Crowding on to the stage of London’s Barbican Centre to launch a rare British tour, the massed ranks of singers formerly known as the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir are a sight for sore eyes. But as their voices began to swell, these kaleidoscopic costumes are soon lost in a polyphonic cascade of exquisitely layered harmonies.
Forget the current anniversary fanfare around overhyped classic albums by Nirvana, Primal Scream and U2, because a far more groundbreaking work is quietly celebrating a milestone birthday this year. Released in Britain 25 years ago on the cult art-rock label 4AD, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares first brought this bewitching choir to global attention, selling in phenomenal amounts and helping to christen the entire “world music” genre. A dozen albums later, the choir’s current line-up now features 23 female singers, aged from their twenties to seventies, plus two males. Their conductor and artistic director, Professor Dora Hristova, is one of the longest serving members.
While the 4AD albums introduced the choir to my generation, the first Mystère collection actually dates from a decade before, having originally been released by the ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier on his own Swiss label. Similar recordings had previously circulated on Bulgarian vinyl for decades, enchanting foreign pop musicians who stumbled across them.
Folk-rocker Graham Nash reported having a “religious experience” when Paul Simon introduced him to these heart-swelling voices in 1966. Two decades later, Robert Plant and Bobby McFerrin became avowed fans, while David Byrne even adapted a track from the first album for his 1985 stage project, Music From The Knee Plays. George Harrison was also a passionate cheerleader for the choir, branding them “angelic” on Terry Wogan’s BBC chat show.
“George Harrison, Graham Nash, Pat Metheny,” says Hristova, an elegant matriarchal figure with impeccable poise and old-school manners. “At the beginning they came to our concerts in the United States. They maybe used some melodies off our albums to create new pieces for their repertoires, but for me our music is very different. It can’t be combined with western music. But yes, it helped in the beginning for us.”
With the release of a second Mystère anthology in 1988, further celebrity endorsements followed. Trio Bulgarka, a splinter group from the choir, guested on Kate Bush’s 1989 album The Sensual World. Bush spoke of their music in pagan, almost mystical terms. “It comes from a very ancient time when I think music was treated as a much more powerful force,” she claimed. “It’s very intense – when you hear them singing it affects you very deeply.”
Just as Bulgaria’s Communist regime was imploding, the choir found themselves feted across the capitalist world. Trading unashamedly on their famous fanbase, they mastered the basic free market skills of self-promotion and celebrity branding long before many of their western pop peers. Their second US album won a Grammy and the choir played on Johnny Carson’s talk show, wooing new converts with a bizarrely Balkanised arrangement of the American minstrel standard, Oh! Susanna.
“The Grammy was a surprise for us but it didn’t change the rhythm of our work,” Hristova recalls. “We were in a closed political system, a closed society, we had no idea what happened abroad. So coming to the big market, ha! – we were amazed that our music was so interesting, so magnetic for the people.”
The global allure of lyrics sung in an impenetrable Balkan language, often in a harmonic scale abrasive to western ears, caught everybody by surprise. The Mystère albums became a sensation, effortlessly crossing international borders and generation gaps. Even today, Hristova struggles to explain this universal appeal.
“The melodies are a result of many centuries of cultural influence, because Bulgaria is situated in the centre of Balkan peninsula, and you know this was a very attractive land,” she says. “Many tribes passed from east to west, and our music is very eastern influenced – Greek music, oriental music – but in the west too. So this is a kind of picturesque sound, let’s say, like a bunch of flowers.”
Before making this global breakthrough, the choir had already been active at home for more than 30 years. Founded in 1952 by composer Philip Koutev, it was modelled on similar ensembles from the Soviet Union. Although officially supported by the Communist regime, Hristova insists the choir was never co-opted for Cold War propaganda purposes.
“No, this was not political,” she says. “This was a kind of necessity for our cultural development. Bulgarian composers, at the beginning of the 20th century, developed this national culture, national music – like in Poland or Germany, to protect our identity. They arranged a lot of the songs for academic choirs in the western style, the bel canto technique. So in 1951 Philip Koutev, a very prominent Bulgarian composer, decided to find those singers from all over the country without any education in the folk tradition, and try to form a choir.”
