How we learned to love the Slavs

The Slavs sing and yik in a circle.

On Feb. 25, I went to the Slifka Center for “Slavs, Klez, and Friends,” a joint concert by the Yale Women’s Slavic Chorus, the Yale Klezmer Band, the Yale Russian Chorus and no fewer than 40 (FORTY) of their friends, who were all dressed in white peasant blouses and red sashes. “The wildest concert of the semester,” an email had promised. Every chair in the room was full, and the space in the back reserved for dancing turned quickly into a standing-room throng. While taking my handfuls of Slifka cookies and grapes, I overheard someone say, “I think I know everyone here!” I went upstairs and watched from the balcony, where I stood on a chair to see above the people in front of me. Before long, everyone was dancing. Much of the audience had joined hands and were coming in and out of the doors of the auditorium like a long Slavic conga line.

The Yale Women’s Slavic Chorus was founded in 1969 — the first year of co-education at Yale — and was the first all-women’s musical group on campus. The music that the group sings comes from Bulgaria, Croatia, Russia, Georgia, Macedonia and the Ukraine, and is marked, according to their website, by “dissonant harmonies, unusual rhythms, and distinctive vocal qualities.” One of the musical techniques most closely associated with the group is the “yik!” sound, a high squeak common in Eastern European vocal music. The sound carries, and is heard around campus when two Slavs see each other from far away and use it to call out to each other.

Balkan and Slavic vocal folk music became popular in the United States with the help of two facilitators. The first was Filip Kutev, who, along with founding and conducting the Bulgarian National Chorus, arranged many of Bulgaria’s folk melodies to include the beautiful harmonies that we associate with the Slavs today. The other was Ethel Raim, who is credited with bringing Balkan women’s singing to the United States through recordings and workshops. The recordings of Kutev’s and Raim’s ensembles brought women’s vocal music into a Balkan craze that was beginning among folk dancers and music enthusiasts in the United States. “There were stories about people getting hypnotized by the rhythms, and rumors that if you sang certain harmonies, it could make your head vibrate,” says Nathalie Levine ’14, whose interest in a variety of folk music traditions has led her to learn about Balkan music in the United States and to work with Raim at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York. (Levine is a copy editor for the News).

That charming sound led to the founding of the chorus, and continues to give the group its magnetism. Chihiro Isozaki ’15, a first-year Slav who grew up in Singapore, had never heard Slavic music before coming to Yale. She was looking to join a singing group, though, and was walking through Old Campus one day when she heard a beautiful harmony “unlike anything I had heard before.” It was the Slavs. She approached one of the members, who invited her to their concert that evening, and soon ended up a member herself.

Anna Rose Gable ’13, the chorus’s current pitch, followed a different route to become a Slav. “During high school, I used to go to the library and listen to CDs and see what I liked,” she explains. “And one of the things that really took was the Bulgarian National Chorus.” She started watching that chorus’s videos on YouTube, and Yale’s chorus’s videos appeared on one of the sidebars. There were only three videos of the Slavs online at the time, Gable recalls, but she — having already applied to Yale — reacted passionately: “I have to be a part of this!!!!” she remembers, shaking her hands and head excitedly.

Being “a part” of the Slavs means more than just singing their music. “Saying ‘They’re a Slav’ about someone on campus is an implication about their personality,” explains Levine. “It’s like … ‘strong village woman.'” Isozaki elaborates: “there are a lot of vegetarians. The members are unconventional — a lot of them are interested in sustainability and human rights, and everyone has an appreciation for other cultures.” The “Green House,” located at 235 Dwight St., has had two Slavs living in it for each of the last three years. “On tour, we went around and told first-kiss stories,” Gable says. “And the majority of Slavs initiated their first kiss. I think that’s significant.” Sarah Larsson ’12 says that among themselves, the members often adopt the village-woman persona by using translations of their lyrics in conversation. “We say things like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go to the dance tonight even if my boyfriend isn’t there,'” she says.

The ‘strong village women’ culture of the group isn’t new, either. “During my work at the Women’s Center, I came across a ‘best times at Yale’ project made by alumnae from the ’70s,” says Levine, who, as a staffer at the Women’s Center, has been organizing its archives. “And a huge number of them said, ‘Singing in the Slavic Chorus.’ I was like, ‘How big was the Slavic Chorus?’ But then I realized that it says something that, of the people who felt connected enough to the women’s community at Yale to come back for an anniversary of coeducation and make this quilt, many were in the Slavic Chorus.”

As more and more people become aware of the group, however, it has started to self-select not just for people attracted to the “curly-haired, loud Slavic women” ethic that Larsson says dominated the group her freshman year, but also people who are interested in the group from a primarily musical standpoint. “I think the group is getting more musical and less granola,” Gable says, explaining that the number of excellent auditioners for the group has increased greatly in the past few years, and that it seems like concerts have become more formal than they were in the past. “More and more of our members also sing in other groups,” she adds, saying that that extra musicality has advantages and drawbacks — with busier schedules, it’s harder to schedule group dinners, for instance.

The group’s strong sense of community and powerful, distinctive sound coalesce to create an immensely potent musical experience. While on tour in Minnesota this year, the chorus sang at a Bulgarian Sunday school. After the set, a Bulgarian woman approached them in tears. “She said it reminded her of home,” said Isozaki.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Slavs’ power engenders the kind of fans who make concerts like “Slavs and Friends” so vibrant. One such fan is Michael Fraade ’13. Fraade originally started coming to Slavs shows during his freshman year just to support his friend Celia Rostow ’13, but quickly realized “they were really good.” So good, in fact, that he wanted to be a part of it himself. So this year, when audition season came around, “I put on a skirt and a Slavs T-shirt, used the name Fyodora Dostoevsky, and sang a solo in falsetto,” he says. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get called back.”

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