Trained as a musician in school, Velizar Shumanov soon found he was becoming a professional activist. While serving in the Bulgarian army, he distinguished himself by organizing a strike. “We wanted simple things, you know, like decent food and working conditions, to be treated like human beings,” he says. “But it never happened. The night right before, we got busted in our beds in the barracks.” In 1984 he was sentenced to six years in prison. “Let me tell you,” he deadpans, “it wasn’t so fun being in jail.”
Not one to be discouraged, Shumanov went on to organize a hunger strike. This was in 1989, after the fall of communist president Todor Zhivkov, and for the first time TV cameras were allowed into a Bulgarian prison. Shumanov was freed on six months’ probation. “I only had a few months left,” he says. “I guess they let me out early to get rid of a troublemaker.”
Constantly harassed by the communists, Shumanov decided he’d eventually flee Bulgaria for the United States. “I’d read a lot of American literature like Mark Twain, and I saw myself in those characters.”
On his way to a Bulgarian mountain resort, he met a young woman named Rumiana on the train. “I told her who I was and about jail, but she didn’t scare off. So I asked her to come to America. We got married a week later.” It wasn’t exactly a whirlwind romance. “We had an agreement. Once we got to safety, if we didn’t want to be with each other anymore, we’d split up.”
Posing as honeymooners, they convinced customs agents that their lack of proper visas was due simply to a bureaucratic mix-up. They made it to Italy, where things got dicey. “We were waiting for a sponsor in America. We were down to our last ten dollars and sleeping in train stations,” Shumanov recalls. “We got on a train but didn’t realize we had to punch our tickets on the train. Some ticket controllers got on and started screaming at us in Italian. We were scared to death, so we gave all our money to them. They must have thought we were just dumb tourists and let us go.” If they had been sent back to Bulgaria, Shumanov could have faced the death penalty for violating his probation and fleeing the country. Desperate for money, he and Rumiana begged enough to buy a sponge, a bucket, and detergent so they could wash car windows at stoplights. They made about $15 a day–enough to eat.
Finally a Bulgarian working at an Italian refugee agency helped them get work. Shumanov took a construction job, while Rumiana did housecleaning work. They survived until the summer of 1990, when the World Relief Organization, which had agreed to sponsor Shumanov as a refugee, found them a spot in Chicago.
Neither he nor Rumiana spoke English upon their arrival. They had just $400 and no prospects. When Rumiana fell ill, her doctor helped Shumanov find work as a dishwasher. When she felt better, Rumiana got a job herself at a day-care center, and Shumanov moonlighted as a janitor. By the time he found his current job as a general manager for a baggage-cart rental company, he’d learned enough English to do more than simply get by. Rumiana worked with him for a while but is now the manager of a bank’s bookkeeping department. Last month they moved into their own home in Elmhurst.
But even as things were coming together, Shumanov, who’s now 35, began to feel homesick for the land he had been so eager to leave. “I missed my culture,” he says. He chanced upon some Americans who performed Bulgarian dances. For someone who’d grown up on rock music, it was a revelation. “I was so amazed and ashamed,” he confesses. “These people were better at Bulgarian dances than most of my former countrymen.”
Having received a degree in classical music on accordion, Shumanov set his skills to his home country’s traditional music and soon became a musical mainstay of Chicago’s Bulgarian community, playing at private parties and dances.
Then he discovered the 38-member Duquesne University Tamburitzans, an eastern European folk-dance and music group. Founded in 1937 and affectionately called the “Tammies,” the group, which is made up entirely of university students, is known for its energetic presentations of Slavic folk arts and performs 80 concerts a year. The name is derived from a Balkan stringed instrument, the tambura. The dancers wear authentic regional clothing and sing in a dozen languages. The musicians play such instruments as the tapan, a large, two-headed drum worn over the shoulder; the kaval, a Bulgarian flute; and the bouzouki, a Greek, long-necked, eight-stringed instrument with a half-melon-shaped body.
Shumanov decided to sponsor the Tammies for their first Chicago concert in some seven years. He rented the 2,000-seat auditorium at Lane Tech high school, printed up posters, and set about selling all those tickets. Asked why he undertook such a project, he says, “Hey, this is about culture. I rented a big place so I can expose Balkan dance music and this group to as many people as possible, and not just ethnics. They already know.”
And if he doesn’t sell all those tickets?
“If I don’t, well, I tried.”
The Duquesne University Tamburitzans will perform at 7:30 PM this Saturday at Lane Technical High School, 2501 W. Addison. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children. Kids under 5 are free. Call 630-993-1522.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Cynthia Howe.