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Something that I've come to realize, as I work with my recorded material, is that the songs really DID function as a means of communication, in a time where there was not even electricity or telephones, much less cell phones, where people lived.  Here I would like to share some small examples of that.

Lakatitsa is prob about center of this clip
Lakatitsa is probably about center in this clip

A particularly striking one, to me, is the day in the summer of 1988 (August 16, to be exact!) that I went with my husband Dick and my friend Erica to a place a bit outside of Govedártsi, south-west of Sámokov—a place they know by the name of Lakátitsa.  (Peter, my son, was not with us that day— he had gone somewhere else with a friend.)  It was along the road that leads north-west from the village in this screenshot from Google Maps.

So, instead of going out to the working site in the morning with the women, we were driven out later by someone, arriving towards the end of their noonday break.  But the women (whose job at the time was to feed hay into the baling machine) were still sitting, showing no sign of working, because the baler was being repaired by the men.  Once we arrive and settle in a bit, two women start singing for us.  And while they are singing, suddenly, from wa-y-y-y high up the steep hill to the south of us, we hear another group of workers calling.  A bit of a shouted conversation ensues— "Right away!  We're getting up right away!"  After a moment three people started to sing. I tried to find something playable on my tape, but unfortunately they were so far away that we got next-to-nothing.  However, after they finished, the women told me the words to the song they were singing:

Море я ста'яйте да ста'яме, дружино верна зговорна
на поста(т) се наредете, дружино верна зговорна
да видиме коя нема! дружино верна зговорна

Come, stand up, let's stand up, oh my faithful band [here: of co-workers]
take your places, so we can se who's missing!

I later realized that with their song they were "asking" about what was happening—the kind of real "in context" singing that I had secretly hoped I might find!  "What's going on down there?   Why aren't you working?!"  The noontime break is over, you should be back to work, why aren't you?

Three years earlier in the village of Mádžare (just east of Govedartsi), Ánka Fílipova, a woman who eventually told me a large number of beautiful songs, had been telling me a song to which I will devote a whole post one day.  It's a song Anka considered particularly "hers" because the heroine is named Yána (a variant of Anna, as is Anka).  "You see those two teeth-shaped mountains up there? [on the ridge of the Rila Mountain.]  When I was a girl, I would go up there gathering blueberries, and when I sang, my father could hear me all the way down here in the village!"  From the map, it looks to me as if this might have been a good 2 miles "up".  Yes, I thought, the woman had a strong, beautiful voice.  And then...

These may not be the actual peaks Anka was talking about, but you get the idea. (I'll keep looking for a better photo.)
These may not be the actual peaks Anka was talking about, but you get the idea. (I'll keep looking for a better photo.)

And then I thought more.  What might it have meant to this man, whose daughter was all the way at the top of some of the highest mountains on the Balkan Peninsula, probably with a small group of friends, in mountains where bears, wolves, and all sorts of wild animals abounded, not to mention lonely shepherds, foresters, outlaws (you name the dangers), to hear her singing?

He could hear his daughter singing, and he knew she was all right—at least so far!

Boggles the mind.




Or: How we think about Bulgarian songs

I've been having fun reading a Bulgarian book I recently got, and starting to listen to the CD that accompanies it.  The publication augments a book I've had and cherished for many years (it's the book pictured on the cover of the new one), Музикално-фолклорни диалекти в България (Folk Music Dialects in Bulgaria), by Eléna Stóin, published in 1981.  The original book does a beautiful job of outlining the major folk music regions of the country — Thrace, Rhodope, etc.), plus the smaller transitional regions.  It includes a map showing these regions (see below), followed by a thorough description of the region's musical characteristics, and includes musical transcriptions of a goodly number of songs from each region — but no sound recordings.

What this new book adds to this picture is a CD with over 200 sound recordings of these examples — dating from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, a time when the singing traditions were still alive and strong in the villages.  If you're not as deeply into all this as I am, you may not know that this is a layer of the musical tradition of which we have very, very few examples that we can actually listen to.  So this is quite a treasure!  The samples are not long, because Bulgarian folklorists in those days did not have much recording tape available to them, so they could only record a verse or two of the song (some of these songs go on for a long time if sung all the way through), but they did try to get a solid sound-picture of each song: its melody, its harmony if it has any, and the singing style.  Plus information about the song's "social function" — when it is sung, and where it fits into the daily or holiday life of the village.

