.‘Balkancisco’ explores Balkan beats in the Bay

Award-winning documentary celebrates Balkan music and folk-dance

Once a week, in San Francisco’s Mission District, a cafe hosts live music from a genre not many Americans know: Balkan music. Revolution Cafe (2006-2021) started the tradition that Bissap Baobab now continues—Balkan Sundays, free to all and alive with Balkan music and dancing.

The Balkans are a conglomerate of countries in southeastern Europe, from Moldova to Greece and Turkey to Croatia. Despite the many historical and current disputes between the countries, their cultures remain intertwined.

Balkan Sundays provides a trip back home for many Eastern European expats like Tuğrul Sarıkaya.

Sarıkaya moved to San Francisco in 2014, co-running a video-production business. When he became discouraged or homesick he sought out Balkan events, and in doing so found Balkan Sundays.

Sarıkaya grew up playing a traditional Turkish instrument called a saz. It was a hobby for him, and not until he moved to San Francisco did he gain a full appreciation for it.

“When I saw American people playing and dancing to Balkan music, I was enlightened,” Sarikaya says. “Those people were thousands of miles away from the Balkans, appreciating this kind of music. Since then I’ve searched for the reasons [for their] interest, and I’ve gained respect for Balkan music and culture.”

While at the Revolution Cafe one Balkan Sunday he saw a woman, Duygu Gün, singing a Turkish Roman song called “Ille de roman Olsun” on stage.

“I grabbed a mic and sang along with her,” Sarikaya says. “That’s how we met. Then we became friends.”

That night Sarıkaya and his business partner, Özgen Göksoy, spoke with Gün about the concept for the Balkancisco documentary. He wanted Gün to be the lead. Göksoy would take on the visuals and sound, and Sarıkaya would direct.

Sarıkaya found inspiration in Fatih Akin’s 2005 documentary, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, which explores Istanbul’s musical diversity. In Balkancisco, Gün discovers San Francisco’s Balkan scene and leads the audience to the Revolution Cafe for a Balkan Sundays event.

Gün took the production team to Mendocino for Balkan Camp, which was established in 1977 after a surge in the popularity of international folk dancing in the ’60s and ’70s. At Balkan Camp, many people gather to practice and learn Balkan music—and often go on to perform at and attend Balkan Sundays, as musicians and dancers.

“They were meeting every year at camp, maybe coming from different places but they all ended up there,” Gün says. “Because [the camp] is jam style, the people just learn to play together and it creates a community vibe.”

Jill Parker, featured in the documentary, didn’t grow up in Balkan culture, nor does she have Balkan heritage. She began belly dancing while new to San Francisco, hoping to find friendship and community. She discovered Balkan Camp, and later traveled to Turkey to study with local dancers. Now a Bay Area dancer and dance instructor, she continues to spread her passion for folk dance.

“Balkan dance is more of a line dance, not a solo art—a community thing,” Parker says. “Dancing and holding hands and doing specific steps. The unique rhythms each have a unique line-dance style; the foot pattern matches the rhythm.”

Sarıkaya says it’s that foundation in community that makes Balkan music so unique. “It’s not a one-way activity—a band plays the music and the rest is exposed to it,” he says. “In Balkan events people share the moment, so it makes people good.” 

This sentiment is reflected in Sarıkaya’s favorite scene of the documentary, when Gün interviews another Balkan Sunday attendee, Maria Lentzou, who is Greek.

“At that time there was music rising from inside [the cafe], and Maria starts to sing the lyrics in Greek and Gün sings along with her in Turkish,” Sarıkaya says. “Then, under the spell of the song, they go inside to dance together.

“[It’s] a well-known folk song in both Turkey and Greece,” Sarıkaya adds. “As we all know, Turkish and Greek people had very big issues in the past. But we share a common cultural heritage: songs, dance, foods, sayings and all kinds of things. This is true for all Balkan countries. The scene reflects the nature of Balkan music very beautifully.” 

“Balkancisco” will screen on Saturday, July 20, 5:50-7:05pm at the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival.

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