The Philadelphia Women’s Slavic Ensemble opened the second annual Balkan at Bartram’s Garden event Sunday evening. The community choir with more than 20 singers has been active in Philadelphia for seven years, performing folk songs from the Slavic region including Serbia, Croatia, and Bulgaria.
With its largest membership to date, multiple performances, and a collaboration with the West Philadelphia Orchestra — well known in the city for raucous Balkan dance parties — the ensemble is arguably having a moment this summer.
Ensemble director Cassie Glinkowski fell in love with the unusual rhythms and dissonant harmonies of the songs.
“They’re mostly about life in the rural countryside of the Slavic region, sometimes they’re about baking bread, sometimes they’re about gardening, but usually they are about some loved one that they feel for,” said Glinkowski, whose parents are from Poland.
The ensemble learns lyrics in many languages. Before each song, a choir member will explain what it’s about and where it’s from. Performers don crowns of flowers; big crowns, Glinkowski jokes to the crowd, to go with their big voices.
The crowd at Bartram’s was invited to make their own flower crowns and to dine on a buffet of Balkan food prepared by the the choir.
Singer Claire Lutz joined when the ensemble began seven years ago. She wanted a welcoming environment to learn singing and was attracted to the community aspect of a choir. She sees a critical mass of skill and enthusiasm among the singers right now that’s building an audience.
“You get the feeling that it brings people together,” she said.
Kate McGuire joined about a year ago because the songs are more challenging than pop music and have a “friendliness.” She sees people enjoying them more than ever.
“We see a rise in nationalism, and sort of fake folk and fake populist movements worldwide right now, which is really morally troubling, and PWSE is intentionally pluralistic,” McGuire said. “It’s very important to us to welcome everyone and to sing the songs of multiple nations to show that our love of music is something that we all have in common, and I think that resonates with a lot of people that come to see us.”
“This specific type of chest voice singing, it’s a very particular way of singing, and it’s amazing that in Philadelphia we have lovers of this type of expression,” said ensemble member Theodora Gajic Bakic, an immigrant from Serbia.
She found out about the choir when she heard singing outside her home near the University of Pennsylvania two years ago.
“I think it’s beautiful that here in America we are able to gather all the Balkan nations that were separated by war together and enjoy the beauty of all these languages of different nations,” she said.
Between sets, most of the audience practiced steps in 9/8 rhythm while holding hands in a circle during a folk dance workshop.
“It’s very contagious, when you hear the music you just want to dance,” said Michele Fairley who attended the event for a chance to do some centuries-old folk dancing to live music.
Philadelphia Women’s Slavic Ensemble membership is open to any woman or non-binary identifying singer. For more information and to catch the choir’s next performance, visit SingSlavic and catch the West Philadelphia Orchestra at Franky Bradley’s every Tuesday.