.

“It’s hard to practice in an apartment,” Catherine says. “I practice in the closet in the back room, and I try not to do it past 9:00 at night. I don’t practice nearly enough, and it’s a big problem finding rehearsal space in New York, although two of my new band’s members have very accommodating households.”

In 2012, Catherine married her longtime partner Ethel Raim, Artistic Director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance and founder/director of the all-women’s vocal ensemble The Pennywhistlers, one of the first American groups to sing Balkan music. They live in Greenwich Village and occasionally perform singing concerts together.

Teaching at the Workshops

Teaching clarinet on a porch at East Coast camp.

Teaching clarinet on a porch at East Coast camp. (Margaret Loomis)

“I love teaching at Balkan camp,” Catherine says. “Teaching makes me focus in a different way on the music and how I play it and how it happens. I find it very focusing to have to think about ways of teaching, and it’s always interesting because everybody has a different way of learning. I love being a camper and I love being a teacher.”

One challenge she faces at camp, as do the other staff members, is the different levels of students who come to study—a mix of beginning and experienced musicians, amateurs and professionals.

“I love seeing all the young people there,” she says. “Sarah [Ferholt]’s young people’s band is amazing. I find the camps to be wonderful and nurturing places for both younger and older musicians.”

Mark Forry


Mark Forry

Likely to be spotted with mouth open wide, leading a tamburica ensemble and often knowing more lyrics than anyone else in the room, Mark Forry has been involved in Balkan camps since the 1975 Sweet’s Mill camp (a precursor to the EEFC camps). Since 1981, he has frequently taught at the EEFC’s Mendocino or East Coast workshops, usually teaching singing or tamburica ensemble and leading group sings.

Mark Forry remembers his first taste of the Slavic music that would become such a beacon in his life. It was in the summer of 1974, when he was completing his studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where he had a dual major in music (bassoon and piano) and dance (mostly modern).

“One of my college roommates came back from the Center for World Music in Berkeley saying, ‘We just learned this great music!’” Mark remembers. The scheduled Turkish musicians for the workshop hadn’t gotten their visas and instead two students, Mark Levy and Lauren Brody, volunteered to teach Bulgarian music. His roommate played a record she’d heard there (the first Nonesuch Music of Bulgaria) and another of Mark’s roommates said, “I used to dance to that music at my Jewish summer camp.”

Mark liked the idea of “this cool music that you could dance to.” He started going folk dancing in Santa Cruz.

“What got me about the music were the rhythms and scales,” Mark says. As a music student he already loved Stravinsky and Central European composers such as Bartók and Janáček. Now he was drawn to the rhythms and harmonization of Bulgarian music as well. He even got to experiment with a village instrument when David Kilpatrick, a newly hired UCSC ethnomusicologist who had spent time in Greece, loaned him a zurna.

Music Done by Everybody

Playing brac at Mendocino in the 1980s.

Playing brač at Mendocino in the 1980s.

For two different blocks of time, once before graduating from UCSC and once after, Mark went to Cleveland, originally to study modern dance and bassoon. He went folk dancing there and soon met Walt Mahovlich and began playing kaval and tapan for Macedonian gigs with him. Also through Walt, Mark started dancing with the Croatian group Slava. At one concert, Slava was performing a Croatian suite and the tamburica group’s bass player didn’t show up. Mark not only figured out how to play the bass parts that afternoon but also learned his first two tamburica songs: “Sliku tvoju ljubim” and “Osman Aga.”

When Ethel Raim came to Cleveland and Mark attended a workshop she gave on Balkan singing, Mark says, “I discovered that I had a big voice.” In addition, he says, one of his modern dance teachers insisted that her students do vocalizations with their exercises, which helped him free his natural voice.

“The more I got into it,” he says, “I was just thrilled by the idea of community music, music done by everybody.”

Mark had grown up in a close, Anglo-American community in the East Bay (San Francisco Bay Area). People liked and respected music—Mark’s parents certainly loved music and supported him in his classical music pursuits—but music was in a different category from everyday life. It was not a central part of weddings, parties and other important events.

But for Mark, it was already becoming more important. A student of classical music, he also played guitar in rock-and-roll garage bands and “sit around the campfire” settings.

Music: Essential to Who We Are

“Growing up near San Francisco in the ’60s,” he says, “music was really important to who we were and our culture. I was thrilled to find with the Croatians, Serbians, Macedonians, Hungarians and Slovenians I met in Cleveland, music wasn’t just an ‘oh, by the way’ kind of thing. It was essential to who they were and how they made community and bonded with each other. As a musician, I was charmed and thrilled by that.”

