Music-making in 1930’s Bulgarian Village

What’s so special about 1920’s & 30’s Bulgaria? Bulgaria gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, after nearly 500 years of oppression and cultural stagnation. 50 years later, in 1928, some progress had been made in terms of introducing Western ideas to Bulgarians (like schools, local government, some technical improvements), but for the average Bulgarian, everyday life and social organization hadn’t changed much. Through the 1930’s, 80% of Bulgaria’s population lived in villages, most of which consisted of a cluster of houses, each of which contained an extended family of 2,3, even 4 generations, run by a patriarch. The family unit supported itself by growing food on adjacent land, and generally produced most of what it needed to survive unto the next generation. There was very little cash or jobs per se – most everyone was on an equal footing, because there was little opportunity to leverage meagre resources into greater wealth. WW2 disrupted everything, then the postwar Communist takeover remade society and the economy. 40 years after WW2, 65% of Bulgarians lived in cities and worked at jobs. So the 1930’s was the last flowering of a ‘folk’ culture not altered by state intervention, a culture little changed in over 1500 years, and the basis of folk music and dancing practices still imitated by urban-based folk performing and recreational groups in Bulgaria and around the world.

In 1994, Timothy Rice published a book with companion CD titled “May it Fill Your Soul” (U of Chicago Press), which documented 25 years of his first-hand experiences trying to understand Bulgarian music-making processes. Not only did he become a respected (by Bulgarians) gaida player (see, but he learned his technique in Bulgaria from one of the country’s greatest players, Kostadin Varimezov. In the process Tim discovered how Kostadin and his wife Todora became musicians in a 1920’s & 30’s village called Gergebunar (now Rosenevo, near Burgas, Strandzha) with none of what we consider formal musical training. I hereby quote extensively from Tim’s book, while urging you to read it first-hand, as these quotes do not begin to tap the rich lode of information he has accumulated.

ROSENOVO, formerly Gergebunar

“The Varimezovs remember the Gergebunar of their youth in the 1920’s and ’30’s as a small village divided into two neighborhoods with a total population of about 300 people in twelve or so extended families, each marked by an identifying last name…Besides houses the village included a church, a small office for the mayor, a general store, some taverns, a central square or ‘dancing place’ [horishte], and a school for the first four grades, which Kostadin and Todora attended. Beyond the center of the village, where the houses were clustered, each family worked small plots of private land to raise enough vegetables and fruits to feed themselves and tended to its own animals, including a cow and goats for milk, chickens and a pig for meat, and horses for transportation. Communal grazing lands extended beyond the village and the fields around it to the forest’s edge. Whatever wealth the family had was measured primarily by the number of sheep in their flock, whose sale provided an important source of income. A few families held no property except the houses they lived in, and worked in the fields and around the house for the landed villagers, who called them ratai [‘workers’ or ‘servants’] and Tsigani [Gypsies]. These settled gypsies, also called Bulgarian Gypsies, were nominally Christian and spoke Bulgarian. The villagers distinguished them from Muslim, Turkish-speaking Gypsies who came to the village fairs as professionl musicians. This system of private labor and the class/ethnicity heirarachy on which it was based continued to operate during the Communist period; in 1986 I saw some Gypsies making straw brooms for one of Kostadin’s brothers, who lived in Grudovo.

Kostadin‘s father owned and managed a large flock of sheep quite successfully by village standards, a fact he attribute to his large family of five sons, who were able to help him.

Kostadin remembers his father as an extremely disciplined, hard-working man who once told him “If I had nothing to do, I would grab the door and shake it back and forth”. His father imparted that discipline to his sons. Kostadin’s youngest brother, Stoyan, told me that their father expected them to rise early each morning, just as he did, Kostadin continued to rise at 5:30 or 6:00 each morning, even after a long night of playing, drinking, and socialising, an act he called “his discipline”. His father’s work habits resulted in the accumulation of many tools and a well-kept household. But apparently he was not generous with his wealth, and, when he refused the village joker’s request to borrow a tool, the latter, noted for his wit in assigning nicknames, dubbed him ‘varimez’ from the Turkish var, yemez, “he has, he doesn’t give,” which became the family name, Varimezov.

Todora‘s grandfather built the first house in Gergebunar, a low, small, one-story, whitewashed building with a slate tile roof that still stood in 1986, its modest condition, reflecting the haste and poverty of life being constructed in a new locale. [Gergebunar was founded in 1878 by Bulgarians moving from the Ottoman Empire (now Greece & Turkey) – DB.] Later a much more impressive family home was built with many rooms spread over two stories, the lower floor devoted to animals and workshops, and the second floor, with its long balcony, to living quarters. Todora’s grandfather and father traded in sheep, buying them from other villagers and selling them in Grudovo and Burgas. As Tudora told me “Grandpa was thought of as a merchant. He bought sheep from neighboring villages and had people who herded them. He paid them to herd them to Burgas,” the largest town in Strandzha. As one of the wealthiest and most respected men in the village, her father acted occasionally as its mayor, under supervision from Grudovo.

