Saturday, February 2, 2013


Bulgarian music is rich in many of the Balkan traditions and influences. Vocal music consists of both monophonic (one vocal line, one melody line) and polyphonic (more than one line, with harmonies involved). Bulgarian singers have a distinct timbre to their voices: the air is more forced, giving the sound an “edge” to it. And whereas in other Western music traditions where the intervals are set at half-steps, Bulgarian incorporates quarter-steps as well (like in many Middle Eastern and Indian traditions). Another Balkan tradition you’ll find in Bulgarian vocal music is the use of drone accompaniment, where one line will remain on one central note while a secondary line sings the melody line (giving it a bagpipe effect). Bulgarian music also tends to make use of the major second interval (like pressing a C and a D together on the keyboard) which is avoided in a lot of Western music. One of the most famous vocal groups to come out of Bulgaria is the Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares [The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices]. It started out as The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir and quickly became renowned for their complex harmonies of updated folk songs, mostly sung a cappella. I listened to their entire recording on Spotify, and all I can say is “Wow.” It truly is amazing.

Many of the folk instruments are very similar to others in this region.  And since I just had mentioned drones and bagpipes, they actually have a type of bagpipe called a gaida. It’s usually made of goat-skin and comes in two types: the Thracian gaida which is either tuned in D or in A, and the larger Rhodopi gaida which is tuned in F. The kaval is a flute which is blown into the end of it, and probably derived from the Turkish instrument of the same name, and is also related to the Arabic ney.  Another common instrument you’ll hear is the gadulka, a stringed instrument played with a bow. It usually has 3-4 melody strings and up to 10 sympathetic strings underneath it. Gadulkas are all carved out of one piece of wood like a lute. The tambura is a long-necked lute with metal strings and frets. As far as percussion instruments go, the tupan is a large drum harnessed from the shoulders and beat with a larger beater stick in one hand and a smaller stick in the other.  The dumbek is a type of hand drum, also called a goblet drum named for its shape,  is popular in Bulgarian music. Other instruments have found their way into popularity, such as the accordion, made famous by the Bulgarian accordionist Boris Karlov (not to be confused with the actor Boris Karloff, who was made famous by playing Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 version of the film Frankenstein, which didn’t really follow the book that closely at all). 

One identifying factor in Bulgarian music is its asymmetrical rhythms. The accordion piece above was a great example of an asymmetrical time signature. You could hear the slight pauses in the rhythms. Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist (one of my favorite fields of study) Béla Bartók even called these rhythms “Bulgarian rhythms.” These rhythms include groups of 2s (duplets) and 3s (triplets) in varying combinations, causing each measure to not be equal (as opposed to equal beats like 4-4 or 3-3 or 2-2-2-2). Bulgarians tended break up the beats into 2-3 or 2-2-3 or 3-3-2.  I love these asymmetrical time signatures and try to use them in my own compositions. I feel it gives a drive to the music and adds a certain je ne sais quoi. My personal favorites are 5/8 and 7/8.

A Bulgarian wedding without music is like trying to keep your eyes open while you sneeze: it’s just not possible. Singing is such a strong tradition for both men and women alike, so therefore whenever there was a life event, especially at weddings and at courtship and betrothal ceremonies, there was a celebration that included singing. Many of the songs for these situations were sung by women, and many were love songs. And more often than not, these songs were also accompaniment to folk dancing as well.

Because of the asymmetrical rhythms that are so popular in Bulgarian music, the dance steps in folk dancing tends to be on the complicated side to accommodate for the uneven number of beats. The basic of folk dancing are grouped together based on the number of rhythms (even though the order or the beats may vary based on the song). For example, the paidushko horo is a dance based on 5 beats (divided 2-3), and it’s more popular in the northern regions of Bulgaria. Each town or region often has its own version of the dance. The kopanitsa is a dance based on 11 beats (divided 2-2-3-2-2). It’s found more often in the western regions of the country and is based on the word “to dig” or “to hoe.” Many times, the musicians will challenge the dancers by speeding up the music (musicians are sneaky like that).

Popular music in Bulgaria reminds me a little of the music I listened to when I wrote on Bosnia and Herzegovina. A lot of the rock groups sound like the American rock groups that were popular prior to the 1990s. One group I found called Monolith who in some songs reminds me of the blues-rock of Stevie Ray Vaughn or George Thorogood.  I actually really like it; I have the album Dr. Rock N Roll in my Spotify playlist.

Another band I found was called Hipodil. They’re more of a punk band, but they also try to border their sound on this mix of rockabilly and early punk in a few songs, and a few songs even incorporate horns giving it a ska feel. Maybe it’s the lo-fi quality of the recording or the quality of the lead singer’s voice, but it gives them a real indie feel. I have to give them some dap for experimenting with the style of their songs and not sticking with one feel; it opens themselves up to a broader array of musical styles. To me, that shows depth, and I like them even if I don’t think the lead singer’s voice is all that. I chose this video only because it's like it's Bulgaria's version of "Pop-Up Videos" which is one of the most awesome shows ever. 

One band I came across who remind me a little of The Killers is the group Ostava. Although they are definitely more of a pop band, I think, it carries a maturity to it, or maybe it’s just reminiscent of the indie groups of the 1980s like The Cure or The Smiths. I might even consider buying this album (I’ve been listening to the album Ping-Pong on Spotify).

They actually have a hip-hip scene in Bulgaria. One group I found is called Upsurt. They sound like the early 1990s hip-hip a la Kris Kross, A Tribe Called Quest, or even Cyprus Hill. There is a part of me that really likes it because that era was part of my childhood, but another part just laughs at how old I feel when I hear music like this. I did manage to find this video from last year, and it sounds a little more modern; however, it is one of the weirdest videos I've seen in a while. 

Up next: the food!

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