He also loved the variety of ethnic experience he encountered in Cleveland. In the Bay Area, the ethnic areas he had known had been Asian and African American. In Cleveland he found a myriad of ethnic neighborhoods—Slovenian, Croatian, Hungarian, Romanian and more—each one with its own music and dance groups, social halls and picnics.

While in Cleveland, Mark became captivated by the idea of pursuing ethnomusicology. After two winters in Cleveland, he moved back to California with the intention of starting grad school at the University of California-Los Angeles.

But before moving to L.A., he lived for about a year in Berkeley, where he sang with the Balkan chorus Danica, played Bulgarian and Macedonian music with Stewart Mennin, and played Croatian music with Frank Dubinskas. He also heard his first Georgian singing, another flavor that would become a lifelong interest.


With Aman in the late ’70s.

Once in L.A. and studying ethnomusicology, Mark continued his involvement with international folk dancing and Balkan music. He started playing in the UCLA Balkan Music Ensemble led by Jane Sugarman and Mark Levy. (He also performed in the Korean and Persian ensembles, playing kayageum and tar, respectively.) He got to know Michael Alpert and the musicians of the group Pitu Guli, organized by Mark Levy, which rehearsed weekly and served as staff at the early Balkan camps. He started taking Yugoslav dance classes with Elsie Dunin, who also involved him with her research projects and encouraged his interest in Croatian and Serbian cultural life in L.A.

Soon he was playing and singing in the folk dance performing ensemble Aman as well as the short-lived ensemble El Conjunto Strandzhansko, later dubbed Meden Glas (Honey Voice; Michelle Breger, Cindy Burton, Bill Cope, and Mark, occasionally with Ed Leddel; Bulgarian music). He also played bass with the Tisza River Valley Boys (Miamon Miller, Don Sparks, Jim Knight and Mark, with Deanne Hendricks singing; music from Serbia, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia). Mark started getting serious about tamburica music—more on that below. And he started attending Balkan camp in Mendocino.

Early Mendocino Camps


Playing accordion at Mendocino in the 1980s as Nestor Georgievski sings.

“It was a rich time,” he says, referring to the first Mendocino camps. “We were all young. Those times in your life are cemented in your memory forever—discovering other people crazy about the same beautiful obscure music that you were, and finding each other in this beautiful place in the redwoods.”

There was also a countercultural aspect to this fascination, he says, especially at the beginning.

“All that I had hoped for, all the promise of the Counterculture and the Revolution, returning to a set of values, it was offered to us in some way. There was the hope that we’ve arrived in this beautiful, magical place; by gosh, we’re going to live here the rest of our lives! One of our friends, I think it was Michael Alpert, used to say that going to Mendocino is like going to Brigadoon: it’s a magical place that materializes once a year and then it’s gone. But the hope for me and maybe for others was that it wasn’t just once a year. This was our reality. There was something really hopeful and positive about it.”

Mendocino '78 kaval class

Mendocino ’78 kaval class.

Over the years Mark’s teaching at the workshops has included singing, in which he has presented, at different times, songs from Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and even Hungary; Dalmatian klapa singing; and tamburica ensemble. He also taught beginning Bulgarian kaval in the days before teachers from Bulgaria came to camp.

Deeper into Tamburica Music

To complement his ethnomusicology studies, Mark started studying Serbo-Croatian and Hungarian. In 1978 he got a language study grant to attend a Slavists’ gathering in Belgrade—a three-week language and literature seminar with teaching and cultural activities. He took the opportunity to travel around Yugoslavia, attending a session of the Badija summer folklore school in Croatia and taking buses and trains around the country, looking for musicians of various sorts and buying “piles and piles of LPs.”

Back in L.A., Mark worked as both a teaching assistant and a research assistant in the ethnomusicology archive at UCLA where, among other things, he was able to find amazing resources for Georgian music. “At the time, it was next to impossible for Americans to get to Georgia,” he says.

