Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros

Bulgaria and Portugal: The Judith Cohen Collection

Judith Cohen: Bulgaria Gergina and Trojan JCohen2006 #1

Judith Cohen | Judith Cohen: Bulgaria Gergina and Trojan JCohen2006 #1 | photography | Bulgaria | 2006 | dan_00200 Rights held by: Judith Cohen | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Judith Cohen – Private Archive


The Judith Cohen Collection includes photographs and texts that offer insights into Roma from Portugal – in particular, the Belmonte region – and Bulgaria. While Cohen is not Romani herself, she has worked, lived and collaborated with Roma from various parts of the world and respectfully shares her experiences with a specific Romani community and family. This collection is important as it demonstrates how flamenco – traditionally a Spanish Romani dance – has found its way to neighbouring countries. In addition, Cohen’s images from Bulgaria feature a famous Romani family from that country who sing and discuss a song titled Ushti Baba, Ushti.


Background Information

Portugal forms part of the Iberian Peninsula and is located to the west of Spain, which is its only land neighbour. Portugal’s colonial past, which stretches back more than half a millennium, has left traces of ethnic diversity. As Eric Solsten points out, inhabitants of the former colonies are to be found mainly in Lisbon and include Angolans, Mozambicans, São Tomans, Timorese, Goans and Macaoans (Solsten, 1993). Two other ethnic groups that are often overlooked but play an important role in the history of the country are the Portuguese ciganos and the Portuguese Jews. While these two communities are mutually exclusive, practice their own traditions and have different belief systems, they have lived side by side in parts of Portugal, in particular the Belmonte region, which is a focus of the Judith Cohen Collection.

According to data released by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI, external link) of the Council of Europe, there are 40,000–50,000 Roma living throughout the country. They are concentrated in Lisbon, Setúbal, Alentejo and Algarve; the largest Romani communities in Algarve seem to be in the Portimão, Loulé and Faro municipalities. The ECRI also reports that Portugal’s Roma face difficulties mainly in the areas of employment, housing, health and education. While this sizeable ethnic group has to deal with challenges on various social fronts, the community featured in the Judith Cohen Collection is well integrated and does not reflect the stereotypical image often associated with Romani families.

Dr Judith Cohen (external link) is a performer and ethnomusicologist specialising in Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) Sephardic songs, as well as medieval and traditional music (including Balkan, Portuguese, Yiddish and French Canadian), pan-European balladry and songs from Crypto-Jewish regions along the Portuguese-Spanish border.

She is also general editor of the Spain series of the Alan Lomax project, which is being carried out with the New-York based Association for Cultural Equity (external link). Besides editing and writing extensive liner notes for the series, she has located and interviewed almost all the men and women in Spanish villages whom Lomax recorded in 1952 and who are still alive today. Currently, she is working on an edition of his Spanish field diaries. She held the first Alan Lomax fellowship at the Library of Congress, which was endowed by that institution’s American Folklife Center and the John W. Kluge Foundation.

Cohen’s daughter, Tamar Ilana Cohen Adams (b. 1986), often performs with her. In her performances and lectures, Cohen draws on the fieldwork she has carried out in villages in several Mediterranean countries as well as in urban immigrant communities. It is through this fieldwork that she has met, lived with and worked alongside many Romani families throughout Europe. Particularly relevant to this collection is her work with Portuguese Roma – or, as she identifies them in her writings, ciganos – and Bulgarian Roma.

Flamenco in Belmonte

In preparing materials for the RomArchive, Cohen held numerous meetings with the editorial team to discuss the images and videos to be included as well as the accompanying texts. The Judith Cohen Collection comprises of six series of images of Romani families from Belmonte, Portugal and two articles. The first article, titled ‘From Spain to Bulgaria’, was written for the Folk Dancer magazine, published by the Ontario Folk Dance Association, and is seven pages long; it includes several images from her 2006 trip to Bulgaria and Portugal. The second article, ‘Music in the Lives of Judeus and Ciganos in a Portuguese Village: two adjacent and separate minorities’, was published in The Human World and Musical Diversity: Proceedings from the Fourth Meeting of the ICTM Study Group ‘Music and Minorities’ in Varna, Bulgaria 2006 within the framework of a conference organised by the ‘Music and Minorities’ study group of the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM, which has formal consultative relations with UNESCO).