Social Constraints on Music Learning

Music learning is…a matter of social maintenance as much as of “talent.” …In some cultures…music learning is widespread; virtually everyone learns to sing or play or even compose as an integral part of social behavior. In other cultures, the status of musician is ascribed to certain families…or, as in the West, is the rare achievement of only the most talented individuals.

The Bulgarian case lies between these extremes. In a Bulgarian village before World War II, not everyone sang or played an instrument (although nearly everyone danced), and people who sang and played did not occupy separate social statuses – except for Gypsies who played for weddings and fairs in towns and larger villages. Gergebunar was small enough that Gypsy professional musicians rarely came, according to the Varimezov’s account. The villagers provided their own music and song, and those who sang and played did so ‘among other things’ while eking out a living as subsistence farmers and shepherds like their neighbors.

Perhaps the most important social factor determining music acquisition was gender. Men were almost exclusively the instrumentalists, while women seem to have known the most songs. The tradition was imparted differently to boys and girls, at least in part because of differing expectations about how boys and girls were supposed to behave. Virtually every boy had the opportunity to learn to play a simple instrument, like a shepherd’s flute, while herding animals, but not all boys became proficient at it.

And girls, who were learning skills necessary to women, like cooking, sewing, and embroidery, never had free hands to practice an instrument and were discouraged from taking up what was viewed as a male activity. On the other hand, while many girls were diligently taught songs by their mother and acquired a large repertoire, not all did. Boys typically learned a few songs, usually casually in the company of friends and family, but rarely acquired a knowledge of the complete text.

While not everyone in Gergebunar became equally proficient music makers, singing, playing music and dancing were culturally valued behaviors, mainly because of their many functions. During the courtship years, these activities, along with personal beauty and the ability to work hard, were evaluated by potential mates and in-laws as criteria for marriage. Many song texts imply that a girl made herself more attractive by singing and dancing well and a boy by playing an instrument. Singing and playing were also social skills that ‘created fun’ and ‘brought people together.’ Anyone capable of generating fun by initiating a song or playing for a dance was – and continued to be in the 1980’s – an attractive, valued person. Playing and singing were also important pastimes, particularly as entertainment during work. Boys whiled away long hours herding animals by playing on small flutes they either carved themselves or bought for a few pennies (pennywhistles) at a fair. Girls sang as they weaved, fed animals in the stables, and worked in the fields; singing made the time go faster and lightened their work. Thus music had at least three social functions: it was a means of self-presentation and “decoration,” social cohesion, and entertainment. But these functions for music were not sufficient to drive everyone equally to learn the tradition. While it seems that many young boys and girls learned parts of the tradition with varying degrees of success because of its obvious attractions, skill was distributed unequally, and some children never learned to sing or play.

Boys [Kostadin] Learn to Play Instruments

…The key factor determining success in music seems to have been the family and the extent to which its members were musical…[Kostadin’s] father played the kaval, his mother sang, and their music-making initially propelled young Kostadin toward music. “As a young family, my mother and father got together with other young families and danced and sang and he played the kaval.”

playing the kaval

It entered my head that it was pleasant. That was the first spark. It is very important for the family to love fun. There were families that gave out this sense of fun, both for themselves and for other young people.” By implication, and as Todora explains later, some families lacked this tradition of music and fun, not because of any ascribed, hereditary rule, but as a function of personality and life experience.

The Struggle to Learn

Kostadin first played music as a boy while herding pigs. “My mother bought me a pishtalka [double-reed pipe with six fingerholes made of straw] at a village fair when I was in the second grade. Later my brother Todor [born 1913] gave me a ‘shephard’s flute’ [ovcharska svirka]. He played svirka and had a big influence on me”

The name of the first instrument boy’s play, shepherd’s flute, indicates quite a bit about its function. Related to the verb svirya, ‘I play, ‘ svirka might be translated as ‘plaything,’ a kind of musical toy specifically played by shepherds, who were typically boys, not girls. Its greatest virtue was its low cost; it could be bought cheaply, along with other trinkets, by parents or older brothers at village fairs, and no one seemed to care whether or not the boy eventually learned to play it. As Kostadin said “No music was taught. I played for other kids while another kid banged on some wood.” Instumental music was merely a pastime, introducing a bit of fun into life, but valued neither as an art for its own sake nor as a source of income.

With these playthings the children imitated adult musicians and entertained themselves outside the village. Adults were not interested in the results and preferred that the music – actually the play – of children be kept as much as possible out of heraing range. Boys’ musical play was strictly for self-amusement and best not heard at all within the confines of the village by adult listeners. In 1972 I bought a similar “toy,” a clay whistle-flute with eight fingerholes and two thumbholes [okarina], in a market in Sofia. As I stood on the sidewalk and tried to figure out how to play a tune on it, the merchant who sold it to me scolded, “Please go away and play somewhere else. You sound like a child.”

