Who knew Bulgarian folk music could draw a crowd in St. Paul? But, as with every performance in the Minnesota History Center’s 9 Nights of Music—a free, live outdoor music series—that I’ve been to over the years, the courtyard was packed for last night’s performance. Not surprising when you consider the setting: the skyline of downtown on one side, the cathedral lit up by the setting sun on the other.
Traki, a five-person ensemble, performed a dozen or so Bulgarian folk songs, each punctuated by the high notes of the gaida, an instrument that resembles a small bagpipe and produces a sound not unlike the trills of a snake charmer. The rest of the instruments are equally unfamiliar to those with only a passing acquaintance with music from the Balkans: the violinlike gadulka, the tambura, which looks like a mandolin with a long neck, and the tuppan. Mesmerizing is a good word to describe the collective effect of instruments and vocals.
History Center performances aren’t just entertaining, though. They offer mini lessons in culture. Each performance—whether tango or Cajun or French musette—includes dance instruction, which produces some rather amusing scenes. It’s not every day that you see a middle-aged Midwesterner in shorts, white sneakers, and visor dancing a Bulgarian pavo or rachenitsa.
Still, something about people dancing, hand-in-hand, in a circle transcends the thin veil of modernity. The music and dancing bring a sense of cohesiveness and wholeness to an otherwise highly diverse crowd: the woman in the crocs and long braid hand-in-hand with the hipster in oversized glasses. And that, I suspect, is what really keeps people coming back.
For the complete lineup of upcoming Tuesday-night performances at the Minnesota History Center, visit mnhs.org.