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 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!)



Many kinds of emergencies can happen when one is working in the field - being struck by lightning, having a baby, having a grandchild break an arm or a leg coming down off a pile of hay (this doesn't happen to the 60- and 70-year-olds who have spent their lives doing this, but it does happen to their city-raised grandchildren who come to visit in the summer).  Then there was the evening when I saw a friend come home from a day's haying carrying a broken pitchfork [picture].  "What happened?" I asked.  "Oh, I'm strong, I broke it!"

My own emergency was of quite a different nature.  In 1980 I went to Bulgaria planning to traipse around to as many villages in the south-western part of the country as I could in three months, recording old songs from (mostly) old ladies with a brand-new Sony cassette recorder.  My husband Dick and our son Peter came with me for half the time.  Dick had selected the recorder (a new model, very high-quality but small enough and light enough not to be a burden to carry).  At the time his profession was repairing audio equipment, so he brought along a small selection of tools in case he needed them: needle-nosed pliers, a small soldering-iron and some solder, screwdrivers, a bottle of nail polish.... After a few weeks we began to notice that the machine was not making very good recordings. Inspecting it yielded no clues.  For awhile we thought maybe the cold weather was causing the problem, so we would carry it inside our jackets to keep it warm.  But it continued to get worse, not better.  When we found ourselves in Blagóevgrad, or guide suggested we visit the local radio station, where Dick could use some of their test instruments.  There was a power outage...but they had their own emergency generator, so he was able to work on it.  But he just couldn't figure out what needed fixing!

Gotse Delchev, Jan 1981
Looking out over Gótse Délčev from our hotel window in the winter of 1980-81

We continued south to the beautiful town of Gótse Délčev, where someone loaned us a machine of lesser quality as a stop-gap measure.  Finally, one afternoon Dick sent Peter and me out for a walk while he worked on it.  When we came back, we found him literally in tears.  Why?  Well, he had realized what the problem was: within the first 30 hours of using this brand-new machine, the record/play head (the soul of the machine that makes the recordings and also plays them back) had...worn out!!!

Now what?

Gótse Délčev, Blagóevgrad region, Bulgaria
Gótse Délčev, Blagóevgrad region

Well, since I was officially a participant in the scholarly exchange program with Bulgaria, I was entitled to help from someone at the US Embassy, so we braved the wilds of placing a telephone call—which in those days was not a trivial matter.  Fortunately we were able to do it from our hotel (rather than going to the Post Office).  We were able to reach my contact, and he asked me where we were.  "In Gótse Délčev," I said.  There was a pause, and I don't think I will ever forget his reply.  "Well," he said thoughtfully, I know who HE is [one of the partisans at the turn of the 20th century, see Gotse Delchev], but I don't know where you are."

We worked my location out and, probably because we were near Greece at the time, his first thought was that maybe we could get a part in Greece.  (Leave Bulgaria and come back?  Really??!  Visas, transportation, all that stuff?!)  But it turned out they did not have the part in the store he was thinking of in Solun (Thessaloniki).

So, quite down-hearted, we wended our way back to Sofia, because Dick and Peter were scheduled to leave Bulgaria in a few days, leaving me there to do another month and a half of research with an inadequate tape recorder.  (In those days you brought absolutely EVERYTHING you might need with you when you went to Bulgaria—down to the kleenex and paperclips.)  I must have called my friend Vergíli Atanásov, a scholar of musical instruments who had technical knowledge.  Wonder of wonders: he had a spare head for a Teac machine that he didn't need right then, which he offered to give me!  Further wonder of wonders: it fit my machine! but Dick didn't have everything he needed in order to install it.  I was able to produce a little nail file that would do, but we needed Epoxy, or something like that.  Which it turned out that our friend Lauren Brody, who just happened to be in Bulgaria at the time, just happened to have.

Armed with my nail file, his soldering iron, and Lauren's epoxy, Dick sat down to work on the tape recorder, sending Peter and me off to Bístritsa where there was a huge celebration scheduled in honor of Bábinden—Midwives' Day, when new mothers visited the midwife who had delivered their baby that year, to the tune of raucous and ribald merry-making, ending in a trip to the river where the young men dragged the midwives into the river (this was January...) and everybody got wet....

Babinden in Bistritsa,
Bábinden in Bístritsa, 21 January 1981

We had a great time watching the formal presentation, then went down the road to watch the fun by the river from a good vantage-point, and later caought  a lovely off-guard photo of the Bístritsa bábi (grannies) in the town square, where the journalists and photographers were lining them up for a formal photo-shoot.

The Bístritsa Babi (Grannies), 27 Jan 1981
The Bístritsa Babi (Grannies), 21 Jan 1981

And came back to our hotel room, biting our fingernails.  As we walked into the room, we heard the tape-recorder playing: Dick had pulled off his repair!

The next day, Dick and Peter returned to the US, leaving me in Bulgaria till the end of February with a now-working tape recorder.

There is a small sequel to this story.  After I returned in 1981, we contacted Sony about our problem.  They tried to blame the tapes we were using (not a major brand), but we told them we used those tapes in all the tape recorders we have as well as at the place Dick worked, with no such problem.  They replaced the head; the new one wore out also.  The machine is still working with Vergili's Teac head!