Although sometimes assumed to be a living museum of ancient peasant songs, part of the choir’s mission has always been to compose new music which honours and develops Bulgaria’s rich folk traditions. Thanks to long-standing links with the art academy in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, they have now schooled several generations of women from across the country in the ancient art of diaphonic singing. It takes five years to master these nasal drones and dissonant harmonic scales – those second, seventh and ninth intervals that sound both alien and exotic to western ears.
“We have the major-minor from western music,” Hristova says. “But at the same time we have the micro intervals from oriental music. Diaphonic singing – two voice singing – you can find the same thing in Albania and Greece. So I think the good thing is we have preserved this music. We create a real contemporary music for this kind of choir, so now we have modern compositions based on this kind of singing.”
In the mid 1990s, Hristova recalls, the choir were in a perilous financial state. After Communism collapsed, state funding dried up. Times remain lean, but fortunately foreign tours and record deals now just about pay the bills. Even 25 years on, it seems there will always be a market for music that sounds simultaneously foreign yet familiar, ancient but ageless, heartbreaking yet uplifting. With a little help from their friends, these Bulgarians have evolved into a global brand.
“In Bulgaria we have no money even to pay the taxes for the halls. It was difficult to survive in these 20 years of unstable political conditions. In Bulgaria now, culture is the last thing the government is thinking about. The economy and politics are the only topics of our conversation, not culture. But because of my desire to preserve it, and because of the women’s love of music, we are still alive.” v
Review by Stephen Dalton - Source: scotsman
This is how world music started. Twenty-five years ago, the independent record company 4AD released an album of startling, eerie songs by a little-known unaccompanied Bulgarian female folk ensemble that had been recorded more than a decade earlier. It didn't fit easily into any category, so the label joined forces with other indies specialising in African music, and marketed it as a new musical style. "World music" became a successful brand, and the Voix Bulgares became a worldwide success.The latest lineup of the choir are remarkable because they still have a unique sound, as does that other great world music ensemble, South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo. For this concert, the Barbican stage was bare, with no drapes or microphones and just one grand piano, used to play one or two notes before each song, as 23 women walked on to begin their performance. They were elaborately dressed in traditional costumes, with colourful aprons and floral headdresses, and were spurred on by their black-clad conductor Dora Hristova. The unaccompanied songs were matched by harsh-edged, gently chilling vocal work, with elaborate harmonies and arrangements that made use of discord and weird yelping effects. They sang together, and then in smaller groups, with two male singers coming on to demonstrate carefully controlled, unsettling harmonies on traditional songs.
The second set was even more remarkable. The choir returned in black robes and sashes, as if dressed for some diplomatic function, and began with an extraordinary setting for a sad-edged love song, in which they created elaborate layers of sound and melody, with results that were both thrilling and spooky. Then came what sounded like a religious chant, which was interrupted by whooping and howling, delicate quartet work and an exquisite lament from Binka Dobreva, with subtle and pained backing from the choir. These women are thrilling, unworldly and compelling.
Review by Robin Denselow - Source: theguardian
Watch and listen the videos: Pritouri Se Planinata-
Stefka Sabotinova, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares
(full video), The Tonight Show - Johnny Carson, Erghen Diado, Mir Stanke le, Chan Centre,
Messetschinko lio Greilivko, Dva Shopski Dueta, Innocent Voices, Svatba, Dyulmano Dyulbero, Shope Shope, Concert at CCB, Vol 4 (19 tracks), Theater 't Voorhuys Emmeloord, Ergen Deda, Mar Stanke le,
9th Konya Mystic Music Festival, Dragana i slavei, Otide moma Rusanka, Moscow concert, Polegnala e Todora, Beautiful Milka, Malka Moma, Who Am I?,
Pilence pee, Prochu se moma, Duda e bolna legnala,
Mix (50 tracks), Mix (50 tracks) and Mix (50 tracks).