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Bulgarian Folk Music

Folk music is part of a tradition, which encompasses the whole of the Balkan area. Such music has its own distinctive sound with the key distinguishing feature being the complexity of its rhythms in comparison to Western music. Each region of Bulgaria has its own distinct sound – to the untrained Western ear it may often sound like a musical belly-ache. However, Bulgarian folk has achieved worldwide acclaim and is even transmitted into space. There are over 70,000 folk songs in Bulgaria and dances to accompany them. Today, folk music is as popular as pop with many folklore ensembles, folk dance groups and folk orchestras playing across the country.


Vocals and Instruments

The vocals in Bulgarian folk music are called, "open-throated" although this isn’t strictly true as singers constrict their throats to force out the sound and focus their voices in a way that gives the sound a distinctive "edge", and makes the voice carry over long distances. A wide range of instruments are used, many of which are modifications of traditional Turkish instruments like the Saz known in Bulgarian as the Tambura, which is a long-necked metal-strung lute.  Bands frequently use instruments that include gaida (bagpipes), gadulka (a bowed string instrument), tapan (drum), kaval (end-blown flute) and tambura (a strummed string instrument). Even the Communist government chose these instruments as acceptable for use in Bulgarian orchestras. As music developed so did the instruments and some factories began to produce versions of the traditional pieces.

Celebrating with Folk

Originally folk music was used to celebrate holidays and feast days like Lazarus Day, Christmas, New Year and Midsummer and each region of the country has its own distinctive folk style and its own set of traditional folk songs. In the Strandzha, villagers celebrated Nestarstvo, the feast of Sts Konstantin and Elena. Folk music was played as villagers fell into a trance giving them the ability to dance over burning coals. In the Dobruzha region in north east Bulgaria the music is slower with wearily trod dances and pure melodies, whilst in the Shopi region around Sofia the music and dances are extremely fast. On the Thracian Plains the music is more laboured and heart rending and in the Rhodope Mountains the deep-voiced bagpipe is the lead accompaniment.

In the past, weddings were viewed as important musical events with both male and female singers serenading the wedding guests as were folk songs sung by groups of young girls at parties known as Sedyanki where they hoped to find Mr. Right. Women who used to work the land also sang folk songs to make light of their toil in the fields. Today throughout Bulgaria music stills plays a major role at weddings. Each scene at the wedding carries with it a particular piece of folk music from the entrance of the groom to the exit of the newly married couple. The night before a girl’s wedding is usually marked with a gathering of her girlfriends at her house and the singing of many sad folk songs.

Mysterious Voices and Outer Space

Traditional Bulgarian folk music is more popular than that of any other Balkan state largely thanks to Philip Koutev, who led the state supported orchestra known as the State Ensemble for Folk Songs and Dances and founded the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, which achieved international acclaim with the release of a series of recordings entitled Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares or the "Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices”. Female choirs have always been popular in folk music because of their distinctive rhythms and harmony.
Perhaps the greatest accolade awarded to Bulgarian folk music was song was the recording of a Bulgarian folk song called “Izlel e Delio Haidutin”, a traditional Rhodopean folk song performed in this instance by Valya Balkanska. After its recording, the song was included on the Voyager Golden Record, which was sent into outer space by NASA aboard the US Space Probe Voyager I. It was chosen amongst many other songs as part of a collection of our Civilization's finest cultural pieces to demonstrate our cultural competence and diversity to potential alien life forms.  Alongside the Bulgarian folk song was a symphony by Beethoven.

Folk Festivals

During the Communist period, some folk musicians lived outside of the state-supported music scene and were able to develop their music without the restrictions from the state, which lead to their music fusing with many different international styles as well as including other types of instruments. Some parts of the country became important underground centres for this music and it wasn’t until 1986, when a festival of folk music was organised in the town of Stambolovo. This soon became a biennial event with popular artists from the world of folk. Today, Bulgaria still hosts a number of Music Festivals to promote its brand of folk. The Koprivishtitsa National Music Festival attracts thousands and of performers from all over the country and several albums of music from these festivals have been released. It is staged on a hill outside of this historic town every August. There are also important festivals held in Siroka Laka and Predela.