The instrumental music produced by young children was thought of as functioning for the child’s entertainment. Except for buying the instrument in the first place, adults didn’t intervene to guide or to teach. In a sense the child-learner was actually banished from the village until and if he mastered the instrument well enough to play correctly. Only then was he welcome to play in the company of older youths and adults. Kostadin’s first “teacher” was an older boy with whom he herded pigs. They sat together and “noodled” for hours, the older boy providing a slightly more advanced model to follow. This mode of learning might be called “peer learning” and has been frequently reported for children’s music and the popular music tradition.

In spite of his early exposure to the svirka and his father’s kaval playing, Kostadin’s first love was the gaida, constructed of a goatskin bag with wooden stocks tied into the neck and front leg holes and melody, drone, and blow pipes inserted into the stocks. Single reeds of cane placed at the top of the melody and drone pipes initiate the gaida’s sound, a two-part combination of high-pitched melody and unchanging drone two octaves below. “I felt dragged to the sound of the drone. The bagpipers [gaidari; sg guidar] in those days used to put the drone pipe under one arm. It stuck out behind them. I used to follow along behind them during wedding processions or at fairs with my ear up against the drone.” He still loves the drone sound. When I recorded him and asked him to select the microphone placement that created the best balance between melody and drone, he chose a powerful drone sound in the mix between melody and drone. Thus his earliest musical experiences represent a combination of social and musical elements. On the one hand, he was drawn to music as a pleasant activity experienced directly in the family circle, and playing svirka for his age mates replicated in the world of children the pleasant experience of adults. On the other hand, his first active committment to music, his first love, was the result of a personal, aesthetic, mostly sensory, reaction to the drone of a bagpipe. The boy of seven had found his sound.

Simply obtaining an adquate instrument, however, proved to be a struggle. Whereas a svirka cost a penny, a gada, with its rather intricatepart made by a master craftsman [maistor], represented a substantial investmnt not to be taken lightly. His fther, as his nickname “Varimez” might suggest, opposed spending money for such frivolities. Young Kostadin found his mother more sympathetic. she gave him an old skin that had been used to store fresh cheese, and from it he fashioned a primitive bag [tulum] for a gaida. “gaida and svirka were basic to our village. “When we began to herd animals in grade school, we improvised various instruments. I tried to play this gaida with the cheese-skin bag with Stoyan [his youngest brother] who played tūpan,” but the results were unsatisfying.

In spite of his obvious love of the instrument, his family ignored his requests for a proper gaida. “I was mad at my mother and asked her to get me a gaida, but she refused. But my father’s father, Dyado Todor, was there and said to her, ‘Why don’t you get the boy a gaida.’ He understood that I was interested in it.” So his mother, already sympathetic, used the intervention of her husband’s father to buy Kostadin his first gaida against his own father’s wishes. They obtainesd it through barter from an older bou, a neighbor named Yani Bogdanov (born 1912). Kostadin’s oldest brother, Todor, acted as their family’s shepherd. Yani loved to sing, played gaida a bit, but was willing to part with his. As it turned out, this was no wonder. “I played this gaida only a year or so. I had so much trouble with it. The reeds were a real problem. At one point I was actually in tears from the frustration of trying to play it.” So the search for an adequate instrument continued.

As Kostadin told these stories, the sense of struggle was almost palpable. He had developed a dedication to this instrument that was going to overcome all obstacles, including his father’s indifference. “My father didn’t pay much attention, so I turned my complaints to my mother.” Eventually the combined pressure of his son and his wife moved Kostadin’s father to find a good gaida from Gergebunar’s best bagpiper, Bai Stoyan Dobrev (“Popeto”). Bai Stoyan, born in 1906, was a professional musician who came from the propertyless class of Bulgarian Gypsies in the village. He travelled to neighboring villages and towns, played in taverns and at fairs, and during the 1930’s even traveled to England and France…“he learned more technical stuff than the other gaida players in the village. He knew tunes from other villages and modern stuff, like Macedonian songs, which were like popular songs [schlageri] for us.” Unfortunately Bai Stoyan , with his sophisticated ways and need for money, was not about to give the young enthusiast a gaida, or even to trade one for some service or goods in the traditional village manner. “Bai Stoyan wanted only money, and money in those days was hard to get. My father offered him ‘doubloons’ [dubloni, old Turkish gold coins], but he refused.” Finally, Dyado Todor volunteered to pay for half of it, “my father sold a cart-load of firewood in Burgas to get the money,” and the purchase was made.

With the acquisition of an adequate gaida, Kostadin’s career and playing took off. “When people heard I had a new gaida, they invited me to play at an engagement party [godezh] that very evening where Ivan Kuchukov was playing. Even though I was about seven years younger, I played lighter, and people seemed to enjoy dancing for my gaida more.” So the years spent playing svirka and acquiring a dcent gaida had not been wasted. During that time Kostadin had learned the basic tunes of the repertoire with some sense of style and a certain speed and lightness that was highly valued by the listeners and dancers in the village. His dedication in seeking a good gaida had apparently been matched by extensive listening and practice. When he finally had an adequate instrument in his hands, he was ready to play it well.

Kostadin Varimezov plays wedding music.