But what I actually wanted to write about here is how impressed, even deeply moved, I was by the half-dozen introductory pages.  Here the editors of the book (Tsénka Jordanóva and Mariijána Búleva) deftly and in a very readable way outline how the academic discipline of "Folk Music" developed — and the way it is still viewed by us today!  "Dry and dull," you may say?  HELL NO!  It describes the work of a handful of Bulgarian scholars in a way the not only brings them to life as people, but really caused me to sit back and appreciate the way they evolved a way to think about, talk about, and present this material.  Can I bring this to life for you a bit?  Let me try.

The editors create quite a picture of Eléna Stóin as a person.  Her passion was fieldwork, she is the one who came up with the idea of calling these regions "musical dialects".  In the 1950s and 60s when she started doing fieldwork, many of the villages where she and her colleagues recorded did not even have electricity.  The idea of being able to record someone's voice and listen to it later!....well, people came from miles around to try this out.  Stóin was also keenly interested in the peoples' lives, and made many marginal notes in her fieldwork journals about these things.  She sounds so much like "my kind of person" that I found myself really regretting that, although I met her in the winter of 1980-81, I did not really get to know her at all.

As I said, Stóin's book divides Bulgaria's vast folk musical expression into different regional styles (or musical "dialects"), which I will show here on a version of her map that I took the liberty of coloring and labelling in Latin letters as well as Cyrillic:

map - Stoin coloredClick on the map to see it full-size.  The areas in which I have done most of my own work are the blue area, Central West, the green area to the right of it (Ihtiman Sredna Gora), the yellow and orange areas below it (Pirin and Velingrad), plus one village near the bottom right of the red (Rhodope) area.

When this book came out in 1981, it became the standard for describing Bulgarian musical folklore.  But at that time there were precious few actual field recordings to listen to, so as the music started being taught by professionals, it lost some of its "edge".  For instance, the wonderful singer Kreména Stánčeva told me how, when she sang songs she had learned in her village (Kovačévtsi, near Sámokov) for Philip Koutev (director of the choir now known as Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares), he told her she was singing wrong musical intervals (i.e., some of her notes were a little flat, or sharp)!  She had to grab some women who were cleaning at the place they rehearsed (they were from her native region but not "trained singers") to sing for him, and show him that's the way they really do sing there!!!

So I will include here just one example of these early recordings, made by a colleague of Elena Stoin:

Йофчар ме, мамо, излъга (Jofčar me, mamo, izlâga), recorded in Kostándovo, Vélingrad region in 1958 by Nikolaj Kaufman.

(And there are 221 more examples!)


A few words to clarify the content of the song in my previous post, "Are the songs beautiful?"  When I played this song for the singers in Zdravets, first of all I was delighted that my singing partners were as excited about the song as I am, and want to sing it.  But when I told them the text of the song, I got an unexpected question about the last part of the story:

....What Gjúro 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."

"So," they said, "they're all dead (the mother and sister and wife)?"  That interpretation had never occurred to me, but my friends have learned that cuckoos are not especially propitious omens in these songs, so they thought that Gjuro's imprisonment had killed the whole family.  But I wasn't so sure, and today I had the opportunity to ask a Bulgarian friend, a singer herself, who knows the song repertoire very well.  She confirmed my own interpretation (that they are not dead, but missing him terribly), and fleshed out for me some of the extensive symbolism in the song tradition:

  • First, a falcon or an eagle is recognized as the bearer of news (if the story is about a young woman, it might be a dove instead).  He has been to Gjuro's home and found desolation:
  • Gjuro being imprisoned and unable to take care of it, the yard has become overgrown with weeds;
  • the tree in the yard (trees representing the roots, in this case the foundation of the home) has withered and died;
  • the three women (mother, sister, wife), bereft and abandoned, are represented as cuckoos, because cuckoos are known for their plaintive, lonely call.

So much intense feeling packed into a few short lines!  And so easy for us to completely miss the real meaning of the song, that lies just beneath this delicate phrasing.   This is one reason that I never decline to hear again a song that I might have heard a dozen times: because this singer might add a few words that completely change my understanding of the song, or clarify something I've puzzled about for years.  I'll have more to say along this line in another post.

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!)