Bulgarian Bluegrass Musician and Fulbright Scholar Lilly Drumeva Lands at WKU

This article originally appeared on WKU Public Radio and is being republished courtesy of the author.  

When you think of bluegrass and country music, places like Kentucky and Tennessee probably come to mind.

A scholar and musician who has been studying at WKU has another location for your list: Bulgaria.

Lilly Drumeva is a Bulgarian bluegrass and country musician who has been conducting research at WKU as part of her Fulbright Scholarship. During her time in Bowling Green, Lilly has worked closely with the WKU Folk Studies Department and Erika Brady, host of WKU Public Radio’s Barren River Breakdown.

Lilly will also travel to Nashville to research the business side of country and bluegrass music, as well as attend an international bluegrass conference in Raleigh, NC. She returns to Bulgaria in November, and will begin crafting her research into a Bulgarian-language book on bluegrass and country music.

She stopped by WKU Public Radio to talk to us about how she first encountered bluegrass music, and how the genre’s roots can be traced back to different part of Europe—including her native Bulgaria.


What made a nice girl from Bulgaria get interested in American bluegrass and country music?

“That’s a long story. It started 20 years when I was a student in Vienna, Austria. I was studying economics, and I heard country music for the first time when Emmy Lou Harris had a concert in Vienna. So I got hooked and started buying CDs.

I had a boyfriend then who played guitar, and he taught me to play a few chords. And I started buying bluegrass and country music CDs, and when I returned to Bulgaria I formed a bluegrass band, and I called it “Lilly of the West”, because Lilly is my name and also my favorite flower. And—for the Bulgarians—I came from Austria, which is in the west, so I was the “Lilly from the West.”

In 1998, we went to the Netherlands where there was a big bluegrass festival and competition. And we won it—we were voted “European Bluegrass Band of the Year.” And since then we started touring Europe, and we’ve released nine albums to date.”

When you gathered these fellow Bulgarian musicians, did you have to explain to them what U.S. country and bluegrass music was all about? Did they have any knowledge about it before you spoke to them?

“When I came back from Austria, I brought lots of CDs, so we had lots of material to learn from. But also, the three guys I found—a banjo player, a guitar player, and a bass player—they already knew a little bit about bluegrass, because in 1990 Tim O’Brien visited Bulgaria. So the American Embassy invited bluegrass musicians from the states to celebrate the fall of communism. So in 1990, the U.S. Embassy brought Tim O’Brien, Laurie Lewis, and Sam Bush who gave a concert. And that’s when my colleagues heard bluegrass music for the first time.”

You mentioned that you were hooked when you heard Emmy Lou Harris at that concert in Vienna. Were there aspects of the music you felt that you could personally identify with? Why was it so special to you?

It’s hard to say. This is also the topic of my research—why this music is so captivating, why people get hooked. Probably it’s the energy in it, the melodies, the sincerity of the songs, the great voices, the instrumentation…the fact that this is acoustic music from the heart. And also the social element of it. You know, bluegrass is not only music, it’s also a friendship and a comraderie that you find anywhere in the world.

Some years ago I was in the states, and we visited Wisconsin. I didn’t know anybody there, but I found a banjo. He invited me on to his radio show, and just like this I was part of the community, and I was welcomed. And as a bluegrass musician, no matter where you are from you are welcome everywhere in the world.

Is there anything in bluegrass or country music that is similar in any way to—say—Bulgarian folk music?

“Of course there is! Since the United States is a melting pot of many different cultures, these nations brought their cultures and their music with them. For example, if we trace back the origin of the instruments, the banjo came from Africa, the mandolin from Italy, the guitar from Spain, the upright bass from Germany.

There are also instruments that came from Bulgaria. For example, a Bulgarian instrument is the tamboura, which is mixture between guitar and mandolin. And the tamboura was imported to Greece. The British, who fought in Greece, brought it to Ireland and England. And that’s how the bouzouki appeared in Irish folk music, and the Irish settlers brought the bouzouki with them to America.”

One of Lilly Drumeva’s original songs is being showcased at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Wide Open Bluegrass conference Sept. 24-28 in Raleigh, NC.

