Monday 4 April 2016

Kukeri in Karlovo, Bulgaria: dances for health, happiness and to scare the bad spirits (Старчовден)

Three weeks ago, on 13 of March 2016 (40 days before the Bulgarian Orthodox Easter for this year) I was lucky to attend and watch the dances on the so called Starchovden (Старчовден), the day of the dancing men. The event consists of different local groups of "kukeri" (кукери) performing their dance for scaring evil spirits away and the cold weather and ensuring a good harvest and good health, while also welcoming the coming spring.

Why has this event been on my to-see-list for almost 10 years? Kukeri are costumed Bulgarian men, always with masks, furry clothing and big bells attached to their belt. Some are representing animals, while others are specific figures (the mayor or simply the village people). When they move the bells make sounds, which defers depending on the size of the bell. In the town of Karlovo and the surrounding villages the word kukeri is not used, but the performers are called "starzi" (старци), old men in Bulgarian. In the last years women have also been allowed to join these groups and to perform, given the fact they have shown enough endurance to dance with the big bells.The masks were often done from wood, nowadays a lot of them are from tissue. They are decorated and covered with lots of different things, such as tiny pieces of tissues, glittery pearls and buttons, anything shiny and catching attention. Some masks have two sides (one side with sweet-nature face, while the other has vicious look), representing the bad and the good in one. The colour red is dominating in the masks and clothing, being symbol of the fruitfulness in nature and fertility of the ground for the next seasons.

As per Wikipedia the custom is generally thought to be related to the Thracian Dionysos cult in the wider area of Thracia. The idea behind was starting the new harvest year fresh and with good energy/ free of bad spirits. Similar rituals can be also found in Greece, Romania, Macedonia and parts of Turkey. Similar tradition and dances are performed even in Sardinia, Italy.

Soak into the colourful atmosphere and these old Bulgarian/ Balkan traditions and let the spring and summer arrive soon!