Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 17
18 October 1999

May It Fill Your Soul
CER talks to ethnomusicologist and author Timothy Rice about Bulgarian folk music

Sue Bagust

Culture is rarely a static phenomenom, and the effects of changing political and social customs always leave their mark on entertainment and the arts. In his book (with accompanying CD) May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian music (University of Chicago Press, 1994), Professor Timothy Rice charts the wider shifts in Bulgaria by examining a narrow microcosm - its folk music. Although the book is primarily an ethnomusicological study, it is also an examination of a complex web of external influences: cultural, social, political, philosophical, and economic. Given Communism's tendency to utilise culture for its own ends, Rice maps out many interesting changing trends, and there are, amongst others, chapters on the exploitation of folk music for political purposes, the interaction of music-making with state policy, how traditions are carried on, gender and music and also ethnic history, with the memories of suffering and oppression that are embedded in so many of the songs.

Rice, with some three decades of experience in researching Bulgarian folk music, based the book in part on the experiences of the Varimezov family, especially the father (a musician and player of the gaida - the Bulgarian bagpipes) and the mother, a singer of traditional songs. This unique way of examining both the music and Bulgaria as a whole has made the book required reading for anyone wishing to understand the country, whatever their disciplinary perspective.

Rice's research into the field has not stopped with the publication of his book, and earlier this year, he was at the Third Triennial British Musicological Society's Conference in Guildford, where he delivered a keynote address on his work. CER caught up with him shortly afterwards to ask him about him about his research.

SB: Could you tell us what first attracted you to the study of Bulgarian traditional music?

TR: I first encountered Bulgarian traditional music when I was a university student. There was an "international" folk dancing club on the campus and I started to do these "international" dances which were mainly from the Balkans. Of all these dances, the ones from Bulgaria were the most physically demanding, athletic, and challenging, and the music was fun. So my first experience of the music was through dancing.

Then I noticed that the clarinet played a leading role in the music, and as I was an amateur clarinet player myself there was a close match between what I could do musically myself and what was coming through on the recording.

SB: What happened between this initial period of interest and your first visit to Bulgaria?

TR: Well, I discovered that there was a discipline called "ethnomusicology" which would allow me to study this music I so loved to listen and dance to. I had always wanted to teach at university, and when I found that there was a way I could study the music I had come to love I decided that I would become an ethnomusicologist. So I found a graduate programme in ethnomusicology and began studying in Seattle, Washington in 1968.

SB: When did you first go to Bulgaria to study its music and culture?

TR: I first went to Bulgaria in 1969 on a tourist visa and spent three months travelling around trying to figure out what was going on musically in the countryside. I had heard recordings of this music, but I had no idea what the reality was behind the recordings. I wanted to know if the music had some kind of life in the real world. I found out that this music was important at weddings in particular, and as Bulgarians are extremely hospitable I would often get invited to village weddings where I could hear the wedding music. I would try to ask people if they knew singers or musicians who I could record. I found that villagers were quite happy to sing into my tape recorder. So these were my first experiences of real Bulgarian musical life - getting people to sing and play into my tape recorder on the one hand, and attending weddings on the other.

SB: The sub-title of your book is Experiencing Bulgarian music. Could you tell us how you first experienced that music as a Westerner?

TR: I first experienced the music as a dance form. Then I began to listen to the music for its own sake and found it aesthetically pleasing. There were recordings of Bulgarian music which were already available in the 1960s and I found these quite beautiful. Also, there was the intellectual involvement with the music: I read that the meters of this music were unusual - some pieces were in 5/16 time, 17/16 time, or 11/16 time! In my previous musical training I had never encountered such time signatures before. I couldn't imagine how I would link them with my experience of the music, so I tried to solve the puzzle of how the time signatures linked with the experience of dancing.

SB: This music has become very popular in the West in recent years. Could you say something about the special qualities of Bulgarian folk music that has brought it so much popularity?

TR: The popularisation of Bulgarian music in the West started to happen in the late 80s with some CDs that were released under the title Le mystere des voix bulgares. These were three or four-part choirs of women singing with an unusual voice quality. It is a type of singing produced in the throat, very different from bel canto singing. It is very loud, very powerful and very resonant - a kind of singing that is extremely striking! The music is an interesting mix of the slightly exotic and the slightly familiar. The exotic part seems to be the vocal quality and the meter; the melodies are fairly easy to organise in one's mind. More familiar are the Western harmonies and the almost Western artistry with which they are performed. They fitted into a new awareness of "world music" that started in the late 80s and early 90s in France, Great Britain and the United States.

These Bulgarian recordings struck a chord with this new musical public. The interesting thing about them is that they are not accompanied by a rock or African-oriented beat. Popular world music has a beat that is familiar, and this music has a beat that is very unfamiliar. Yet it has managed to "sneak in" to what is popular in the "world music" domain.

Download Audio Samples
from the CD, May It Fill Your Soul
Thracian village wedding band
Yambol District 1969

Koledari (Christmas carolers)
Sofia 1972

Gergebunarsco horo
solo gaida (bagpipes)
played by Kostadin Varimezov, 1979

Subrali su se subrali
(They Gathered Together)
sung by Todora Varimezova, 1979

Wedding song with a narrow range
sung by Todora Varimezova, 1979

Sluntseto trepti zaoda
(The Sun Flickered and Set)
sung by Todora Varimezova,1979


SB: Could you explain how important this traditional music is to Bulgaria itself?