Kostadin’s Main Influences

How and from whom had he learned the tunes and ornamentations for his beloved gaida? Who were the main sources of his repertoire? The immediate and earliest sources for his repertoire can be divided into two categories: older gaida players and others who did not play the gaida but had significant musical knowledge. According to Kostadin over fifty men and boys could play the gaida in this one rather small village, an indication of how widespread the playing of traditional instruments was among village men at this time. For boys and men, playing an instrument was a basic part of their upbringing, a skill that they learned along with animal husbandry and later home building and horticulture. In Gergebunar some of the village gaida players were members of Kostadin’s immediate family. “One of my father’s brothers played a bit on gaida but he wasn’t well known. My mother’s uncle played gaida but I never heard him.” Although family members played gaida, they were not the immediate sources for his playing. Rather, he learned from some of the better known gaida players of the village. Five older gaidari from Gergebunar influenced his style and repertoire: Dyado Todor [not his grandfather], Gotsata, Giorgi Darakev, Bai Stoyan, and Ivan Kuchukov. An examination of his contact with them shows both how the tradition was learned and how knowledge of it was differentially distributed...

Kostadin’s recollections of the five most important sources of his repertoire suggest four important lessons about how instrumentalists acquired the tradition in the 1920’s and ’30’s. First, knowledge of the repertoire was scattered among different players; no single player “knew it all,” and the size of the repertoire varied from person to person and may have been smaller than Kostadin’s came to be. Second, song tunes were the basis of most instrumental repertoire, and, since the gaida was the most important instrument at weddings, – a common expression was “a wedding without a gaida is not possible” – ritual tunes for weddings formed the core of the gaida repertoire. Third, there was no standard playing technique, and the flat upper hand, which Kostadin uses, may have been a relatively recent introduction from outside the village. Fourth, and finally, social closeness in terms of age, neighborhood and social status or ethnicity, and family connections provided the direct contacts necessary for learning the tradition.

Other Sources of Repertoire

Although instrumentalists provided the models for details of playing technique, Kostadin learned much of the melodic content of of the tradition from singers and dancers, who sang tunes on nonsense syllables like “ta-da” to the would-be gaidar in a process I translate as ‘to hum’ [tūninika] but which resembles something closer to “skat” singing in jazz. Many people who loved music and song but didn’t play the gaida helped Kostadin’s development. While they couldn’t directly produce and model style and technique, they provided him with a repertoire. One important person was his mother, “I played a lot for my family. My mother didn’t sing much, but she knew many songs and I learned a lot from her. In every house the women sang while weaving and embroidering. I remember we used to sit and she would sing and I’d play the gaida.” So while elements of technique such as hand position and ornamentation were learned by observing other gaida players, key elements of the repertoire, particularly songs, the domain primarily of women but the core of the men’s instrumental music, were learned from within the family or from close family friends in social situations.

Kostadin also learned fom some of the young men of the village who were older than he but took him under their guidance when they realized how dedicated and skilled he seemed to be. “Stoyan Darakev, Georgi’s brother, sang a lot. He used to take me to the tavern and have me sing Gotsata’s tunes. He knew these tunes really well. I would play and he would say ‘Not like that, like this’, and he would sing it. He would say ‘Our Georgi can’t learn these very well. You will.'” Thus social recognition of his talent was important to his development, particularly the learning of repertoire, as nonmusicians helped him become a musician to take the place of older, less gifted players. The story also indicates that teaching, particularly of repertoire, occurred only after the boy acquired the skill to play stylistically correctly and learn tunes on his own during hours of practice outside the village.

Varimezov, accompanied by a Tūpan.

“My brother Todor also taught me a lot. He would go to village fairs, hear other gaida players, and then whistle their tunes to me. I learned prt of Triti Puti [his favorite tune] this way. He would say ‘I heard this. I can’t play it but I ‘ll whistle it for you.’ One tune I heard thi way is called Odzhemarska. I later played it so much at various fairs that it became associated with out village and then called Gergebunarsko.” The naming of instrumental tunes was flexible and depended on context. Some tunes, for example, were simply named after a particular person whose favorite tune it was and who kept requesting it.

“A couple of friends of my brother were also helpful. Yani Bogdanov gave me my first gaida and knew many songs. Rale Birbuchkov [born 1910] liked me a lot. He sang me a lot of evening dance songs, the ones called Buenek. He was a fan of Gotsata and wanted me to play like him.”

Kostadin cited a young musician’s ability to get along with, respect, and gain the friendship of older people as a key social factor in becoming a good musician. Once the older men and boys recognized his talent, they were strongly encouraging and provided the social context in which he perfected his social skills. “I went together with my [older] brother Todor and guys his age to nearby village fairs, maybe up to 20 kilometers away; Bukovo, Drachevo, Grudovo. They preferred me to Ivan Kuchukov, who was their age, because he drank a lot and also because he didn’t play fast enough. We boys grom Gergebunar were famous for our dancing. Two would lead the line in front and two would take the end of the line and curl it in on Vurtenata [from vurti, ‘to turn’]. Travelling to fairs, I had the opportunity to hear gaidari from other villages. I remember learning some tunes for wrestling from Dyado Dimo Pandata ffrom Dyulevo.” Kostadin also acquired sufficient fame in the region to be invited to play for weddings in neighboring villages. “I remember playing my first wedding in Punchevo when I was sixteen years old. I played for two days straight and it was extremely tiring. My lips were killing me”. Thus, in 1934, at the age of sixteen, Kostadin completed his apprenticeship and became a respected and sought-after gaidar in the villages around Gergebunar. For the next few years, until the beginning of his military service, he led a typical young bachelor’s life, travelling to fairs and playing for weddings and engagements, evening dance parties, while in the fields herding animals, and for the winter carnival kukerovden.

