Within Chicago’s Balkan community, church functions and tucked-away nightclubs keep the music, dance, and food of eastern Europe flourishing. But every spring outsiders have the chance to take it in, thanks to the efforts of John Kuo, who organizes the annual festival that has musicians and dancers converging on the University of Chicago for a three-day party of workshops, concerts, dancing, and traditional cuisine this week. Kuo, who’s put together the event since the mid-70s, is a longtime member of the Bulgarian music group Ensemble Balkanske Igre. He also happens to be Chinese.

Kuo was born in Hong Kong to mainland Chinese parents and when he was ten came with them to the U.S., where his father taught Chinese language and literature at Yale. But his obsession with a culture far from his own doesn’t strike him as unusual: as he puts it, you don’t have to be Austrian to love Mozart.

Thirty-odd years ago, walking past an open door in Ida Noyes Hall at the U. of C., Kuo saw people jumping around to interesting-sounding music. Intrigued by the sight, he peeked in, then entered. But intimidated by the dancers’ proficiency, he never dreamed that he’d go on to become an expert himself.

Back in the 60s interest in international folk music and dance was booming. Kuo says there were eight different folk-dance groups at the U. of C. when he started there as an undergrad in 1968, and the majority of them attracted between 150 and 200 people for every weekly get-together. Prior to coming to Chicago, Kuo hadn’t been fanatic about any kind of music, though he did enjoy a wide spectrum of styles thanks to his parents’ interest in Chinese and Western classical. When high school friends asked him to join them at dances he declined. “I was kind of inwardly directed, and the whole concept was strange to me,” he recalls.

But after that afternoon at Noyes Hall, curious about more than just the dance steps, Kuo began researching Balkan music and culture. Most of the early participants in the Hyde Park groups were students, but there was usually a sprinkling of Balkan immigrants, and his interest led him to seek out performances by local ethnic ensembles. “Eastern Europeans are very warm, friendly, and gregarious people,” he says. “One of my buddies, Paul Collins, is African-American, so we presented quite a sight at these restaurants and celebrations. People were delighted that we took an interest in their culture, and even more pleased when we showed some knowledge and proficiency in doing their dances.”

At the U. of C. Kuo studied math and physics, but as his education progressed it was Balkan culture that became his passion. “By the time I figured out what I wanted to do, which was folklore,” he says, “I had totally lost interest in the academic approach. I wanted to become intimately involved in it, and not to just study it in a disciplined way. If you take a formal approach the methodology is almost more important than the subject.” So after graduating in 1973 Kuo took a job slinging drinks and spent his free time hanging out with Serbians and Gypsies at local bars and traveling to folk and dance festivals around the country.

Kuo’s interest eventually led him into organizing events. “The folk-dance scene was always a bit of a Potemkin village,” he says. “They would take stuff from the Bulgarians, the Serbs, the Scandinavians and they would make this stew that was uniquely American. It’s admirable that they were trying, but it tends to have a homogenizing effect. I wanted the best of the genre, unadulterated, and I wanted access to the greatest artists.” In 1976 he drew upon the contacts he’d developed to book Atanas Kolarovski, an acclaimed Macedonian dancer who once led the national ensemble Tanec, and since then he’s brought some of eastern Europe’s finest musicians and dancers to town, including the great Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papasov and the Macedonian reedist Ferus Mustafov.

By 1986 Kuo was working as a computer consultant for Sears, Roebuck, and he finally had the money to make the first of five trips to the Balkans, collecting books and recordings and attending festivals. By then he’d been teaching dance to four different ethnic Croatian groups for nearly a decade; members of the Serbian and Macedonian communities also call on his services as an instructor. “Over the years my Hyde Park apartment has been like a hostel,” he says. “Every time an eastern European artist comes through town they stay at my place.” Kuo has even taken in dancers and musicians who’ve defected while their troupes were touring in the U.S., helping them settle in the area. It was through one such defector that he met his wife, Galia, a Bulgarian native he married in 1995. Kuo is not only fluent in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and the Shanghai dialect but can get by in Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian, with a sprinkling of Rom as well.

A decade ago Kuo added a cooking contest to the spring festival to attract more of the local Balkan community. “Why would they go to some event on the south side with a bunch of Americans when they have their own events in their own community?” he says. These days between 10 and 20 community members prepare enough traditional food to feed the 400 to 500 people that attend annually. “Now it’s their event, and the Americans benefit as well, because they can meet all of these people and try the food,” Kuo says. “That’s what I’m most proud of, that we have both communities.”

Spring Festival

When: Fri 3/18 8 PM to midnight; Sat 3/19 9 AM to 1 AM; Sun 3/20 9 AM to 5 PM

Where: International House, University of Chicago, 1414 E. 59th

Price: $25-$40 for Saturday night’s events (advance registration required for dinner); $130 for a weekend pass

Info: 773-324-1247 or www.maklink.com/events/festival_0318.htm

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.