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Bulgarian Nightingale Teaches Americans to Sing


Immigrants who come to the United States most often absorb the culture of the host country, and become, to a greater or lesser degree, Americanized. But the process can work the other way, as well. Some immigrants impart the culture of their native country to Americans, who find their lives enriched by the heritage of their new neighbors from abroad. Today on New American Voices meet Tatiana Sarbinska, musical director of a women’s vocal ensemble called Slaveya, or Nightingale, which performs Bulgarian folk songs for American audiences.

The fourteen members of the Slaveya women’s chorus are all native-born Americans; only one or two have any Slavic background at all. However, all are fascinated by Bulgarian folk music – the harmonies, the rhythms, the melodies, with their intermingling of Slavic and Balkan and Middle Eastern elements.

The chorus, which was founded 20 years ago in Washington, was until fairly recently, entirely self-taught: the members listened to Bulgarian folksong recordings and imitated the sound, including the sound of the foreign words, as best they could. Then, a year and a half ago, they learned of a Bulgarian singer, Tatiana Sarbinska, who had immigrated to the United States and was teaching in the Boston area. They hired her as their musical director. Thea Austen, a long-time choir member, says the results have been remarkable.

“Tatiana is amazing. She’s an amazing artist, and amazing performer, an incredible voice teacher, very, very generous both when she teaches and when she performs. She brings a wealth of experience from her professional life in Bulgaria, and she has really changed the sound of this group. She’s taught us all to sing better, to sing in a more healthy way, she’s changed our pronunciation to make it more Bulgarian, she brings a lot of love, a lot of energy, generosity, I mean we all feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to study with such a great artist.”

Tatiana Sarbinska’s musical career started when she graduated from high school and joined Pirin, a renowned Bulgarian folk music ensemble in the city of Plovdiv. She completed university degrees in music and education, all the while performing with the ensemble as its principal soloist.

In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Tatyana Serbinska came to the United States at the invitation of friends she had made during the Pirin ensemble’s tour some years earlier. Ms. Serbinska -- a slender woman who likes to wear her dark hair piled high on her head and pinned with a red flower -- says she came to America looking for new challenges.

“I’m that kind of a person, very strong, and I’m never satisfied with what I’ve done. I want [something] new and new and new, and that’s why I moved to the United States. And I knew that I would bring some of my culture, and bring my music and my voice, and I’ll continue to work here.”

And indeed, Ms Sarbinska continued to work as a performer, a teacher and a coach. Now she is musical director of Bulgarian choruses in Boston and Washington, and has many private voice students. She has also been invited by the University of Maryland to be the musical director of an upcoming staging of the Greek drama, Trojan Women, for which she is arranging a Balkan folk-music score and training the chorus. But Ms Sarbinska says she finds life in the United States to her liking not only because of her professional work.

“Ah, I do a lot of things. I love to travel, I LOVE to travel. Even though I fly a lot to Boston, but most of the time I want to drive because I’m always happy to see something new. Also, I like to dress very nice, I like sports, and I’m very often with my friends, I invite them to parties, I love to do that, too, I’m continuing to learn a lot about your culture, you know, and I love it. I love the freedom here, I love that connection with people, that’s very important to me. I have the best friends in the world now - they’re American – and I’m an American citizen now, too, you know...”

After thirteen years in the United States, Tatiana Sarbinska says she has absorbed a lot of the American culture, while continuing to promote the Bulgarian culture she cherishes. For her, there is no conflict.

“I have a friend, he’s Armenian, he said to me, I’m 100% Armenian, 100% Bulgarian -- he’s Armenian-Bulgarian -- and 100% American. And you know, I think I am both, American and Bulgarian. And I love America, and I’m happy to be here. I have wonderful friends here, and – I’m happy!”

We close with a Bulgarian song about a lovely maiden named Dragana and a nightingale.