KT-2014_fall_mf_subPhoto3He also started spending more and more time in the Serbian and Croatian communities in the area. St. Steven’s Serbian Orthodox Church had a tamburica orchestra led by Nikola Bakajin and Dragutin Mijatović, accomplished tambura players from Vojvodina, with whom Mark started studying tambura more seriously. (By the way, in Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian, the word “tambura” is the generic name for the instruments in a tamburica orchestra; in Bulgarian and Macedonian, “tambura” generally refers to the long-necked lute used in those countries. Throughout this article, the term is used with the former meaning.) In the Aman Ensemble’s tamburica band, which was directed by Chris Yeseta, Mark learned even more technique and repertoire. His connection with Yeseta, one of four musician brothers, eventually led to the opportunity to play in the big tamburica ensemble “Croatia” at St. Anthony’s Croatian Catholic Church and, later, with the smaller Yeseta Brothers Orchestra, with whom Mark still plays when he’s in town.

Experiences like these gave Mark fodder for his master’s thesis on tambura music in the U.S.: The Bećar Music of Yugoslav-Americans (1982). By this time he was teaching singing in settings as diverse as ethnomusicology conferences, a cappella festivals and folk dance camps.

In 1983-84 Mark embarked on a 15-month fieldwork project in Yugoslavia, focusing on tambura music in Vojvodina. That fieldwork eventually gave rise to his Ph.D. dissertation, The Mediation of “Tradition” and “Culture” in the Tamburica Music of Vojvodina (Yugoslavia) (1990).

Moving Back North

In 1988 Mark moved back to Santa Cruz, where he worked in various jobs, including serving as a research assistant for Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead drummer) and as arts administrator for Tandy Beal and Company (an internationally known dance company; Tandy Beal has attended the EEFC workshops). Mark was focusing on finishing his dissertation, but also found time to play kaval and record with the Santa Cruz-based, all-female-until-he-came-along Balkan band Medna Usta.

Mark and Esma Redžepova at East Coast Camp, [YEAR??]

Mark and Esma Redžepova at East Coast camp, 1998.

A Fulbright post-doc took him to Yugoslavia again in 1990. This time he lived in Zagreb and focused on tambura in Croatia, but kept in touch with friends and colleagues in Vojvodina. Upon his return, not finding an academic job, he signed up for temporary work doing data entry and ended up working for a UNIX company on a technical publications project. He has worked for technology companies ever since.

In the 2000s Mark continued to play with the Yeseta Brothers in Southern California and performed with his own ensemble, Zapadne Lole (later Mark Forry and Friends), in Northern California, while continuing to teach at camps, workshops and festivals. He taught for Village Harmony camps, a teen touring camp in the U.S. and two adult camps, one in the U.S. and one in Bosnia. The experience revived his interest in Georgian music and he started studying the language, ran a “self-help Georgian singing group” in Santa Cruz, and traveled to Georgia in 2008.

Photographer Joseph L. Kroupa

In 2011 Mark was inducted into the Tamburitza Association of America Hall of Fame. (Joseph L. Kroupa)

In 2011 he was inducted into the Tamburitza Association of America Hall of Fame, and his translated dissertation was published in Novi Sad (Serbia).

In Hungary

Mark is now living in Baja, Hungary, 30 kilometers from the Serbian border. He lives with Zsuzsa Farkas, whom he met in Novi Sad in 1983.

“My job is portable; I am still employed in Silicon Valley,” he says. “Zsuzsa is an arts teacher here.” Mark lives in Hungary most of the year and goes to California for work and to catch up with family and friends four times per year.

“I live in southern Hungary, where there are a lot of South Slavs, mostly Bunjevci, some other Croatians and a smaller number of Serbians,” he says. “There’s a tradition of tambura music in Hungary that goes back quite a ways.” He sits in occasionally with a couple of Bunjevac groups locally.

Photo: John Daly

(Photo: John Daly)

“It is nice to see, after all that happened during the war, especially in Eastern Croatia and Slavonia, that there remains a lot of contact between musicians. There’s a big festival in Novi Sad that I’ve been involved with and it’s good to see that there’s Croatian representation there. That festival features many small ensembles, kafana or wedding bands, working musicians who play for parties, and also people looking to preserve local traditions, such as Serbs from Romania or Austria or Montenegro. And there is music being written for large tambura orchestras, not only in Croatia but for the Croatian and Serbian communities in surrounding countries—Austria and Hungary and Romania and elsewhere.”

