June 19, 2019 | 68° F

NJ Folk Festival delivers taste of Bulgarian culture


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Photo by Jovelle Tamayo |

Bulgarian Ambassador Elena Poptodorova meets with University President Richard L. McCormick.


A class continued a 38-year-old University tradition this Saturday by bringing a little bit of Bulgarian culture to New Brunswick at the N.J. Folk Festival.

Held on the Wood Lawn in front of the Eagleton Institute of Politics on Douglass campus, the festival brought in around 10,000 to 15,000 attendees — including Bulgarian Ambassador Elena Poptodorova, said School of Arts and Sciences senior Matt Hueston, an event coordinator.

President Richard L. McCormick appeared on the main Skylands Stage to present a certificate of appreciation to the dignitary, who thanked McCormick and the attendees for hosting the festival and celebrating the small southeastern European nation.

“This is my first day at Rutgers, and I think I’m gaining more knowledge already,” Poptodorova said.

She compared Bulgarian and American higher education.

“We have a population of about 7.5 million, and we try to invest in education as much as we can, and we make sure we train skillful young people,” Poptodorova said. “Here in America, given the large population, you have a large selection for more. Here alone at Rutgers, you can have so many excellent students — in Bulgaria it’s a smaller pool, so we have to make sure they are the best.”

Hueston said it was a big surprise that the Bulgarian counsel was able to attend the event.

“[Dignitaries] are usually very busy and don’t get a chance to come,” he said.

The main stage also featured a variety of traditional Bulgarian folk acts — from bands to dance troupes.

New York City-based, all-female dance group Bosilek, the Bulgarian Folk Dance Ensemble — “Sweet Basil” in Bulgarian — performed several traditional dances from different parts of Bulgaria for the crowd.

The dancers — most of who were from Bulgaria — were dressed in traditional garb including white peasant blouses, yellow scarves, plaid jumpers and gold coin necklaces, a design from the Bulgarian region of Thrace.

Artistic Director Cathie Springer, a non-Bulgarian with a love of Bulgarian culture and dance, helped start the group more than 30 years ago, which has performed around the nation.

Mariya Vasileva, who moved to the United States from Bulgaria several years ago, works in finance but enjoys dancing on the side.

“[Through dance,] you express yourself. … It also connects me back to my roots,” she said.

There also were about 80 craft vendors and 20 food vendors lining the festival. All the vendors are juried, which ensures that the crafts are all handmade authentically, Hueston said.

But there were no Bulgarian food vendors.

Judy Jaffe, a jewelry merchant who makes her creations from recycled watches, sold her designs at the festival for the second time this year.

“I don’t like taking watches apart, but I like very much creating different things out of them,” she said.

Jaffe, who has been making jewelry for 20 years, gets the parts for her designs through networking — her friends or connections often help her find pieces when they hear of what she does.

But not all the tents featured crafters or food.

Nadezhda Savova, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology and a research fellow at Princeton University, discussed her organization, the International Council for Cultural Centers and Bread House Network, at the heritage tent.

The group, which started in Bulgaria but has worked in Jerusalem with Israelis and Palestinians, aims to ease cultural tensions, foster cooperation and spur interreligious dialogue through a unique method — bread-making.

“The mission of this organization is to inspire people to make their own bread, because it acts as a community-building event,” said Savova, a Bulgarian native.

Their tent had some of their bread out to sample with oil or honey.

“It’s a powerful method of community building. It’s very psychological. … We like to say, ‘you make it, you bake it, then you break it,’” Savova said.

N.J. Folk Festival Board of Trustees member Bill Selden, who studied Bulgarian folk music extensively in Bulgaria and plays two Bulgarian folk instruments, came up with this year’s theme, Hueston said. The board provides support and financial guidance, as well as helps select each year’s theme.

Hueston became one of 15 student coordinators through the class, “Folk Festival Management,” run annually by Festival Director Angus Gillespie, a professor in the Department of American Studies.

The festival is entirely student-run through this class, which meets once a week for three-hour sessions, he said.

The students run all aspects of the festival, including managing five performance stages — Hueston ran the Pinelands Stage — craft vendors, food vendors and media relations, among others.

Hueston, who was the financial coordinator for the festival last year, said the class is a great experience, and all of the students get to know each other well.

It also provides a lot of real-world experiences and skill development — from managing performers to communicating effectively to working with a $50,000 budget.

“It’s like an internship as well as a class,” Hueston said.

Brady Root, a University graduate student, visited the festival with her sister, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore Lindsay Root, and parents. The family particularly enjoyed the folk music.

“The instruments are different, and to me music is multicultural,” Rebecca Root, Brady’s mother said. “It tells a story.”


By Aleksi Tzatzev and Mary Diduch

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