Moving Beyond Gergebunar

In 1934 Kostadin received an invitation that illustrates the value system in which he acted and made music at that time, specifically the general attitude toward professional musicians. “I remember one time when I was sixteen we were in Burgas with my father to sell some wood. Popeto [bai Stoyan Dobrev] said to my father ‘give me this boy, I will teach him to play better’. But my father didn’t want me to become a bum without a home, somwone who goes wherever he wants but doesn’t come home.” Such was the reputation of professional musicians in those days, and villagers coudl point to details of their lives as confirmation. In fact, Kostadin said,Bai Stoyan eventually divorced his wife and left his four kids, married another woman and had three more.” So Kostadin’s potential for growth was restricted in this period by opposition from his father, and the rest of the community, to the status of professional musician, a status further tainted by its association with Gypsies. The key values of this village culture were violated by professional musicians: they did not appear to work hard on a regular basis; they did not build up property to pass on to the next generation, and they were not at home to care for their family and provide hospitality to others. Musicians had no assets aside from their ability to play music, and instead of staying home to improve their property and build their wealth, they left home and family in search of payment for services. To a Bulgarian villager, this was no way to live. As Kostadin’s father told him “A musician cannot feed a household.” It would be twenty years before the social and economic conditions of music and their attendant values had changed enough for Kostadin to accept an invitation to become a professional musician...

On the Social Processes of Music Learning

Reviewing Kostadin's personal history, five ideas about the social processes of music learning emerge.

First, instrumental music was primarily a pastime and pleasant social activity, at least for property-owning villagers. Aside from these functions, instrumental music lacked substantial economic value, and too great a concentration on it, as by professional musicians, was viewed negatively as a sign of profligacy.

Second, since music had little economic potential, there was a lack of adult involvement in the teaching process, and little interest in the success or failure of young boys, at least until they demonstrated some musicality. In that context the potential musician had to learn the details of muscal style more or less on his own through observation of sound and playing technique in a process that might be labeled as peer-oriented visual-aural-tactile learning; the technique and concepts generating musical performance were learned but not taught.

Third, Social closeness was an important factor in determining which members of the older generation were observed; relatives and friends from the neighborhood were more immdiate sources than distant neighbors or players from other villages, and, as a consequence, the repertoires of individuals, even from the same village, differed.

Fourth, In addition to instrumentalists, nonmusicians were important in the learning process, for they provided actively taught tunes by singing and whistling them. Older boys and men were crucial to learning repertoire, and an ability to get along with them and be recognized by them as talented was an important factor in musical success.

Fifth, what was actually learned and which instrument was chosen was at least partly the result of individual preference. Boys had a small range of choices, but within that range they were drawn for largely unexpalinable aesthetic reasons to one instrument or another. Within the limits of the local tradition, their choices were not determined for them by family tradition or other forms of ascription.

These, then were the social bases for learning the instrumental tradition. Every boy had the opportunity to learn, but sucess was not especially demanded or encouraged. Of those who did learn, some were better than others, their success a result both of musical and social skills. Music learning was embedded in a social structure and system of values in which every boy had potentially equal access to a wide range of skills and techniques, but in which, compared to hard work, hospitality, and caring for one's family, music was merely fun, a pastime, and a potentially dangerous diversion from a man's proper duties.

Girls [Todora] learn to Sing

Although boys were stimulated to learn instrumental music by the pleasant atmosphere at family gatherings and by the support of close relatives, much of the active learning started outside of the village in the fields while herding animals and continued outside the home, with male friends in taverns, and at fairs. Girls, on the other hand, learned to sing around the hearth, literally at the knees of their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, older sisters and cousins. If a father or grandfather loved to sing, as they did in Todora’s case, so much the better. “My first song, I think, was Sūbrali, sū se sūbrali,” a song whose title, appropriately enough, means ‘they gathered together,’ and which, in its melodic, rhythmic, and formal complexity, is far removed from stereotypes of simple songs appropriate for children. “Our people sang it. But there wasn’t just one [first song]. My aunt sang, my father sang, my mother sang in the house. Grandfather sang. I hummed quietly along with them. My two aunts came and they sang while spinning. They sang in the fields. How was I not going to sing?”

In contrast to Kostadin’s story of indifference and even opposition to his learning gaida, Todora received encouragement and active teaching from a very young age. Whereas boys were cast out into the “wilderness” to learn their instruments, girls were kept in the home and taught a desirable, publicly acceptable behavior at the same time that they were taught important female skills such as cooking, sewing, embroidering, and weaving. Singing, a desirable pastime for girls during endless hours of work, was a key element in making female friends, in self-presentation to boys in public, and in dealing with their structurally weak position in society.