Thoughts About the EEFC Workshops


Playing saz at the 2010 Mendocino workshop with Jesse Manno, James Hoskins, Bob Beer and a host of frame-drum players. (Barbara Saxton)

One significant change Mark has seen in the workshops pertains to men’s singing. “In the late ’70s and early ’80s, we had all these great women teaching that phenomenal women’s repertoire at camp,” he says. “But at the time, nobody was really teaching the men singing. Michael Alpert came occasionally and Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocalist for the Klezmatics) came one year. But now, he says, with Dragi Spasovski, John Morovich, Christos Govetas, Ljuba Živkov and others, “it’s phenomenal for men who want to sing.

“I think the EEFC is going in a great direction,” he adds. “It’s really exciting to see more and more younger people involved. I feel like we really got past what has been a stumbling block for a lot of cultural organizations: how do you take the vision and passion of our founders and turn it into something sustainable? That’s a real credit to Mark [Levy] and Carol [Silverman] , and to everybody else who’s stepped up in the meantime.

“All those things we enjoyed when we were in our 20s—now there have been two subsequent generations of people in their 20s coming to camps. There’s a strong desire on the part of everybody involved to keep it viable.”

Marlis Kraft-Zemel

Marlis Kraft-Zemel

Marlis Kraft-Zemel

In 1983, Swiss-born musician Marlis Kraft-Zemel and her two sisters were touring in the U.S. with an international folk music group and wondering if they would get beyond the waiting list for the first-ever East Coast Balkan Music and Dance Workshop. When two spots opened up two days before camp started, Marlis and her sister Cornelia grabbed them. The camp experience was life-changing for both. Marlis, who now lives in the States, has returned to camp every year since and has run the children’s program since the early 1990s.

Marlis was born in Basel and grew up in Winterthur, in northern Switzerland, the second of five children. Her parents came from varied backgrounds; the kids spoke German with their dad and English with their mom. (The parents spoke French when the children were not supposed to understand it.) The kids quickly grew to be trilingual.

There were always people in and out of the house, visiting from other places, and there was always singing in the family. Marlis started playing guitar at age 10. She and her two sisters sometimes went folk dancing and Marlis was intrigued by the beautiful songs they danced to.

“I remember the day when I went into a record store in Zurich and went into the international folk music section,” she says. “I was probably 17 or 18. Somehow I put my hands on a Pennywhistlers record and they put it on for me” (in those days a record store would open a record and allow you to listen to it before buying) “and I was totally mesmerized.” Later, she would meet Ethel Raim, director of the Pennywhistlers, at Balkan camp.

Marlis attended a teacher training college in Zurich and earned an undergraduate degree in primary education, with a minor in guitar. Then she made the decision to pursue a program at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., called Expressive Therapies, which combined music, drama and art in what was considered a “very edgy program.”

While in graduate school, she was accepted into the Balkan music group Evo Nas (with Henry Goldberg and David Bilides, among others). After returning to Switzerland, she and her sisters started singing together more regularly, including Balkan music. One of her sisters had been to Israel and done international folk dancing there. They named their group Šarena Duga, which means “colorful rainbow” in Croatian. A few years later, some of their American cousins invited them to perform a three-week concert tour in the States. And that’s what they were doing on that fateful day when Marlis learned she could attend the workshop.

Forming Lifelong Connections


Iroquois Springs

“No sleep and boundless energy,” she says, describing the early Balkan camps. “So much fun. We were fed by dancing, the music and the camaraderie. It was magical.”

At the first camp, held at Ashokan in the Catskill Mountains, Marlis met Alan Zemel and his son, Mark. Alan was Marlis’ tambura teacher. (See Kef Times, Spring 2011, for a profile on Alan.) Alan and Marlis would eventually marry and have a daughter, Miriam; they divorced in 2006.

“My sister and I had to come back the next year,” Marlis says. “We both made lifelong connections at that camp.” Marlis’ sister Cornelia connected with Souren Baronian, on staff teaching doumbek, and they later formed the group Transition with Haig Manoukian.

“I was absolutely intrigued to meet Yianni Roussos with his hand-crafted santouri,” says Marlis, who had heard a santouri player in Greece. Roussos, who would later become a frequent member of the teaching staff, wasn’t teaching that year but was there to support the Greek musicians. “I had been trying to play some Greek tunes on my Swiss hammered dulcimer but it didn’t quite work.” Thus began a lifelong love of santouri; Marlis regularly played with Roussos for a couple of years at a Philadelphia restaurant and still sits in sometimes.

Children’s Program at the Workshops

Marlis and kids performing at the student concert, Iroquois Springs

Marlis and kids performing at the student concert, Iroquois Springs

In the early years, bringing children to Balkan camp was controversial. Those who did bring kids had to arrange for childcare, and there was no children’s programming. See “Kids at Camp” from the Fall 2007 Kef Times.

