Skitnik: Bellingham’s Bulgarian Wanderers

Skitnik is a band of wanderers. The members of the group come from a variety of musical backgrounds, and the band itself formed out of spontaneity, absorbing members until it evolved into a seven-member group with a 14-instrument repertoire. Not to mention the groups’ genre, which can be loosely defined as “Eastern European folk music,” but draws influences from old-timey English waltzes and circus sideshow music.  To top it off? “Skitnik” means ‘wanderer’ in Bulgarian.

One part sideshow, one part Bulgarian wedding and one part scrappy 1920s ragtime, it may come as no surprise that many Skitnik members have close ties to the Bellingham circus community. The seed for Skitnik was planted in the spring of 2011, when the Bellingham Circus Guild produced a show called Circus Supernova. Current Skitnik members Ellie Rogers, Amiel Martin and RJ Rex were in the house band for Supernova, and the idea for a spin-off band was born out of a conversation between Rogers and Jeff Lefferts, a current Skitnik band member.

“I had already been learning some eastern European tunes with a friend of mine who plays the clarinet, and Ellie and I were just talking about projects we should do and all the sudden it was like, ‘hey we should make a Bulgarian band, wouldn’t that be fun?’” Lefferts said. “So six months later, we actually did it!”

Over the next few months, the group absorbed Alex Larson (clarinet and bass clarinet), Carrie Crocket (accordion/saw), and Stefan Freelan (drums/percussion). The band played several Vaudevillingham shows throughout October and November of 2011, but didn’t finalize  until spring of 2012 when they played as the house band for the JustinCredible Sideshow. The show features traditional sideshow acts such as glass walking and sword swallowing.

“That’s when I think we solidified and took off … We finally had a set list and a full band and we were accompanying these cool acts,” said Rogers. “It was really fun.”

Although the band has yet to release an album, they’ve used that to their advantage to experiment with new songs and arrangements. Martin explains that the band often takes songs and “Balkanizes” them, meaning they often change up the rhythm and tempo to a more traditional Eastern European tune.

“It’s a really adaptive music form,” Larson adds. “You can take just about anything and Balkanize it.”

The group has adapted several jazz songs, a waltz and even the Jackson 5’s “Blame it on the Boogie.” The arrangement process is a group effort, and every member has input about the song selection and how to tweak it.

“We almost always try to see if everyone agrees with something, and we rarely are so invested in any one idea that we cant let it go,” Lefferts said. “I think that’s one of the best things about this band, that we are able to listen so well.”

The band has kept busy playing shows around Bellingham, and has even been known to throw “Skitnik Picnics,” one-off shows at the amphitheatre in Boulevard Park. True to the band’s character and roots, the picnics are haphazard shows usually announced a few hours before on their Facebook. Despite the lack of planning or advertisement, groups of 50 to 60 people have shown up or wandered over from other parts of the park to hear the band play.  They’ve even experimented with a “boat tour,” which involved sailing a boat to the edge of the shore and playing for people in the park.

“We’re just doing something that’s natural and organic and fun,” said Lefferts. “It’s not meant to be commercial or slick or anything.”