Learning by Following

Tudora called the traditional learning method ‘following’ [sledvane], which occurred before active teaching began and paralled the boys’ acquisition of basic style and technique before repertoire was taught. For example the song Tudora remembered learning first by following adult singers, Sūbrali, sū se sūbrali, is non-metrical, highly ornamented, and, by my standards, rather complex.

Here’s a couple of modern versions of the song, where the melody is simplified, harmonies added, and the rhythm has become a regular 16/8 meter.

By ‘following’ adults, she claimed to have learned this complicated song before what sound to me like simpler, metrical songs that children sang at school and during Lent. (In fact, in Bulgaria a distinction between adult and children’s music is a difficult one to maintain). I watched Todora exercise her following skills one evening at a party in her apartment in Sofia. One of the guests, Komna Stoyanova, a family friend and professional singer from Strandzha with a very loud voice, sang quite a few songs, and Todora, inspired by her singing, sang along with her loudly and enthusiastically, moved by the intensity and pleasure of the moment. After one particularly complicated and nonmetrical song, Todora’s daughter Stanka said “Mother, I didn’t know you knew that song,” to which Todora replied, “I don’t, I have just always been good at following. That’s how I learned so many songs. I followed a lot. Words and other things [for example, rhythm] I never danced on the right side, always on the left.” referring to the fact that the circle dance [horo] moves to the right and the person on the right would lead both the dance and the singing. “Even if I don’t know anything, I can sing along. Not everyone was able to follow.” Singing regularly with her mother was “how I learned to follow. She knew the songs and I followed her. Our neighbor said once ‘Dore [a short affectionate form of Todora], I am amazed at you. You sing the song at once, even when you don’t know it.’ I would follow once and the second time I would sing it alone.”

After beginning to sing in family settings, girls formed ‘friendship pairs‘ [drushki] and sang and practiced together constantly from then on. Todora’s best friend “lived near us and we sat together at working bees [sedyankas, lit. ‘sitting parties’]. At our house our mother would sing ‘in front’ [napred, meaning to lead both spatially and musically] and we after her in one voice. The next night at her house her mother would sing first and we after her. And that’s how we learned songs. We didn’t record anything [a reference to her children’s and my way of learning songs]. Singing in pairs facilitated contact and sociability, and a pair tended to sing together for a long time, causing some jealousy when loyalties were perceived to change. “We knew who sang with whom. If you sang with someone else, the other would say ‘Ah, you are with her now!?’ [laughs] I sang most with Milka Hristakeva. We lived across the road from each other. We had sedyankas together. Her mother sang well. My mother sang. We had big sedyankas in the neighborhood.” While friendships were a key to forming these singing pairs, musical considerations, particularly blend, played a role in choosing a singing partner. “We didn’t sing with just anyone. We asked who blended with whom. [I blended best] with Nanka Anastasia, even though she was from another village. She was Kostadin’s first cousin.”

A modern recreation of a sedyanka. Anyone care to translate the conversations? Skip to about 11:30 to get a sense of what the singing portion was like. Around 17:50 some more girls arrive, then at around 20:00 the boys come.

After the girls acquired a few songs by ‘following’ within family circles, they continued to practice in public places, particularly in school and at neighborhood and village dances. Although she can’t recall when she learned her first song, by the age of six she had already learned quite a few. “In the first grade we made a dance at recess in the school yard. In school, how we danced! I started [school] at six years old, but I started to sing before that. Surely I started to sing with mother at four years old. I remember grandmother saying once ‘this child will become a better singer than you.’ My mother said ‘Ah, I don’t believe it’ [laughs]. Because I was so little. I was a lot younger than that when I learned the first songs. Surely I was around five or six years old. It was very easy for me. In the first grade, we didn’t know just one. We knew a lot of songs already.”

Soon youth and adult dances in the village square supeceded home, sedyankas, and school as places to practice and learn. At public dances, older girls from other neighborhoods sang, providing a source of new repertoire not heard in the family circle. “We also learned at dances, everywhere I heard something. If there wasn’t kaval or gaida [to accompany the dance], we sang all day. The whole day the horo was with songs. We sang, sang, sang, and then repeated. The older women would say ‘Ah, you’ve already started to repeat.’ And we would search for ones we hadn’t sung.”

