Eastern European folk music is unique in Europe for its “asymmetrical” rhythms, in which the music isn’t split into even measures but instead into measures that are not all the same length as each other. Rather than a song’s rhythm being simple and straightforward–“4+4+4+4”–the rhythm of a song counted asymmetrically may be “4+4+3+4+4+4+3” or “5+2+2+5+2+4” or, truly, anything. (Remember to look at the “Everything is a Drum” rhythm overview for a brief introduction to meter. And, if you want to hear some asymmetrical rhythms, visit Jas’s Middle Eastern rhythms page and scroll down or search for “the Balkans.”) Influential Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Bela Bartók, who use asymmetrical rhythms in some of the music he composed, called these rhythms “Bulgarian rhythms” because they appear often in Bulgarian music. For example, the original rhythm for the Bulgarian song we sing in class, “Dilmano Dilbero,” is asymmetrical, starting in the 8/16 time signature, moving to 11/16, going back to 8/16, then to 5/16….tricky. And fun. And we’re going to try it.
In class we’re may also take our asymmetrical rhythmic singing to the next level and using them as a basis for a dance. There are many Eastern European dances that use asymmetrical rhythms, such as the Transylvanian Fecioreasca (usually a 7/8 dance — check it out on YouTube), the Rustem (generally in 5/16, though it sometimes floats toward 3/8 — here’s an example) and the Purtata, or “walking dance” (sometimes in 10/16–interesting….).
In class we’re going to try the Romanian “Cadâneasca,” which we’ll dance in 9/8 (2+2+2+3). We’ll dance to the “Cadâneasca” as performed by Trio Polifonic, who very well may be “the best harmonica band in Romania.” (the harmonica starts at 2:45.) If not them, who? Maybe these guys? (Not Romanian.) How about these guys? (Not Romanian.) Then surely these guys…? (Still not Romanian, but AWESOME.) Seriously… Trio Polifonic is an awe-inspiring Romanian harmonica trio that plays traditional Eastern European music, fronted by soloist Ioan Constantin.
Just try to count out these rhythms. I dare ya.
— Transylvanian Fecioreasca: in 7/8
— the Rustem: in 5/16 and 3/8
— Purtata: in 10/16
— the Romanian “Cadâneasca” in 9/8
— Dilmano Dilbero: in 8/16, then 11/16, then 8/16, then 5/16, back to 8/16