This second article looks closely at the relationship between the Portuguese Jewish community and the Portuguese Roma community in the Belmonte region. According to Cohen, ‘the relationship between Gypsies and Jews in Spain and Portugal is entirely different from that in Eastern Europe where Jews and Roma did in fact have a long history of musical collaboration’ (Cohen, 2008, p. 135). She quotes a cigano from Guarda, near Belmonte remarking that while music and dance form a central part of cigano festivities, much of the music originates from elsewhere. Indeed, the images included in the Portuguese part of the collection highlight this: we see young girls taking part in a family celebration and many of them are dancing flamenco. Cohen also notes that young cigano girls would frequently watch flamenco on television and then do their own version of that dance.

Judith Cohen | Ciganas Belmonte: Judith, Tamar, and Carloina at the Guarda Market | photography | Portugal | 1997 | dan_00192 Licensed by: Judith Cohen | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Judith Cohen – Private Archive
Judith Cohen | Portugal Judith Cohen: Cigan Danca 8 Carina | photography | Portugal | 1997 | dan_00195 Rights held by: Judith Cohen | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Judith Cohen – Private Archive

The bulk of the Judith Cohen Collection comprises images of families whom Cohen personally knows and with whom she has spent considerable time over the past two decades. Many of the young girls in the images are now young women and serve as positive role models for their community.


Čoček: A Balkan Romani Dance

Eastern Europe has a large Romani community. According to Elena Marušiakova and Vesselin Popov, the arrival of Roma in Bulgaria dates back to the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, but there is speculation that they may have arrived as early as the ninth century. Marušiakova and Popov divide the community into three distinct groups that have many subgroups (not listed here but identified in Aleksandar Marinov’s 2016 doctoral thesis):

‘The metagroup community of settled Roma or Yerlia is the most numerous and varied one. These are the descendants of the first Gypsy migration wave, who speak different dialects of the Balkan group of Romanes. Significant parts of them settled in Balkan town or village mahalas [gypsy quarters] as early as the time of the Ottoman Empire. The community of Yerlia is divided into two main subdivisions – Dasikane Roma / ‘Bulgarian Gypsies’ (Christians) and Xoraxane Roma / ‘Turkish Gypsies’ (Muslims). [...] A second major and very distinct metagroup community among Bulgarian Gypsies is the one of Kaldarasha / Kardarasha, descendants from the third wave of migration. [...] A third major and distinct metagroup community is the one of Rudara (called Vlax [Wallachian] Gypsies or Vlaxs by the Bulgarians). The Thracean Kalaydzhia (Tinsmiths) have a very specific place between the two major metagroup societies (Yerlia and Kardarasha).’

Marušiakova and Popov, ‘The Bulgarian Gypsies’, 2000

This overview of Bulgarian Roma offers an insight into the waves of migration that have shaped the Romani community. Marinov (2016) writes that Roma in Bulgaria, like those throughout the world, often prefer to hide their ethnic identities for one or another reason, which is perhaps why music and dance serve as ‘hard copies’ (Whatley, 2014) of this layered and culturally diverse and rich past. Mary Ellen Snodgrass writes in the Encyclopedia of World Folk Dance that the Romani presence in Bulgaria fused a minority folk strand with the ethnic music of Sofia. Called chalga, this genre of music features hedonistic lyrics and interweaves the Greek and Byzantine cultural heritages:

'At Balkan banquets and weddings in the early nineteenth century, the čoček, a popular Croat-Serb chain dance for cross-dressing males, derived from Muslim Roma belly dance tradition and Ottoman military brass bands. Some historians trace the čoček’s pumping rhythm to the Vedic dances of 1700 BCE honoring Hindu gods. The original čoček linked community dance to Bulgarian healing rituals bringing rain and promoting fertility in herd animals.’

Snodgrass, 2016, p. 262

Miriam Peretz (2006) writes that many specialists think that the origins of many Roma dances are ritual and that in some way they serve as an everyday rendering of the sacred dances of Vedic India. A modern-day example can be found in Bulgaria, where female Romani dancers are sprinkled with water during a dance called the paparuda to encourage the rain to start.

The focus of the Portugal section of this article is the čoček, which is danced by Turkish and Balkan Roma. Carol Silverman (2012) states that the čočekcucek in Macedonia and Kosovo and kyuchek in Bulgaria – is the most characteristic Romani solo dance and can refer to the line dance.

In its solo form, it is improvised and features hand gestures, pelvis, abdomen and shoulder isolations as well as shoulder shakes. It also includes jumps, spins and intricate footwork. Both men and women tend to hold up their arms and use both shoulder isolations and finger snapping. Women also tend to make use of hip movements, albeit much subtler than those used in Middle Eastern dance. The male dance is especially energetic and dynamic, featuring jumps, squats, body slapping, stomping and other percussive body movements (Peretz, 2006).

