A mediaeval fortress known to only a handful of people and a completely unknown museum of mining – Pernik's tourist landmarks wouldn't exactly justify a detour from the main road to Thessaloniki or Skopje. What's more, this town of 80,000 is known for certain quirks more likely to put off rather than attract. The local driving culture has become a generic name for the no-holds-barred, catch-me-if-you-can manner in which Pernik drivers use their old Volkswagens as offensive weapons. The townscape of this mining community is dominated by deserted smelters and slag heaps. Fans of the Lord of the Rings – the film, that is – go so far as to joke that Peter Jackson needn't have gone as far as New Zealand to shoot the Mordor scenes.
Nevertheless, for three consecutive days each year Pernik is in the spotlight – as the host of Bulgaria's foremost kukeri games.
Kukeri of the 21st Century are not scared of innovations, like bringing accordion music to the party
The antics of the kukeri, or mummers, are among Bulgaria's most recognisable 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.
Fake priests are still essential for the ritual. Centuries ago even fake imams would take part in the games
After this, all the inhabitants would gather in the village square to watch the time-honoured 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 plough 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 pretend 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).
A more traditional troupe waiting for its turn to parade
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 modernisation 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 (www.surva. org) in Pernik. From 28th to 30th January 2011 the event marked its 20th anniversary as an international masquerade.
Hey, ma'am, wanna ride a donkey?
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 organised to perpetuate a cherished ritual, Surva is much idealised, especially in the media. Everyone who has run through photo reportages from the festival before their actual visit is in for a reality check.
The long-haired goat skins from which these costumes are made are considered rare and very expensive. Most of the skins have been bought on a special goat show in Kyustendil in October
"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. Multicoloured balloons waft around and children nibble candyfloss, while the grownups drink beer and wine by the flagon.
Women are now common participants in the kukeri games
The truth is, the kukeri have modernised. 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.
CRACKING THE KUKERI CODE
The kukeri games are the successor of the antique Dionysus fêtes, festivities that ce-lebrated the rebirth of nature in the spring.
Mummers' masks are intentionally scary - in order to chase the evil spirits away
By putting on a mask, the kukeri make a symbolic connection with the spirits of their forefathers and assist them in providing fecundity to the people, livestock and fields. At least that's what some ethnologists believe.
In a troupe, the masks may appear to be identical, but in fact each is different. Usually the mask depicts an animal, a bird or a personage from the kukeri troupe.
There are several types of kukeri in a troupe. Besides the King, the Bride and the Bridegroom, there's also a priest, a camel or a donkey, a tax man and so on.
It may take months to create a kuker mask. And its cost may be as high as 5,000 leva.
Masks similar to those of the kukeri can be found also in parts of northern Greece. But it remains a real mystery how the geroi masks, which are very similar to those of the kukeri, became popular on the island of Skyros, in the Sporades Islands. Geroi celebrate on the streets on the festival of Sirni Zagovezni