Video by Jessica Leibowitz
This weekend over 3,000 New Yorkers convened in South Slope’s palatial Grand Prospect Hall to dance in circles, munch on grape leaves, and tipple fruit brandy.
It was the 31st installment of the annual Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, a jubilee of Balkan music featuring brass bands, choral groups, string ensembles and gypsy jazz performers drawing inspiration from the musical traditions of Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Turkey and Romania.
On five stages, from a church-like atrium to a chamber adorned with aristocratic paintings to a basement whose tiered chandeliers shook perilously as the dancers stomped, 65 groups, including Balkan scene stalwarts Slavic Soul Party!, Raya Brass Band and the event’s namesake, the Zlatne Uste brass band, played to approving crowds.
In the words of event co-founder Drew Harris, Balkan music is distinctive for its “odd-metered rhythms; scales with a Middle Eastern or Indian lilt to them; and, in brass groups, harmony in thirds, which you might associate with Mexican or mariachi music. So if you put all those things in a blender and turn them on, you get this wonderful music.”
The festival has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a Varick Street loft, where in 1985, 250 attendees watched five bands perform. After many years at the Good Shepherd Church in Inwood, the event moved to Brooklyn in 2011.
Matt Smith, a member of Zlatne Uste and the festival treasurer, notes that, “There is a community of people from the Balkans who live in New York City, in the outer boroughs, who are interested in this music. Clubs like Barbès and Jalopy and Freddy’s and DROM in Manhattan have regular Balkan nights."
Smith recalled the first time the event sold out.
"We were really nervous about it. We thought, ‘Are we going to have to turn people away? We can make them wait until other people leave, but are they going to get angry?’ But they neatly lined up and they waited. The Yale Slavic Chorus heard about them and went outside and sang for the crowd waiting in line. The crowd was really into it. And eventually, everyone got in.”
As the event has grown, its audience has evolved as well.
“About 15 years ago, bands started forming who were doing more crossover, blending in some hip hop or Dixieland or second line kind of riffs," Harris says. "They are bringing in a young, energetic audience who is interested in the authentic music and feeling this crossover of Balkan to hip hop or club music.”
The crowd, like the music, is eclectic. Many attendees sport flower crowns and traditional dress, but dreadlocks and steampunk outfits are visible as well. Grandmas dance alongside twenty-somethings and tweens, and immigrants steeped in folk dancing tradition teach steps to those new to the scene.
“They come to have a great time, they come to share with other people and it’s always so open and friendly," festival program director Michael Ginsberg says. "It’s a really wonderful place to be."