In 1967 the dance ethnologist and choreographer Elsie Dunin travelled to Skopje, Macedonia and for decades she digitally documented Romani dances. She was able to track and follow the changes and deviations between ‘originals’ and what was later ‘staged’. In her field research, she noted that in the past, the solo dance had been performed only at private events:

‘The solo was danced only during private segregated occasions, such as part of the five-day wedding cycle, or a three-day cycle for the circumcision of a son, or at the naming of a newborn child. During the event, every female at the party was expected to rise up from her floor-seated position to dance a type of ‘belly-dance’ producing a vertical up-and-down movement of the abdomen (in Labanotation terms this is a somersaulting movement of the pelvis); the arms are moved in an improvised range at about shoulder level, with snapping fingers, while the feet are stepped in place to the rhythm of the music – usually in a 9/8 meter. The music accompaniment was by a hired Romani woman, who sang and held a tambourine in an upright position with her left hand, while tapping the skin with her right hand; more affluent families used a phonograph player for 45-rpm records of Turkish melodies in 9/8 meter.’

Dunin, 2006, p. 183

For her part, Silverman (2012) details how these Balkan dances are ‘consumed’ and ‘reproduced’ in modern-day contexts. She goes on to examine how communities internalise and, in some cases, appropriate both these dances and the music.

Bulgarian Romani music

Bulgarian Romani music displays a diversity of instrumentation, the most important instruments being the violin, the clarinet, the cobza (a type of lute), the accordion, the tambourine and the drums. Two of the individuals featured in the Judith Cohen Collection are Gergina Ilieva and Trojan Iliev, who wrote the book I Wish I Was a Gypsy, published by DiMax in 2013.

It is worth noting that Gergina and Trojan are the parents of Azis, the Bulgarian Romani pop singer whose original name is Vasil Trayanov Bojanov and who is known for his eccentric stage presence and pushing of gender boundaries. In her article for the Ontario Folk Dance Association article, From Spain to Bulgaria, Cohen relates how she met Trojan. The article is also part of the Judith Cohen Collection:

‘We know our friends there from Spain, where Trojan was playing virtuoso accordion in the main square of Madrid some years ago and I stopped to add some rhythms on a frame drum I had with me by chance. We did a couple of concerts together and stayed very good friends.’

(Cohen, 2006, p.6)

Belmonte, Portugal (2006): Trojan Bojanov Iliev, Tamar Cohen, Judith Cohen and Gergina Ilieva

Licensed by: Judith Cohen | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 Interantional | Provided by: Judith Cohen – Privat Archive

In the short video included in the Judith Cohen Collection, Cohen can be seen describing the song titled Ushti Baba, Ushti (‘Wake up, father, wake up’), which begins with the words ‘Haliamen Baba’ (‘The Drum is beating, father’). She mentions that Gergina wrote down the words for her in what she calls gitano and that Gergina's sister sang Ushti Baba, Ushti; later, Cohen sent them an MP3 recording so that they could transcribe the lyrics. Snodgrass, too, refers to this nuptial song and suggests that it shocked and offended religious communities. This may have been the experience of Snodgrass; but Gergina and Trojan are both religious and, according to Cohen, sing only in gitano or ‘todo por Dios’ (‘everything for God’). (Cohen, 2008)

Judith Cohen | Judith Cohen: Bulgaria Gergina and Trojan JCohen2006 #2 | photography | Bulgaria | 2006 | dan_00198 Rights held by: Judith Cohen | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Judith Cohen – Private Archive
Judith Cohen | Judith Cohen: Bulgaria Gergina and Trojan JCohen2006 #1 | photography | Bulgaria | 2006 | dan_00200 Rights held by: Judith Cohen | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Judith Cohen – Private Archive

To sum up, Cohen has spent decades supporting Romani communities as well as writing about, performing with and working closely with Roma. She shares anecdotes of sitting together with Romani families and of arriving in Belmonte, where the grandchildren of the matriarch, Dona Carolina, ran up to her on the street to tell her that their grandmother was waiting for her to go over for coffee ‘because you always say hers is the best in Portugal’. (Cohen, 2008) Cohen has extensive knowledge of the families with whom she has spent so much time. She cares for them and treasures her relationship with them.

Rights held by: Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros | Licensed by: Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC 3.0 Germany | Provided by: RomArchive