TR: I first went to Bulgaria in 1969 for three months, then again in the 1970s for 15 months. I made numerous trips throughout the 1980s. The way you have asked the question is interesting - the importance to Bulgaria! A lot of traditional musicians that I ended up working with were very pessimistic about the importance of their own traditional music to the vast majority of Bulgarians. I think they were thinking mainly about urban Bulgarians, such as those living in Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria), where traditional music is somewhat tainted. Urban Bulgarians are very tuned in to European culture, for example to classical music and art (there are many orchestral concerts and opera performances in Sofia).

However, traditional music was very important to the Communist Party in the 1950s and 60s. The Communist Party took the traditional music of Bulgaria and created rather artistic presentations of it. They were making a point which was important symbolically, a point about the ability of the Communist Party to lead the Bulgarian peasantry out of its medieval-feudal past into a progressive Europeanised (non-Ottoman) future. Traditional music and its arrangement was significant because it signified the Bulgarian nationality, and the way the arrangements were done signified progress into the future.

In the 1980s (the years of Glasnost and Perestroika), however, and during the period of the oppression of Bulgarian Moslems in the country, that same traditional music began to take on a more negative connotation. As people became more and more dissatisfied with their lot under the Communists they also became dissatisfied with the arrangements of folk music which so strongly symbolised the state. So the valence of this music changed from being largely positive in the early years to being negative in the last years of the Communist period.

SB: Could you say something about your recent trips to Bulgaria and what is going on now in terms of traditional music in the post-Communist period?

TR: Yes, a couple of things. One is that many of the professional musicians who were prominent in the Communist period can apparently no longer make a living out of music as they did before. At that time there were two categories of musicians: those who played in the sponsored folk music ensembles, and the wedding musicians who played in the villages. The salaries of such musicians are now so low in relation to the new economy that they are desperate to get out of the country and go to Western Europe or America where there is a real interest in this kind of music.

Many such musicians have left the country, even some of the great "stars" of wedding music. Wedding musicians complain that disc jockeys are taking over wedding music, and in the contemporary Bulgarian economy there just isnít enough money to pay for the elaborate weddings that they used to have. The traditional wedding musicians say they can't make a living any longer. So the economic support for music has apparently disappeared.

The other thing that is going on is that new forms of popular Bulgarian music based on folk forms are arising. Individual musicians are creating new forms. The older musicians are having a great deal of difficulty with this new music that they regard as kitsch. I have not had chance to study this new kind of Bulgarian music.

SB: What kind of music is now available in the West?

TR: The classic recordings that became famous in the late 1980s were released under the title Le mystere des voix bulgares. Three albums have been released, two on the Nonesuch label. There are innumerable records released in the same tradition, so you will find many recordings of Bulgarian choirs that were established in the Communist period whose music is now a commodity in the west. There was also a well known recording released on the Hannibal/Rycodisc label that contained music from the old state ensembles, with instruments such as flutes and bagpipes. This kind of instrumental music is only slightly arranged. The wedding music tradition which was very important at the end of the Communist period is represented by at least two recordings, again on the Hannibal/Rycodisc label, of the brilliant clarinetist Ivo Papazov. As far as I know none of the newest kind of Bulgarian folk music has been released in the West. Most of what is available was produced in the Communist period as well as the so called "wedding music" that was a reaction against it.

Sue Bagust, 18 October 1999


Bhattacharya, Deben:

Songs and Dances from Bulgaria (1968) , Argo zfb 47.
Boyd, Joe:
Ivo Papazov and his orchestra: Balkanology (1991), HNCD 1363
Boyd, Joe and Rumyana Tzintzsarska (1987):
Balkana:The Music of Bulgaria, Hannibal HNCD 1335
Boyd, Joe and Rumyana Tzintzsarska.
The Trio Bulgarka: The Forest is Crying (Lament for Indje Voivode)
(1988), Hannibal HNCD 1342
Boyd, Joe and Rumyana Tzintzsarska:
Ivo Papazov and his Bulgarian Wedding Band:Orpheus Ascending
(1989), HNCD 1342
Cellier, Marcel:
Le Mystere des voix bulgares,
vols 1 (1987) & 2 (1988), Nonesuch 79165, 79201.
Cellier, Marcel:
Le Mystere des voix bulgares, vol 3 (1990), Polygram/Fortuna 846626
Forsyth, Martha:
Two Girls Started to Sing: Bulgarian Village Singing, Rounder 1055
Lloyd, A L:
Bulgaria (1959), Columbia KL 5378
Lloyd, A L:
Folk Music of Bulgaria (1964), Topic 12T 107.
Music of Bulgaria (1955), Nonesuch 72011
Raim, Ethel, and Martin Koenig:
A Harvest, A Shepherd, A Bride:
Village Music of Bulgaria
(1970), Nonesuch 72034
Raim, Ethel, and Martin Koenig:
In the Shadow of the Mountain: Songs and Dances of Pirin-Macedonia
(1970), Nonesuch 72838

[Editor's note: CDs of Bulgarian music can be obtained online from Vox Bulgaria]



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