For three consecutive days each year, Pernik is in the spotlight – as the host of Bulgaria’s foremost kukeri games.
The antics of the kukeri, or mummers, are among Bulgaria’s most recognizable traditions, although you won’t come across them in everyday life. In olden times this festival, which celebrates the rebirth of nature, used to be an annual fête in small towns and villages. The men would put on scary masks and dress up in costumes cobbled together from animal skins, horns, and birds’ wings. Metal cowbells clustered on their belts, they would set off to roam the village. They would stop at each house and act out raunchy pantomimes, whose unequivocal message was that the performers wished fertility to the household.
After this, all the inhabitants would gather in the village square to watch the time-honored climax of the performance – one which James Frazer would have certainly included in The Golden Bough had he known about it. The kukeri would elect a “king.” He would start to plow the land but was then ritually killed, only to rise from the dead at the end. In the meantime, the rest of the kukeri chased after the girls on the streets, trying to touch them with long poles dyed red. The rest of the villagers enjoyed a mock wedding ceremony of pretending newlyweds officiated by an equally pretend priest. The couple then gave a naturalistic interpretation of how the human race came to be – from the wedding up to the birth of a child (a puppet made out of rags).
Kukeri rituals differ across Bulgaria. Each region has its own style of costumes and its own masks. In western Bulgaria, for instance, kukeri don motley rags and wear masks, which can be as tall as 1.5 m, made from birds’ feathers. The name also varies: kukeri is used mostly in the eastern regions, while survakari is preferred in the west. You can also come across appellations such as babugeri, arapi, chaushi and even dervishi.
Equally movable are also the dates on which the kukeri games take place. Generally, the festival occurs between Christmas and Sirni Zagovezni (the day before the start of the Lenten fast).
Although modernization has long since transformed the kukeri games into an anachronistic, if exotic, experience, the ritual is still alive here and there, chiefly in western Bulgaria and at the foot of the southern slopes of the Stara Planina. But the full richness of the kukeri games and the masks can be enjoyed during the Surva Festival in Pernik.
Surva changes Pernik beyond recognition. On an ordinary day, the town square is an unpleasant, off-putting mélange of Staliniststyle buildings, paved in the so-called “mature” Socialism style. But during Surva you can see neither the pavement nor the Stalinist edifices, because of the thousands of people who have arrived to watch the kukeri troupes. So numerous are the spectators that the police find it hard to pen them in behind the barriers that cordon off the route where the kukeri bands pass.
Like every event organized to perpetuate a cherished ritual, Surva is much idealized, especially in the media. Everyone who has run through photo reportages from the festival before their actual visit is in for a reality check.
“Doctored” Surva photographs show an abundance of traditional masks and costumes that look as though they have been taken out of an ethnographic museum. The faces of the kukeri who were photographed with their masks off have what Socialist art criticism used to describe as “evidence of a rich spiritual life.”
Fortunately, the real Surva is a decidedly different affair and much closer in spirit to the old kukeri games – a celebration of fecundity, mummery, masquerading, and lowered inhibitions.
The clang of the cowbells is indeed earsplitting, and is made even more intense by the entire soundtrack of the film Underground, played simultaneously by several Gypsy orchestras. The musicians tour the barbecues on the square and play “to the ear” of anyone willing to pay for it. Multicolored balloons waft around and children nibble candyfloss, while the grownups drink beer and wine by the flagon.
The truth is, the kukeri have modernized. Centuries ago their rituals were the prerogative of the men. Today almost every group features women and children, and some of the participants feel so free that they don’t even bother putting on the traditional masks. You will encounter “Gypsies” who will read your palm, men dressed as nurses, prostitutes or pop-folk singers, and masked hunters or shepherds dragging behind them stuffed boars or sheep. You can even go so far as to detect a symbiosis between the new and the old – made-in-China latex Ghost Faces (from the film Scream) pulled over the traditional ruffled kuker masks.
Although the kukeri may not be politically correct, they can be politically topical. Do not be surprised if you stumble upon a troupe taking off the Prime Minister, the swaggering Boyko Borisov, his bodyguards, and the bands of hysterical female journalists who mob him.
While processing along the official route the kukeri give their all, but when they have finished their performance and wended their way through the quiet backstreets that lead to the little square where the buses wait for them, they take a breather. There they start making passes at every woman walking by, chasing one another and shaking their cowbells even when there is nobody to watch them. You will see them having frequent recourse to the flask with the homemade rakiya they carry in a hidden pocket in their costumes.
Finally, they gather at their buses and board, without bothering to change. Along come the new troupes, in new buses, who, in their turn, join in the pageant, the dancing, and the joking.