Alan’s son, Mark, was the first and only kid at that first camp, and Marlis and Alan were proponents of bringing kids to camp; many community members were adamantly against the idea, Marlis says. But gradually more and more people had kids they wanted to bring and expose to the scene, and about 20 years ago Marlis offered the first children’s program. Shortly thereafter it became a regular part of the program and an official staff position. Eventually she applied for an assistant, which is now a continuing work-exchange position.

Marlis was a natural for this work. Besides her educational background in primary education, her day job for many years was teaching music at Oak Lane Day School in Philadelphia; she was also program director for Oak Lane’s summer camp. Over the years she has also worked with children on oral history and drama productions at KlezKamps. These days she teaches part-time at the Community Partnership School and offers private lessons to adults and children on guitar (classical and folk), recorder and ukulele.

Iroquois Springs

Iroquois Springs

She is keen on exposing children to different kinds of music, rhythms and scales. At Balkan camp, where her students range widely in age and interest, she generally includes singing, storytelling, oral history, instrumental music, dancing, drama and/or puppetry, and crafts. Plus treasure hunts, hooping and trips to the pond. As much as possible she involves other program staff to work with the kids, to teach a dance or demonstrate an instrument. She likes to change the focus each year: one year on a particular country, another year on a dramatic production of a Balkan story.

“Last year, because it was the 30th year [of the East Coast workshop], every day we interviewed one of the old-time members of the staff, for the kids to find out what Balkan camp was like earlier, and also for them to learn how to interview,” she says. “The children interviewed teachers, including Steve Kotansky, Carol Silverman and Jerry Kisslinger, and also David [Bergman] and Bob [Nowak] from the kitchen. Every day we had a surprise guest. It was really fun.”

Marlis’ longtime wish to expand the opportunities for children and teens at the East Coast camp came true when EEFC asked Sarah Ferholt, a music teacher and member of Zlatne Uste and Veveritse Brass Bands to start the official youth band, Čoček Nation.

Current Projects

Marlis is excited about a teacher’s training week she will attend this spring offered by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, an organization dedicated to presenting and teaching Arab culture through the arts and language. The program includes singing, percussion, instrumental music and cultural talks.

“It’s very intense and full, with top-quality people,” she says, citing the influence of Arabic culture on the Balkans via the Ottoman Empire. “I will probably take some of what I learn for the children’s program at Balkan camp this year.”

“A place where you can be the person you are at the center”

“Balkan camp has now been a part of my life longer than the years without,” Marlis says. “I have been to every single [East Coast] camp, and it has deeply influenced my life and my teaching. The incredible variety of people there, the crazy moments at camp—suddenly all of ZU is naked in the pool. Or Esma pulling the whole group like a magnet. Silly moments, people playing pranks, staying up to the wee hours, talking about God knows what, playing and singing.

“Balkan camp is a place where you can be the person you are at the center—the kid in ourselves,” she continues. “In the professional world we often have to put on a certain role. At Balkan camp the façade falls and we are who we are. Also it’s an opportunity for kids to see that grownups can be silly; some kids don’t get to see that.”

Marlis and Miriam with Esma Redžepova, Ramblewood 1997

Marlis and Miriam with Esma Redžepova, Ramblewood, 1997

That thought echoes a 2009 EEFC fundraising letter, in which Marlis’ daughter Miriam, then a senior in high school, wrote: “. . . for one week I’m given the chance to see my parents as people, real people. I’m knee-deep in the time of my life where all I want to do is break away from my parents’ restrictions and their forced guidance. For one week I view my father as the musician and social butterfly I know he is. For one week I view my mom as the kids’ music teaching genius she is . . . Balkan camp offers a week to reconnect with the music and the EEFC community, but most of all, your family.”

Moreover, the Balkan camp community is “incredibly supportive,” carrying families through tough times and sharing each other’s life celebrations, Marlis adds.

“I think my longevity with EEFC has really aided the program,” Marlis says. “Because I know so many of the staff that they will happily come and share their talents. And with kids, a certain continuity is very helpful. When I finally pass along the baton, I know somebody else will do their own thing, and that’s fine, but I hope the transition will be gradual. I think this is a really, really important program for retaining young families and for the future of Balkan camp.”

Photos: Margaret Loomis.