For a tiny country (population: nine million) with one face to the Balkans and the other to the Black Sea, Bulgaria packs a wide range of music into its small borders. The female choral traditions, with their unique harmonies, are well known all over the globe. But it's only one facet of musical Bulgaria; delve just a little deeper and there's also the wild wedding music, bagpipes and the eerie sound of the wooden kavel.
However, it's the polyphonic singing that's put Bulgaria on the world music map, and it was largely due to a single album. Released in the late 1980s, Le Mystères des Voixs Bulgares created a sensation with its throaty, unworldly harmonies. The record itself was a compilation of different singing groups, culled from the state broadcasting archives, performing very stylized, heavily arranged versions of traditional women's songs.
The vocal style was ancient, one that could once be heard in many parts of Europe, but which had remained preserved in more isolated Bulgaria, where the sounds are pushed from the chest through constricted vocal cords to create something starkly beautiful, but also quite ghostly Most interesting still is the diaphonic style, heard only in the country's western Shop region, distinctive in its sharp, sometimes searing voices. The choirs on the record are among several state-supported ensembles, both vocal and instrumental, a hangover from the days of Communism that helps keep the folk traditions alive. Some old instruments remain part of the common musical currency in Bulgaria, mostly in state-funded ensembles. That ideology not only allowed traditions to develop, but also aided the players in the virtuositythe idea of folk music as orchestra.
Chief among the local instruments are gaida, kaval and gadulka, a small, four-string fiddle with drone strings that's played on the lapa close cousin to the Polish sukawith roots in the medieval rebec. The kavel has developed from being a shepherd's flute to an instrument that can be played with great dexterity and virtuosity, although its pastoral roots remain very strong. The gaida is really part of the global family of bagpipes, but the smaller pipes, rather than the large war pipes usually associated with Scotland. However, Bulgaria does possess one orchestra that consists of 100 bagpipe playersa truly awesome wall of sound.
Wedding music is something found across the Balkans and Eastern Europe, a village tradition that's stayed alive, and Bulgaria is no exception. Each stage of the wedding day, from escorting the bride to church to the wedding feast, has it music. Indeed, music celebrates many phases of life, from Communion to deathat any excuse, there's music and dancing, often based around the horo or ring dance. It becomes a giant party, with the musicians playing long intoor all throughthe night.
The current king of the Bulgarian wedding musicians is clarinettist Ivo Papasov, who's taken his music in many directions, sometimes heading toward jazz, at other times drifting dangerously into the avant-garde. A wild improviser and gifted, fluid player, Papasov has been internationally acclaimed. Chris Nickson