Do you know the feeling of smelling something that immediately transports you back to a specific moment or space from your childhood? The air shifts and suddenly you are five, seven, nine years old again, feeling simultaneously comforted and also discombobulated. This, to me, is akin to the feeling of recognizing a sample in a song, particularly when the sample is a Bulgarian folk melody.
Music sampling is the process by which a musician or producer uses part of an existing piece of music, looping and altering the section, and layering it into a new work with a new context. The sample functions on multiple levels in a work. To recognize a sample in a song is to engage with two realities simultaneously, to move between worlds and entertain the rebuilding of a soundscape into a way that references, and yet takes a different road from, the original one.
Bulgarian folk music is deeply entrenched in the daily lives of the working-class people. The music traces its origins in the fields, where people first made up songs about their daily concerns, about the physicality of the lives they were living. It is marked by open throat singing in the choral ensembles, asymmetric meter, and a distinct use of instruments such as the bagpipe, the accordion, gadulka, and davul.
The function of the sample is multifaceted, medicinal, and perhaps most powerful in its ability to conjure a familiar space…
The function of the sample is multifaceted, medicinal, and perhaps most powerful in its ability to conjure a familiar space, to reshape the landscape of a memory. The reminder of self and space persists in the sample.
Lacan’s Mirror Stage theory states that the first time that a child recognizes themselves in a mirror, the child’s psyche shifts as they begin to define themselves externally. This fragments the self, as the definition of the self is now presented and acquired from outside. From that point onward, life becomes a strain towards wholeness that is always already out of reach, made impossible by this initial misrecognition.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, the only true way to get close to returning to a sense of wholeness after this point is through fragmentation –through the acceptance and acknowledgment of the fragmented self.
The sample, fundamentally a fragment, functions as medicine when straining towards a whole. This is not to say that it permits a whole, but it allows an archival tracing into origins, an association jogged in the brain, a permeating feeling of otherness in the body that leads it to source.
The sampling of Bulgarian folk, in particular, because of its specific entrenchment in Bulgarian culture and history, is a prime example of this. The first time I heard “holy terrain” by FKA Twigs, I replayed the intro a handful of times. I immediately noticed the chanting. It is a sound I recognized as unmistakably Bulgarian, though I did not know the exact song.
The sample on “holy terrain” is from “Moma Houbava” (“Beautiful Girl”), as performed by the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir. The sample only sounds by itself for a couple of seconds before it drifts to the background, allowing Future to rearrange its context.
The predominant line repeated in the original song is “lazare tuka tuka,” which means “Lazar, here, here,” pointing to a distinct place with increased insistence, building crescendo. So much of the sample, regardless of the lyrics, is pointing to a certain place. It is already repeating here, here, even while being rearranged into someone else’s language, someone else’s living, someone else’s home. The sample here is invited to sit at a foreign dinner table with a traditional dish that becomes a part of the meal. It makes itself a home away from home, reminding someone else of what home still tastes like, even when it’s been years since the taste, the smell, the essence of it has been familiar in the body.
The sample here is invited to sit at a foreign dinner table with a traditional dish that becomes a part of the meal.
The selection of “Moma Houbava” as the sampled song for “holy terrain” does not seem a coincidence, either. It seems that FKA Twigs has intentionally chosen this specific song with an understanding of its lyrical content, as “Moma Houbava” is a song that urges the man, Lazar, to follow and ask a woman’s hand in marriage. Meanwhile, “holy terrain” dives into a yearning for a partnership that would be equal in its mutual respect and in the intensity of both party’s feelings.
It seems FKA Twigs is speaking, in a way, directly to Lazar from the song before – asking if he might have what it takes, asking if he is really prepared to give her the love he’s bargaining for. FKA Twigs is very intentionally placing her voice in conversation with the voice of the women from the Bulgarian Vocal Choir, creating a roadmap into desire, rooting it in a decades old song that outlines a similar point. The effect is a new interpellation that sounds ancestral, despite its modern influences.
Even the title, “holy terrain” does not illuminate exactly what it refers to. Is the holy terrain the body, the space between two bodies, or the land? Future is not in the music video for the song, though he features in it. Instead, FKA Twigs is pictured alone, and then in a group of women, dancing together, a scene which culminates with the women moving and dancing in a circle in the dark, mimicking or alluding to ritual, praise, worship. The song centers the power of woman—despite addressing a man— and calls on ancestral power through the sample.
In this way we have the happening, the locus of meaning, that then gets interpellated into a new soundscape, that then is warped and positioned in an entirely new structure. The integrity of the origin remains, but would be unrecognizable to most, which is perhaps the point of a good sample. And this is, perhaps, the tracing of the self—accepting fragmentation as the only road halfway into a cohesion, halfway into an identity that can marry aspects of the self that might seem at odds with each other or bent out of shape.
I’ve read that each time we recall a specific memory, we misremember upwards of 50% of it.
I’ve read that each time we recall a specific memory, we misremember upwards of 50% of it. We play a game of telephone without consciously knowing it. This is to say, it is always impossible to be a reliable narrator, even if that is one’s intention.
To conceive of a sample in the way one would conceive of recalling a memory is another way to interact with personal and collective narrative, as well as with the musical archive. Each time a piece of a song is cut, reframed, or warped into a new song, something that has already happened or is intuitively felt is conjured into existence. There is a calling of collective memory in order to process or understand a personal one.
Of course, mostly, I find it personally exciting to hear the use of a Bulgarian folk sample because I feel seen, somehow. It’s almost like I am in on a private joke, a whispered secret. There is nothing quite as exciting as recognizing yourself in things that are not you. This is the fragmentation that creates a through line. This is the tracing of origins available to us all the time, every day, if we are looking for more ways home.
© Yoana Tosheva (4/5/2023) – Special for FF2 Media ®
LEARN MORE / DO MORE
Lacan’s essay on the Mirror Stage can be read here.
Visit YouTube to watch a live performance of “Moma Houbava” by the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir.
Visit YouTube to watch the music video for FKA Twigs’ “holy terrain.”
Visit my previous post on FF2 to read more about the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: “FKA Twigs performs at the Park Avenue Armory” by Laganjart is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Bottom Photo: “Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir” by Daznaempoveche is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.