Practice and Repetition

Like the boys who spent hours practicing in the fields outside the village, girls rehearsed songs many times over, both inside the family circle, where practice was a familial, social activity, and privately during solitary work. For the processes of practicing and performing songs, Todora used three verbs in conjunction with the object, song [pesn]: (1) tūninika pesenta, ‘to hum or scat the song,’ referred to performing a vocal melody without words, to remember it or to teach it to another. (2) kazhi pesenta, ‘say the song,’ although used to describe a sung performance, emphasized the text and the act of remembering the words; and (3) pee pesenta, ‘sing the song,’ referred to a complete performance and emphasized its melodic character, vocal style, and overall quality. “Simply when I heard a song and returned home, [I sang it] constantly if it pleased me.” Remembering a song was not, however, only an act of repetition. It was hard work, and there was a mysterious moment when “All of a sudden it would disappear. The melody. I tried [to remember] and I couldn’t. After two days or after one day it came to me and I began to sing it constantly, wherever I went [laughs]. Only it. With the horses, I cleaned the stables, filled the trough with chaff. Because the others couldn’t hear, I could let out my voice [laughs]. Everywhere.” Thus for girls learning began in the family, spread to nearby relatives and friends, eventually reached the public spaces where dances were held, and then became a matter of private repetition.

From Todora’s stories, it sounds as though she never stopped singing. “I sang some songs a lot. Simply, if something came to me, I would begin to sing the song at once. It didn’t matter what I was doing. When I was weaving – what songs I used to sing! Because I was alone, I threw the shuttle and banged the pedals, threw and sang, threw and sang.” Her singing was obviously appreciated by others. “During the winter I wove at one house near us. They had a separate building with an oven, a silo for wheat, and a room with a loom. There was only one grandma and grandpa there. She worked and worked and then came in and I stopped. She said ‘Don’t stop [singing]. I was tired of standing outside and listening to you’ [laughs]. At the loom I sang the most. Whatever I thought of: harvest, dance, sedyanka [songs], that’s what I sang.” All this singing implanted these songs firmly in her mind, which is why she remembered them long after she left the village. Yet she denied for herself the role of ‘”singer,” a modern role created for professional, state-sponsored ensembles. “I am not a singer, but I sang a lot at dances and at weddings. You have to sing a lot to remember these songs. The ones who didn’t song [a lot] will have forgotten them.”

Selecting and Rejecting Songs

Although songs were taught socially, not all of them were learned, and individual taste shaped which songs were selected, practiced, and remembered. Thus, the size and content of each singer’s repertoire differed substantially, just as the instrumental repertoire did among men. Todora said she learned a song only if it pleased her. “Not all did.” She believed, for example, that she has a smaller repertoire than her mother: “Uf, Uf. She knew a lot of songs. I overlooked a lot of songs. Dropped them. I didn’t pay attention to all the songs. For example this summer [1988] a cousin came to visit. She is the daughter of my father’s sister. Since childhood I hadn’t seen her. When she came, do you know how many songs she ‘said’ from her mother, my aunt’s songs. These were songs we used to sing with my aunt, my mother and I in the fields. How the three of us sang! She knew some songs from my aunt that I had skipped. I asked her ‘From where do you know these songs?’ She said ‘From my mother.'” Todora estimated the size of her mother’s repertoire at more than 400 songs, and attributed its large size to the tradition of singing within the family. “My mother knew more than 400 songs, because I was able to list 408 [of my own] songs when we came to Sofia. My mother knew more, because grandfather knew songs and father knew songs, Father sang, Grandfather ‘died’ for songs.” In Todora’s account, we have a clear account of selection operating at the individual level, rather than the community level suggested by some discussions of folk music processes.

What were the criteria for selection? Clearly one of the factors motivating the desire to learn a song was an aesthetic evaluation of text and melody, which could be separated analytically for this purpose. For example, Todora reported remembering a melody that pleased her, but forgetting the text, which presumably didn’t, because, as she said “When I hear some song, and the text pleaes me, I would remember it from end to end.” What pleased or displeased her about a text or melody? Since we were not able to find a vocabulary to discuss musical structure together, it was difficult to speak to Todora about why certain melodies were pleasurable and thus memorable, but she readily acknowledged that some melodies were more pleasing than others. The pleasures of the text were easy for her to describe, however, because she could refer to their meaning or reference, rather than their stucture, which was as difficult as musical structure to discuss. “Sometimes separate moments, sometimes the whole text, its contnts, how it proceeds. It has a sense, it tells the truth. There is always something true in a song. [When something notable happens] afterward a song is made. Like films. That’s the way they make them.” For Todora the “truth” of a song is contained in its relationship to previous experience and events, and Todora elected to learn those that answered to that experience and rejected those that did not. For instance, Todora tended to reject texts that told stories of overwhelming sadness and brutality, which she rarely experienced in her life and didn’t want to experience in songs. As we shall see in more detail in part 3, the truth of the text was often more emotional than reportorial or literal, and the way a song related “truthfully” to emotioal experience was a key to its aesthetic pleasure and selection for inclusion in a singer’s repertiore.

Differences in Singing Ability

How widespread was singing in those days and how did singing ability vary? Todora divided the population of potential village singers, that is, young girls in Gergebunar into “three generations: the older, us, and the younger ones.” As for the cohorts’ size, “there were at least ten, maybe fifteen, in each generation.” But singing ability and knowledge of songs were not distributed equally among the girls, and Todora rated only one or two in each generation as outstanding, herself among them.“Tim, do you know what kind of voice I had. If only you could have heard it. It was so strong it was heard everywhere. It was as if it sprang out of me. And so melodious. There was a cousin across from us who sang well. There were several, three or four girls. The others sang [pause] but differently. Of the singers, we were three then [who were particularly good]” out of a possible ten to fifteen in her generation. “Among the older girls, there was ‘older sister’ Stanka. She was my cousin. She sang very well.”

