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This One Time, At Band Camp ...

A week in a forest with only instruments for entertainment, musicians at Balkan band camp get more than an earful.

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At Balkan band camp, musicians hang out in the forest for a week to play and dance to Balkan music. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

It’s in the complex rhythm, or the way a soloist’s notes cascade over one another, or the wall of sound from the brass. Whatever it is, it had the four of us traveling to the Mendocino Woodlands — a 10-hour, 480-mile trip with a winding, bouncing, grueling final stretch — to hang out in the forest for a week where our only job was to play, dance and sing Balkan music.

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Balkan music can be a little hard to explain sometimes. It’s the soulful Greek rebetiko, it’s the joyous Jewish klezmer, the irresistible Gypsy brass bands. It happened when the Ottoman Empire pushed its influence into southeast Europe in the 14th century and loosely knitted together the music traditions in the area, taking in everything from the Indian influence of the Roma gypsies to the military marches of the Ottoman janissaries.

With our basic needs met — food was provided, sleeping quarters assigned — and the distractions of TV, phone and Internet eliminated, all we could do was concentrate on the music. Instruments, especially the ones that could be practiced at home only if you had very understanding neighbors — the tupan, gaida and zurna, as well as tubas and snare drums — were played with abandon in the forest. Other instruments — the gudulka, kaval, tamburica and santouri, as well as trumpets, fluegelhorns, accordions and clarinets — were played from cabins, music echoing in the air as the rest of us hustled from one class to another.

When we weren’t working on our fingering, our scales, our embellishments or our rhythms, there was folk dance.

It looks simple: hand in hand, with arms linked, or shoulder to shoulder, the circle, or line, moves in unison to a set of steps determined by the music. Figuring out the steps is the trick. The goal is to have the two, three, 20 or 200 dancers moving in sync with one another and the music. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens.

No day of hard work and practice was complete without the evening festivities. They were as big as a concert performed by our teachers, skilled professional musicians who either grew up in the tradition or loved it enough to make it their second culture. They could be the more intimate performances in the kafana. They could be a bunch of people at a table singing around bottles of wine or ouzo. Drunk, our ears ringing and our feet sore, we all still managed to stumble our way through the darkness to our cabins, campers or tents. And we still managed to get up in the morning and do it all over again.

Why do we do it — travel thousands of miles, spend about $1,000 each for a week in the woods with dirt, bugs, no electricity and hills that have your thighs burning before you even reach breakfast? With something as niche as Balkan camp, people go for various reasons. We go to connect with our cultures, or with someone else’s culture. We go because we’ve fallen in love with an instrument or sound and can’t find anywhere else to play or learn or hear it. We go because at least in this camp, there’s an earnest quality to the music: tons of improvisation, musicians racing each other up and down scales, a sound that can be so loud, raw and fast that there’s no room for the irony or coolness everyone strives for in the more modern pop music.

In American pop culture, the idea of band camp still retains its geeky connotation: kids and even grownups who can’t communicate except in the context of a certain kind of music, people who forgo hygiene to get in an extra hour of practice, musicians who get really excited about finally figuring out that piece of that song. With even more recent pop culture, the idea of band camp has taken on a sort of undercover sexual connotation: the band camp geek who’s also secretly sexually adventurous.

From what I’ve seen and heard, they’re both true. But since what happens at camp stays at camp I’ll only say this: great music, sex and extreme nerdiness all happen when you’re comfortable around the people you’re with.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at [email protected]

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