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At the Plovdiv Philharmonic

Many of the cultural and musical ideas that have fascinated me in Bulgaria collided in the Plovdiv State Philharmonic concert hall last weekend. The performance, themed “Game in Bulgarian Rhythms” (игра в български ритми; неразделни в класиката и фолклора), represented a collaboration between the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra and folk musicians from AMTII, along with several featured soloists. The hall itself is unassuming, closer to what might be found in a high school auditorium in the States than the ornately decorated concert halls of many major cities.

Shiroka Luka

In the Rhodope Mountains, you can find small villages where the men gather in those tucked away pubs above tourist restaurants, shuffling cards and cigarettes as weekday dusk turns to night. Shiroka Lŭka is one such mountain village, located not far from the popular ski resort town of Pamporovo along the road to Devin. As I have mentioned before, it is also the home of a folk arts high school. Late last week, I made the trip south to visit the kaval teacher there for a lesson.

The village itself has only about 500 residents, plus the 100 or so students at the school. Only five of those students study kaval; apparently, gaida is much more popular in the region. The main road runs alongside a small river, which might be more appropriately labeled a stream or creek, on one side of which the houses climb the hillside. Walking up the weaving stone streets and braving the aggressive dogs that most homes seem to have, eventually you encounter the smell of sheep and chickens in the small barns along the village edge, before the buildings are replaced by evergreens.

Kukeri, Part I: Blagoevgrad

The bus arrived in the Blagoevgrad station earlier than scheduled. The city of about 70,000 sits just over an hour south of Sofia, near Bulgaria’s western border with Macedonia. Blagoevgrad was to be the location of the first of three kukeri festivals I attended in January and February. Though I didn’t encounter a single kaval at these events, observing them and doing some additional reading helped clarify for me certain elements of Bulgarian history and culture as they relate to folklore. The three posts in this series will discuss my experiences at each of these festivals and how they relate to issues like political structures, gender, music, race, and nationalism. Though I arrived at many of the observations and questions described here on my own, my understandings and analyses have been greatly influenced by Gerald Creed’s excellent book on the subject, Masquerade and Postsocialism: Ritual and Cultural Dispossession in Bulgaria (2011).


A few weeks ago, I went out to Kotel to work with a kaval player who taught at the National School of Folk Arts "Philip Kutev". The school is the oldest of its kind in Bulgaria and has graduated 1100 musicians in the half century since it was founded in 1967, according to the school’s website. It serves as an example of the government’s mission at the time to promote strictly controlled versions of tradition as a way to evoke nationalism and socialist ideals while also ridding the folk arts of their apparently “primitive” and “ritualistic” elements by blending them with practices derived from the “high culture” of the West. During that era, traditional melodies were arranged and harmonized so they could be performed by a new type of ensemble, the folk orchestra.


​January is the perfect time of year to strip and jump into a river, wouldn’t you agree? Jordanovden, which takes place on January 6 each year, is a particularly holy name day in the Orthodox calendar. At least in Bulgaria, the traditional ritual for this day is for those males whose name day it is to go into a river (water = baptism?) and to catch a cross that a priest hurls into the water. It is a great honor to be the one who gets the cross. Somebody told me that, beyond its religious value, in some villages the “winner” rents out the cross on a weekly basis to other households and thereby earns some spare change. I have not confirmed this rumor.

Christmas in Sokolitsa

​The Christmas season is a busy one for musicians. Celebrations, festivals, special events… everyone wants a wedding band. Last Saturday evening I caught a ride to one such event in Sokolitsa, a small village about an hour’s drive north of Plovdiv. If I understood correctly, it was a Christmas party for the agricultural workers in that rural district. The village roads were dirt and pockmarked as if a giant had decided they looked tasty. The drive had been a bit nerve-wracking; tailgating, getting lost, and warnings that the car was running out of fuel put me a bit on edge. But finally we arrived at the hotel/spa/restaurant complex and stationed the car on a grassy incline just off the road. It was almost 19:30 and quite dark.

At the Produce Market

It was past 17:00 on a Sunday evening, so the produce market was quiet and nearly empty. Most of the stands were covered with tarps of forest green or grey to protect the standard bounty of зеленчузи, плодове, орехи and следи (vegetables, fruits, nuts, and spices) from the night. I had come to find some apples and tomatoes for my next two meals and was grateful o pass the flower booths and see a few lingering produce sellers. It’s nice to be able to avoid the Billa supermarket, open until 22:00 but imported from Austria.

Spotting some apples that looked appealing (as a New York native, I can be a bit picky), I pulled an old plastic produce bag out of my purse. I handed my apples to the man behind the stand, and he placed them in the tin bowl on a scale to calculate my total. He was maybe in his early 70s, with grey hair and a rounded face. I couldn’t recall having seen him here before. As I thanked him and passed him some coins, he noted my accent and asked where I’m from.

Thracian Ornamentation

So far, I have encountered eight or nine standard ornaments used in Thracian kaval playing. I say “eight or nine” because one of them, форшлаг (vorschlag or grace note), serves two distinct purposes depending on context. To better understand the ornaments, I have developed a classification system over the past couple of weeks that divides them into three general categories: pitch, color, and articulation. The ornaments are used individually or in various combinations to give Thracian kaval playing its distinct sound.

Kaval Basics

After two months in Bulgaria, it’s about time I post a bit about the thing that brought me here: kaval. The kaval is a traditional Bulgarian flute that is somewhat similar to the Turkish ney, which makes me think it may have its roots in the Ottoman empire. (Don’t trust me on that, though, since I haven’t yet verified this hunch.) It is one of the most popular folk wind instruments in Bulgaria, the other being a bagpipe called a “gaida,” and it can be found both in folk orchestras and wedding bands. For some reason kaval isn’t particularly popular with the street musicians in Plovdiv, but I have no explanation for that…

On The Radio

One of the most powerful things about music is the way it brings people together. Some people call it a “universal language,” and though I don’t 100% agree with that for several reasons, there is no denying that music can truly facilitate positive interactions between people and groups that might otherwise never see the other beyond a passing glance. I had a wonderful experience of this phenomenon last night at a live radio broadcast of the Bulgarian National Radio – Plovdiv. I had been invited by a host, Misho Grablev, while doing an interview for him earlier in the week about the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence” campaign that the organization I have been volunteering for is participating in. Friday’s event was part of a music festival, Trimontiada, directed and moderated by pianist and Plovdiv native Galina Vracheva.


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