To illustrate differential singing ability, Todora mentioned a wedding song with a narrow range that was particularly difficult to remember and sing correctly. “Some girls couldn’t sing this,” and she imitated them by singing on just one tone, sliding into and out of it grossly, and failing to discriminate pitches clearly. “It was as if they were afraid of the song.” Here the difficulty arose from the restricted range and the correspondingly undifferentiated tune…

Todora’s stories also sugggest that some teaching, in the form of corrections to words and melody, occurred in family settings. She attributed her ability to sing these difficult songs to her mother’s direcxt intervention. “Maybe it [ex. 3.3] was easy for me because my mother taught me. ‘Not this way, that way. Not this way, that way.’ So I knew it while others didn’t.” No attempt was made to enforce or teach the details of vocal production, tone quality, or ornamental style; this was left to each individual to learn by imitation and practice as best she could. This recalls the boys’ patttern, in which details of playing technique were learned alone, while older men and boys taught Kostadin some melodies by singing them to him.

Although Todora regarded herself as one of the best singers of her generation, she respected her mother’s singing even more and found it difficult to imitate her perfectly. “Oh, my mother, how she could sing this song [ex.3.4]. Her voice glided. It was light. I loved it, but it was difficult .” She commented on how her mother’s ornaments were more beautiful than her own. Interestingly, Todora’s account lacked a culturally held notion of progress in this period. Unlike many singers and musicians of the postwar generation who claimed substantial progress in skill and complexity of repertiore compared to the older generation, Todora did not seem to view her generation as surpassing the previous one in skill or size of repertoire. Rather, modesty in the face of tradition and respect for the achievements of elders characterized her comments. As I will show in part 3, her attitudes toward music, song, and dance performance were part of a general pattern of respect and ‘shame’ [scram] felt by youth towards their elders. As Todora put it, “We had shame in those days,” and so her evaluation of performers centered on the achievements of the past rather than the progress of the present.

Todora attributed the differences in singing ability to family background and the kinds of personalities engendered by them. Some families simply didn’t sing. “I sat next to a girl in school. Her name was Ivanka. She didn’t know one word of a song, and she was very bright. There were just no songs in their house. It was foreign to them. And some places everyone sang.”…”Most [families] didn’t have many, but there were other families with singers and musicians. Tuhichkovi, they were a large family. They had four or five children, and among them was a gaida.” She named two other families with singers and musicians, which meant that, including her and Kostadin’s family, there were perhaps five of at least twelve families with a large coterie of singers and musicians. Along with her estimate of the number and quality of singers in her generation, her account suggests that extensive knowledge and skill at music and song were distributed among about a quarter to half of the village’s population at that time.

The Social Basis of Girls’ Song Learning.

The social basis of girls' song learning in this tradition included the following eight features: 
(1) learning was encouraged by providing appropriate social settings, primarily within the family;
(2) It began in the family and spread outward to neighbors, the whole village, and later to other villages;
(3) it started at a very young age - four to six years old;
(4) it was selective with respect to repertoire;
(5) learning ability varied, and some were more successful at it than others;
(6) active teaching, in the form of correcting of errors, was done, primarily by older women;
(7) private repetition was crucial to absorbing the tradition, and
(8) learning was linked to personal qualities such as sociability.
This list summarizes the effort female adults and children devoted to learning the singing tradition in the prewar period, a process whose effectiveness depended on family circumstance, individual skill, and practice...

…For Todora and Kostadin, the link between music making and sociability was an especially important part of their lives. People who did not sing or play music “were quieter, shier. And strangers didn’t enter their house. My friend, Ivanka, they never had guests. It’s not that they were bad people; they just didn’t have contact with people. Ivanka’s mother and father were very quiet, but not sociable, more independent, more closed.” There was a dialectical association between sociability and playing and singing. Music was sparked and aided in social settings, on one hand, and sociable people often found themselves in situations where playing and singing were required. Musical skill, the opportunity to perform in public, and sociability reinforced each other. As Todora explained: “Songs help bring people together. I don’t remember [Ivanka] coming to sitting bees [sedyankas] or corn-shucking bees [medzhiyas].” Todora’s family, on the other hand, and the one she created after marrying Kostadin, were the opposite. “My father was well-known and people travelling from Bogdanovo to Grudovo would stop and spend the night. We were never without guests. Later after we [Kostadin and Todora] built our house near my mother and father’s house, mother said ‘Eh, our guests can come to you, just like to us. Rejoice that you have guests. If you don’t have guests, it’s not good'” [laughs]. Their hospitable reception of guests remained a constant in their lives, even after moving to the city. “Even now when we go back to Shishman [the street where they live in Sofia], we haven’t even put our bags down and the bell rings…”


Bill Jones wrote: Appreciate this fascinating exploration of Bulgarian folk artistry. Thanks for “publishing” it.

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