You can find Youtube videos of Lilly Drumeva and Lilly of the West performing here.

The Fulbright Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program and is supported by the people of the United States and partner countries around the world. For more information visit http://www.iie.org/cies. 

A Fulbright Filmmaker in India

Delaney Ruston
Independent grantee to India, 2012-2013

The convergence of both professional and personal experiences led me to make films on community mental health workers in India as a Fulbright-Nehru Grantee.

It was not that long ago that the thought of mental health care in a global context was a topic very foreign to me. This was true in spite of the fact that I am a doctor with experience in international health. Global mental health was just not discussed, either in my academic or social circles.

Then I read that the World Health Organization estimates that 450 million people around the globe have mental health issues including conditions such as autism, depression, dementia, and many others. I wondered why we never heard more about these stories.

I experienced the silence of the stigma surrounding mental health issues in my own family. I grew up under the shadow of my dad’s schizophrenia. The impact of his illness was enormous and hiding it was devastating. I knew my story was not unique because as a physician working in clinics for the underserved, I saw time and again the impact of stigma on individuals and their families. I decided to do my small part in fighting this stigma by making a personal documentary around my relationship with my father. (Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia, on PBS).

When I eventually lost my dad to his illness, I realized I needed to fight the silence on a bigger level.

I packed up my video camera and started traveling, looking for personal stories in China, France, the U.S., Africa, and India. The stigma was so great that it took a lot of effort to find people willing to share their lives on film.

As part of my Fulbright grant I completed the film, Hidden Pictures, which had its world premiere through the U.S. Embassy in Delhi, in April 2013.

While making Hidden Pictures, I was always on the lookout for solutions to the silent epidemic of untreated mental illness. That quest led me to Dr. Vikram Patel and the Public Health Foundation of India. Dr. Patel is a world leader in global mental health, who for years has been studying how lay people from Indian communities can be trained to provide basic mental health services.

I became passionate about understanding how such programs function. What exactly were these community members trained to do? How widely were such approaches accepted?

I have now spent the past eight months traveling to various NGOs in India to film these community mental health workers in action. In the future, I will make at least three short documentaries. Stepping in for Mental Health was recently completed. To know more about these films and Hidden Pictures, join the Hidden Pictures Film Facebook page. Also, visit, www.hiddenpicturesfilm.com.

Filmmaking through Fulbright

Kavery Kaul
India, 2012-2013

Five months in India! The possibility of a long-term experience abroad inspired me to apply for a Fulbright. This motivation was also predicated on the discovery that a Fulbright Scholar could be a filmmaker, like me, and is not limited to just researchers and professors. Creative expression, documentary exploration, non-academic field research – these fields are welcome in the Fulbright program. And Fulbright even allows families to accompany the grantee, which was important in my case.

With a Fulbright grant in hand, I flew to Kolkata to make a documentary about the American writer Fatima Shaik, whose grandfather sailed from Kolkata to the United States in 1893. Mohamed Musa was one of the first Indians in the U.S. He was also the only Bengali Muslim in Fatima’s African-American Christian New Orleans family.

I took Fatima on her first trip to India in a reverse journey that tells a story of the Indian diaspora and the making of America. It’s also a look at present-day Kolkata and New Orleans, as well as an insight into intercultural/interfaith differences that merit recognition, but need not keep us apart.

For me, it was a return to the city where I was born. I was able to have many cups of tea with the filmmakers, writers, historians, artists, and philosophers of this city. I spent time roaming the streets of Kolkata and the villages of Hooghly to prepare for the principal cinematography I completed with an international Indian and American production team.

In Kolkata, I was affiliated with the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute (SRFTI) where I spoke to students about my work and theirs. In fact, the production team of my documentary included SRFTI faculty in major roles, with students as assistants.

For my children who were in Kolkata with me, there was a warm reception at the neighborhood stores whenever they went by themselves. They were inspired by the places they visited. For all of us, it was an opportunity to develop close professional and personal relationships—the ties at the heart of a deeper, lasting friendship between peoples.

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