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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!)

 

5

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!

 

1

Getting together this post, which I thought was going to be simple ("Just put up some nice songs"...), has taken me a good week!  There is SO much more to say about each of these songs, and pictures to show, and customs to explain...as well as all of the music, texts, and maps to gather.  I hope I've learned my lesson and will try to present more limited posts from now on!

This is a HUGE topic, which I am going to have to break into manageable chunks...

One of the things I was specifically looking for, when I went to Bulgaria in the winter of 1980-81, was harvest songs (which became generalized to include ALL field-work).  Even though it was winter, I recorded over 100 of these songs!  And of course, on my other trips I have similarly recorded a great many, especially in the summer of 1988, when I was there from July through early October.

Everywhere I went, I found that some of these songs were sung solo (or by two voices singing in unison), others were sung with a drone.  In each case, a second person/group to sing would repeat each verse, singing the same words sung by the first group.  In the process of recording these, I learned that a great many of these songs had very precise times when they were sung, at the time when the tradition was strong.  I also learned that for the achingly-beautiful solo harvest songs, each village has its own melody (sometimes more than one, but often only one) to which they were sung.

Another time I'll talk more about which songs are sung when, which are solo/which are group, and all that - but first, I think I will pamper myself and offer you some of the solo harvest songs whose melodies I particularly love.  So, without further ado, bathe yourself in these songs!  Texts will be at the end, as usual.

Bg map-Screenshot, Cherna gora


Бегала Янка
(Begála Jánka), recorded in ‏ Čérna gorá, Pérnik region.
  For me, this melody has a feeling of immense space ....as if I see, stretching out in front of me, a huge field that we're going to be working in all day!

Bg map-Screenshot, Bistritsa

 

I wanted to put Bístritsa's beautiful harvest melody here, but could not find a suitable recording when I first posted this.  I've found it now, see "Harvest Songs...part II".

 

Bg map-Screenshot, Plana


Ой Петъре, Петъре юначе
(Oj Petâre, Petâre junáče),
recorded in Plána, Sofia region.  A cautionary tale - read the translation!  Plána is not far from Kovačévtsi, you can hear a similarity in the melodies.

Bg map-Screenshot, Kovachevtsi


К вечерум се робье продавая
(K večerum se rob'je prodavaja), recorded in Kovačévtsi, Samokov region.  The theme of children separated at a young age, whose lives cross again later in life, is very widespread.

Bg map-Screenshot, Dragovishtitsa


Облагала се Драгана
(Oblagála se Dragána), recorded in Jambórano (now part of Dragovíštitsa), Kjustendíl region.
  A beautiful melody with a terrifying text, if you get all the way to the end.

Bg map-Screenshot, Pernik


Карай, Райо!
(Karaj, Raja!), recorded in Vladája, a suburb to the south-west of Sofia. Before singing, Kúna explains that this song is sung towards evening, when the girls are hurrying to finish the field.

 


Song texts:

T- Ch.Gora '80-2 Begala Janka

 

T- Plana '80-15 Pojde Pet'r na rai bozhi d'ide

 

 

T- Kovach '85-23 K vecherum se robje (fr 2Girls booklet)

K večerum se robje prodavaja, pdf

T- Jamborano '80-11 Oblagala (hand-wr w transl)

 

Karaj, Rajo, daleko e kraja!

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