Growing up Bulgarian, folk music was inescapable. Every family party, festive gathering, national holiday, or visit with my grandparents involved hearing folk music at some point. As a kid, I never could appreciate the sound. Something about the mundane nature of the lyrical content and the strain of the bagpipe bored and annoyed me. I always found myself wishing they would play anything pop instead.
FF2 Guest Post by Yoana Tosheva
In the last couple of years, however, I’ve found my way back into folk, feeling somehow intrinsically connected to it in a way I never felt when I was younger (perhaps because then I didn’t have to). Now that we have lived in America for over a decade, any sort of reminder of home is always a welcome one. Folk music, especially, is never unpleasant to me nowadays.
The bagpipe, accordion, snare drum, and open-throat singing are an easy way to broach the span of time and distance between the dual timelines of my life. The music is so fundamental and inherent to Bulgaria, not only because I grew up associating it with all of the cultural traditions practiced at home, but because the construction of it is so tied to the lives of the people.
The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir is one of the government-funded state ensembles created after the takeover of the Communist Party in Bulgaria, post-WWII. The goal of these ensemble groups was to preserve Bulgaria’s oral tradition, whilst also portraying and championing the regular, working people – an essential part of Communist propaganda.
Most, if not all, of the songs explore themes that concern the daily lives of the people, or festive holidays and traditions. Prior to WWII, folk music was unpopular and looked down upon, particularly by members of the upper classes. After the Communist regime took over and these ensembles were created, however, the popularity of the music rose steadily, especially as property was consolidated under the government and working the land became a communal and patriotic endeavor. These days, the music is customary and much appreciated by most, regardless of age.
The traditional singing that the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir practices is a style that has been around for hundreds of years in the region of the Balkans, known as “open throat singing,” characterized by an aggressive, expiratory technique. The music that the choirs perform is known as obrabotki, a word that perhaps most closely and accurately translates to “reworkings.” Composers most often trained in Western music use their background in order to rework and preserve the style and aesthetics of original folk songs, while upholding their integrity, tradition, and style.
The compositions are often learned by aural imitation with some written manuscripts provided as aids.
Part of what makes the music so unique and beautiful is that it is not restrained or limited by harmonic or notation rules. Rather, singers for years have created aural ornaments that are almost impossible to notate in terms of written music. The compositions are often learned by aural imitation with some written manuscripts provided as aids.
The most famous album of the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares (“The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices”), is a compilation of songs performed by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir, the Kutev Ensemble, and the Pirin Ensemble–essentially a super choir created from vocalists from all of these groups. The title of the record is French, as it was produced by Swiss ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier.
The singing of the women on this album can only and most accurately be described as primordial. The layered chanting often resembles choral chants one might hear in an Eastern Orthodox church, but these hints come and go, as instrumentation enters and again abruptly leaves the instruments of the women’s voices. The elongating and holding of certain notes, while other parts of the choir echo the notes back feels like shouting into a void, only to receive an unexpected answer.
It was fascinating to hear my voice reverberating into the structure and then swallowed back into the land.
When going to my grandmother’s village, the bus always dropped us off on the side of the highway, and we usually walked or hitchhiked the three miles to the village square. On the way there, we would pass under a short tunnel, which my grandmother always told me to yell into when I was a child, and sure enough, I would always get an echoed response. It was fascinating to hear my voice reverberating into the structure and then swallowed back into the land. Most parts of myself I can claim have also been claimed by the land in this way. The phrase she would tell us to yell was ехо под орехо (“eho pod oreho”). This phrase gets molded together when spoken, but if you separate the words, the translation is “hey, here under the walnut tree,” an invitation for respite from the sun under the deep shade of a walnut.
Much can be said about how we do not choose what we belong to or what we love, and for me that has always been directly tied to geography. Certain places have stronger gravitational pulls that have nothing to do with physics and everything to do with, perhaps, how the wind sounds at sundown on the terrace next to the pear tree, or how the Big Dipper is specifically positioned outside a bedroom window.
I think the word obrabotki is most fitting for these folk songs because of the associations present when it is deconstructed. To “obraboti” or “rework” in Bulgarian is often associated with an action done upon the land–to work the land. Much of the folk music in Bulgaria was passed down in this way, precisely, whilst working the land. The country used to be largely agrarian, relying on tobacco production, amongst a proliferation of other produce. All of my grandparents owned land and worked that land, as did most people’s grandparents and even parents. This is to say, we are extensions of the land in a most literal sense, and only with this generation have we become something akin to vestigial organs, transplanted into other spaces, rendered obsolete from the terrain.
What I am aiming towards here is a suggestion that the music–all folk music, but specifically the work that the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir has created and preserved–is a reminder of the tie to the land that is inescapable, regardless of the way time and distances have stretched and warped.
In particular, the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir echoes these feelings because the ensemble consists of a group of women that popularized, at least for a time, traditional folk singing. They toured Europe after Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, Vol. II was released, and won Marcel Cellier a Grammy in 1990 for the category Best Traditional Folk Album. An offshoot group of the ensemble, Trio Bulgarka, has also featured on two of Kate Bush’s records – This Woman’s Work and The Red Shoes.
Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares is both a transcendental and a mundane record, in the way that being an immigrant is both novel to new acquaintances, and yet just a matter of fact to the self. The sonic scape constructed in the record is one that feels ancient, of the gods, but if you pick apart the lyrics, you find yourself getting married, collecting the harvest as the midafternoon sun beats down upon your neck, or listening to a bird sing. The album is a collection of small moments that feel infinite and colossal, small moments presented in a manner that proves they are the ones that matter.
© Yoana Tosheva (10/7/2022) – Special for FF2 Media ®
LEARN MORE / DO MORE
Visit YouTube to watch the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir perform select songs.
Visit The Guardian to read more about the come-up of the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir and some first-hand accounts.
Information on the background and history of Bulgarian folk ensembles was referenced from “Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares”: Folk Music Transcriptions for Trombone Choir, a dissertation by James John Albrecht. You can read the full document here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: “Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir” by Daznaempoveche is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Bottom photo: Bulgarian landscape. Photo courtesy of Yoana Tosheva.