Hailing from the Turkish Roma community, Bulgarian-born, West Berkeley-based multi-instrumentalist Rumen “Sali” Shopov can walk to Wednesday’s concert at Timbre Folk & Baroque. Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Hailing from the Turkish Roma community, Bulgarian-born, West Berkeley-based multi-instrumentalist Rumen “Sali” Shopov can walk to Wednesday’s concert at Timbre Folk & Baroque. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Rumen “Sali” Shopov is used to navigating between different worlds. Born in Bulgaria, he hails from a Turkish Romani family that fled during the widespread population transfers following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

A master of overlapping and interrelated Balkan, Turkish, Greek and Romani musical idioms, the longtime West Berkeley resident is one of the reasons there’s such creative ferment within those traditions around the region. On Bay Area stages the multi-instrumentalist can usually be found performing with Édessa, Anoush and his own Orkestar Sali and has accompanied various West Coast folk music and dance ensembles. But in a rare gig steps from his home he performs Wednesday at Timbre Folk & Baroque with Moldovan Romani accordion master Sergiu Popa, who lives in Montreal.

After playing a duo set (with Shopov on the long-neck eight-string tambura, bouzouki, and percussion) they’ll be joined by Moldovan-born Montreal-based violinist Valy Lautar and Dutch-raised Balder ten Cate on cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer common in Eastern European and Romani music, as well as as well as Shopov’s student band Meraklii. Popa and Shopov also perform March 12 at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco.

A dedicated educator, Shopov has played an essential role in shaping several of the Bay Area’s top bands playing Balkan music, like Inspector Gadje. “He’s definitely been an integral part of the scene, bringing a lot of those different sounds and influences to the people of the Bay Area and beyond,” says accordionist/composer Dan Cantrell, who’s worked with Shopov in an array of ensembles. “He comes from a pretty special place, a part of the world where the confluence of Balkan, Bulgarian and Turkish Roma music is incredibly rich.”

Shopov was born and raised in Gotse Delchev, a town about 30 miles north of the border with Greece in southwestern Bulgaria, a cultural crossroads with musical currents from Bulgarian, Macedonian, Greek, and Turkish people. “My first language was Turkish, and then Bulgarian and Russian,” Shopov says. “My grandfather was a drummer, but not a musician’s drummer. He’d play traditional, ritual stuff, like drumming door to door to wake up people for Ramadan. But my uncle was a pro drummer who played in a Bulgarian folklore ensemble and when I was little I used his tarabuka,” a goblet drum also known as a darbuka or doumbek.

In fact his uncle Mustafa Kobalishtaliev was so renowned in the region that he was the first Roma musician in to join the Folk Ensemble Nevrokopski, a pioneering Bulgarian music and dance company founded shortly after World War II. Mentored by Kobalishtaliev, Shopov started playing in his uncle’s wedding band in the mid 1970s, developing his skills on various drums like the tarabuka, barabani (drum kit), and double-sided tupan. He first encountered the tambura while playing in a band from a Gotse Delchev orphanage and was immediately smitten with the instrument.

From a young age Shopov realized that music was one of very few avenues open for Roma people to better their circumstances. “The jobs that were open were tobacco worker, street cleaning, all the dirty jobs,” he says. “Many of us became good musicians because you get more respect. Usually Roma people are not wanted. Even if you’re very talented in school, you can go to high school, but you’re not going to go to college. And many times Roma people don’t have enough money to survive and the kids go to work to help support the family.”

At 16, Shopov joined Ensemble Nevrokopski, and at 18 he became the Ensemble’s concertmaster, an unusual distinction indeed for a Roma (he and his uncle were the only two Roma in an ensemble of some six dozen). The group’s artistic director Zaprju Ikonomov and music director Petar Avramov became something like father figures, encouraging him to continue his education. Touring internationally with Ensemble Nevrokopski expanded his horizons, and he made sure his son received a good education, positioning him to become one of Bulgaria’s first school-trained Roma musicians.

Sergiu Popa and Rumen “Sali” Shopov. Photo: Courtesy of the artists
Sergiu Popa and Rumen “Sali” Shopov. Photo: Courtesy of the artists

With the decline of the Soviet Union and the end of Communist rule in Bulgaria in 1991 state subsidies for Ensemble Nevrokopski came to an end. The end of the cold war made it much easier for Americans to visit Bulgaria, and Shopov took on many students who made annual pilgrimages to study with him. But with few opportunities to earn income as a performer Shopov eventually decided to move abroad to find gainful employment. At the turn of the century he was in Lisbon working in construction “to support my family and pay for my son’s schooling,” he says.

When one of his Bay Area students Suzanne Leonora reached him to arrange another trip to Bulgaria he had to explain that he’d given up music. Refusing to take no for an answer she set out bringing him to the Bay Area, and he made his first trip in 2001. On a tourist visa he couldn’t do much performing, but he did meet his future wife at Ashkenaz, Kitka vocalist and executive/artistic director Shira Cion. By the early aughts Shopov was living in the East Bay and establishing himself as an invaluable source of information, teaching at the Jazzschool, U.C. Berkeley, and various Balkan music gatherings. As a master artist he’s received several grants with musicians he’s mentored from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, and worked closely with Sani Rifati’s Voice of Roma, which produced his CD Soul of the Mahala.

He continues to travel internationally and often joins forces with other celebrated Roma musicians from Bulgaria like saxophonist Yuri Yunakov and accordionist Sergiu Popa. But in the Bay Area he’s a school of one. “The best Balkan musicians in the U.S. are mostly in Chicago or New York, Seattle or Los Angeles,” he says. “They’re somewhere, but not here. I’m very happy playing with Yuri Yunakov. We just listen to each other and have eye contact and we know what we’re doing. We feel all the emotions and you feel the power of the music. But I’m happy to play everywhere.”

Particularly when he can walk home after the gig.

Mulatu Astatke at UC Theatre

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The undisputed patriarch of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke is one of those rare figures who can take credit for single-handedly launching a new musical movement. He returns to the UC Theatre Friday and Saturday after the postponement of last year’s engagement, offering an all-to-scarce opportunity to catch the resurgent 76-year-old vibraphonist, composer and bandleader. A creative catalyst behind the golden age of Ethiopian music in the 1960s and 70s, Astatke created a new sound by melding Amharic scales and Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz instrumentation and improvisation. The Ethiopian label Amha documented his increasingly sophisticated music with a series of seminal recordings (tracks later reissued as part of the Éthiopiques series. But Astatke largely disappeared when a brutal Marxist military government known ominously as the Derg brought ruin to the country in the mid-70s and ended a decade of creative ferment on the Ethiopia’s music scene. He returns to Berkeley in the midst of a late-career resurgence.

From the start, his musical journey was propelled by his desire to meld traditional Ethiopian and Western forms. Sent by his family to the UK to study engineering as a teenager, Astatke instead transferred to London’s Trinity College of Music. But looking to delve deeper into African diaspora culture he became the first student from Africa to enroll at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied vibraphone and percussion. Making regular trips down to New York, he connected with the vibrant Latin music scene, and his first recordings under his own name in 1966 reflect his fascination with Latin jazz. With its spacious textures and Ellingtonian voicings, Astatke’s music is arrestingly sensuous, keying on his lapidary vibraphone lines. It wasn’t until Jim Jarmusch prominently featured Astatke’s music his 2005 film Broken Flowers that Astatke resurfaced. He’s been making the most of his second act ever since.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....