Skip to content

2

Here is a story that seems particularly appropriate right now.  It comes in several parts:

Dolen, Blagoevgrad region

Part 1 happened in the winter of 1980-81, when, together with Dick and Peter, we wanted to visit the village of Dólen (some 17 miles east of Gótse Délčev), because we knew there was a very special kind of singing done only there, and in the neighboring town of Satóvča.  One of the things we learned is that there is some pretty fierce rivalry between the towns as to who stole it from whom! but that is not part of this story.

The first thing that happened, when we arrived in Dólen on a wet and icy 14th of January (the roads were closed later in the day, so we felt lucky to even get there), was that the ensemble director Silvéta Mánčeva greeted us, but told us that the women didn't want to come.  They'd promised to come when she'd asked them the day before, but today it was so icy that they did not want to come out at all....  So she went to try to round them up.  We waited in the warm Cultural Center (I still remember watching steam rising from our wet coats and jackets as they warmed up from the heat of the stove).  And they did come!  But before I go any further, let's listen to an example of this kind of singing:

Слага се слънце, надведа (Slága se slântse, nadvéda), recorded in Dólen (near Satóvča) in the winter of 1980-81  (song texts at end of post)

When we recorded this, all of the singers insisted that none of the young people in the village could do this "high singing (na visóko)"; even Silvéta herself, born in 1947) could not do it.  "It takes a special voice."

I was lucky enough to be able to record several examples of just the "high singing", without the lower part, which stood me in good stead later.  Here is a little sample:

Лесни се, горо (Lesní se, goro), recorded in Dólen


Part 2

After I came home in 1981 with my treasure (about 75 hours of village singing and discussion — almost 900 songs, including a few instrumental melodies!), I gradually started to assemble some "favorites" — songs I especially liked, good songs for sharing, songs that I thought local singers might like to learn...  Among these was "Slaga se, Slântse" (above).

So, sometime after 1985 I sang for awhile with one of Boston's earliest ensembles that did Bulgarian music, Evo Nas.  We singers decided to try and see if we could do this na visóko singing.  To our considerable amazement, we found that once we wrapped our heads around the notes we were trying to sing, and took that "leap of faith"....IT JUST FLEW!  I think we were sitting on my livingroom couch when that happened the first time.

After another year or two Evo Nas folded (too many members had moved away, but by 1989 a couple of us die-hards had formed the ensemble Zdravets, which is still going strong in the Boston area — and the singers continue to sing this song to this day.

Part 3
Moving on to the summer of 1988, I was in Bulgaria on another recording expedition for three months, during several weeks of which my husband Dick, my son Peter, and my long-time singing partner Erica Zissman joined me.  We were offered the services of a car and a driver for a few days, and decided that one of the places we would like to go was Dólen.  We cherished the hope that we could get the na visóko singers to come — even if only for a few minutes — to listen to our na visóko singing and tell us if we were doing it "right".  We arrived in the village just about 6pm, which is a TERRIBLE time for village women - at that time of day their flocks are coming home from pasture and need to be greeted, milked, and bedded down for the night.  But we found Silvéta, and asked nicely, and once again, she managed  to round up four of the women who did this singing.  Interestingly enough, Erica and I found that we could not sing with them, because in the eight years since I had recorded them, there were tiny changes in timing and possibly even pitches.  But what do you know?  If they sang, and we answered them (in the traditional style)...  it worked just fine!  But at that time young people in their own village still could not do it.

Part 4
Fast forward to the summer of 1991, when the big national folk festival was held in Koprívštitsa.  (Dick and I led a tour, and nearly all of Zdravets came, but again — that is another story.)  We narrowly missed the performance of the group from Dólen, but caught up with them afterwards, and they sang a little for us.  Who sang?  Who sang na visóko?  Everyone — the older women, the younger women, I think there were kids there who sang — and Silvéta sang!  I guess that if two crazy Americans (of all things) could learn to sing this way....!

Coda
Unfortunately there are two sad parts to the coda.  One is that by 2010, when on a later tour we stopped again in Dólen, there was no singing group there anymore, though there was a strong one in Satóvča, who sang for us, and persuaded me to do some singing with them (I had no partner on that tour, though).

The other sad part is that my dear friend Erica, with whom I started singing in 1971, succumbed to a cancer she had been fighting for six years, at the end of February.  The tiny sliver of silver lining is that Zdravets had sung this song in a coffeehouse two days before she died, and I had shared this story — and I did manage to visit Erica the day before she died, and remind her of this adventure.  We shared a moment of gratitude for the way our lives were intertwined.

Erica Zissman (1951-2018)

Song texts:

In going through my material lately, I came across a song to whose file-name I had added simply the word "WOW".  Hmm, which one is that?  So I played it, to see what had impressed me.  Sure enough, it's well worth a post.

Bg map-Screenshot, Lozen
Lózen, Sófia region

Contrary to usual practice, though, I'm going to hold the song till I've talked about it a bit, because I think you'll get a lot more out of it after I tell you something about why I think it's so special.  I recorded the song in what was in 1980 the village of Górni Lózen.  Now there is only one town, Lózen, but in 1980 there was a little bit of a break in the houses between Dólni (Lower) and Górni (upper) Lózen.

The song, which the women said they used to sing when they started gathering (after the harvest was in) to spin, tells a very familiar story:

Two dragons are fighting in the mountains, from them flows a river that flows past Sofia to a dark dungeon.  No one is in the dungeon but the prisoner Gjúro, with a grey falcon on his arm.  He feeds the falcon with bits of his fingers, sheds tears to give him water, combs his hair to make a nest for the falcon.  The falcon asks why he is feeding him so well: "Are you planning to send me far away, or are you planning to use me in battle?"  Gjúro is not planning to do battle.  What he wants is to send the falcon to his home to see what's going on there.  The falcon has already been to his home, he says: "The yard is all overgrown with weeds, and in the weeds there is a dead tree.  On the tree sit three cuckoos.  One of them is your mother, calling you to breakfast; the second is your sister, calling you to dinner; the third is your wife, calling you to bed."

But now, listen to how they sing it!  The two parts barely diverge from each other...one part goes up a little while the other goes down a little, then they converge again—repeating this a few times to give the "melody":

Два се змея на планина бият (Dvá se zméja na planína bíjat), recorded in Górni Lózen, Sófia region, 1980

Listen closely, though, and you'll hear something fascinating!  There's really a lot of subtle detail in this very minimalist song.  The two groups sing different intervals: when the lead singer in the first group goes up to her higher note (which happens a number of times in each verse), at the beginning of the verse she goes up only a little bit (a half-tone), but later she goes up noticeably higher, even a full tone!  But the lead singer in the second group goes consistently to the same interval (only a half-tone).  Does this bother anybody?  Not a bit, as long as you are used to singing with the lead singer you're singing with!  Criss-cross the groupings of singers, though, and you'll get consternation and sometimes (when I first heard this I didn't really believe it, but it's true) COUGHING!  There's really a very physical component to this singing...

So, is this song "wow" because it is beautiful?  Yes, and no.  Personally, I find the minimal melody to be very compelling (incidentally, such melodies are considered to be among the most ancient).  And that subtle variation between the two groups of singers fascinates me  (Try to sing it, and you'll see just how fascinating it really is!)

Those who know Bulgarian and might find it interesting to listen to the discussion that precedes the song, in which one of the women gives the whole text, complete with commentary (they only sing part of it, though).   And here is the full Bulgarian text (in my somewhat messy hand-writing!)

 

image_print