Music of Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s music is, like any other nation’s, multifaceted and layered into different periods and genres. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but should give you an initial idea of what Bulgarian music is like.

Folk Music

What is traditionally referred to as “Bulgarian folk music” has its roots in aural traditions that predate musical notation in Bulgaria. Heavily influenced by and in turn influencing neighbouring Greek, Romanian and Macedonian rhythms, Bulgaria’s folk heritage is rich and varied. These are the songs sung and dances danced at festivals and weddings in Bulgarian villages in Revival (19th century) times. Due to the efforts of early 20th century ethnographers, these songs and rhythms have been codified, preserved and can now be studied, performed and woven into modern variations.

Folk songs have rich and varied harmonies and many have asymmetric beats (7, 9, 11 or 15/16, which should make anyone familiar with musical theory cross-eyed). They’re often accompanied by traditional instruments such as the gaida (sheepskin bagpipe), gadulka (bowed lute) and kaval (wooden flute), but also sometimes unaccompanied at all, painting complex soundscapes with voices alone. Themes include love, family, the Ottoman dominion and liberation, and nature.

In 1975, an album called “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares” (“The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices”) was compiled by Swiss ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier, and eventually re-released in 1986 to international acclaim. Enjoy a clip below:

Similarly, Bulgaria has a rich tradition of folk dances, called horá (singular horó). Like those of Greece and Romania, many of them are line dances, originally danced in a common, simple and well-known pattern of steps in big winding chains of people through the squares of villages. Some are slow and contemplative, some are quick and breathless, and many have been integrated into complex choreographed performances in present day. While Bulgarians today largely listen to classic rock, heavy metal and the Top 40 charts, traditional horá are often danced at weddings and other special occasions.

The clip below is somewhat self-congratulating because it’s a recording of the dance troupe I was involved with for ~10 years, but it also shows a great smattering of different dance steps and rhythms, so I hope you’ll forgive me for including it.

Patriotic music

This genre of Bulgarian music began as an indelible part of folk tradition and lore, fuelled by the struggle for liberation in the late 19th century, but has since branched out. Songs here include both traditional folk melodies and more modern marches. Inspired by periods of national strife like the Ottoman domination, the Balkan conflicts and world wars, and, most recently, the enormous wave of emigration in the 90’s that drained Bulgaria of its most talented young minds, patriotic songs have a special place in Bulgaria’s musical history.

This song is a modern rendition of a Revival-era patriotic song. It was recorded as part of a patriotic album released in the 90’s by entertainer group Kanaleto as a comment on the apathy and disillusionment gripping Bulgaria in the late 90’s. Lyrics are below.

Where do you lie, faithful love for our people
Where do you gleam, spark of patriotism?
O grow to feed a mighty flame
And stoke a blazing fire today
In our young people’s beating hearts
to roam the woods and take up arms.
In our young people’s beating hearts
to roam the woods and take up arms.

And burn, and burn within us, great devotion
To stand up proud against a fateful ocean
To take up this one mighty call
Across the mountains proud and tall

“O young and old, up on your feet
And arm yourselves for freedom”
“O young and old, up on your feet
And arm yourselves for freedom”

To raise the flag of freedom o’er Bulgaria
And bearing crosses look up to our Saviour
“O Jesus Christ, creator dear
Look downward from the heavens clear
Upon our heavy suffering
And patience all-enduring
Upon our heavy suffering
And patience all-enduring”

And when we reach our peaceful end
We’ll raise our voices jubilant
“Live free, o brave Bulgarians,
By God’s will liberated”
“Live free, o brave Bulgarians,
By God’s will liberated”

Classical music

Although Bulgarians were busy tilling fields and trying not to be forcefully converted to Islam in the Classical era of Western music, Bulgaria has strong traditions in classical musical education and a great love for the European classics. Every major city has a symphony orchestra, and many have opera houses. Bulgarian composers have also left their mark on the 20th century classical soundscape. Pancho Vladiguerov is Bulgaria’s most famous Classical composer:

In addition, Bulgarian-born and trained opera singers are have reached worldwide popularity. Singers like Nikolai Gyaurov, Gena Dimitrova, Raina Kabaivanska, Anna Tomowa-Sintow and, pictured below, Boris Christoff, one of the most renowned operatic basses of the 20th century:

Pop Music

A generation of singers influenced by the crooners of the 50’s sang about love, innocence and happiness. Notable names here are Lili Ivanova, Pasha Hristova (who tragically died in a plane crash in 1971 aged only 25) and Emil Dimitrov, one of whose songs is below:

Lyrics:

We met during the summer
She had beautiful eyes and I fell in love
I gave her a secret, a melody I’d come up with just for her
It became our signal and we always met and parted with it
But the summer slipped away, September came, and I was called to the army.

I wait and wait, an hour at least
and whistle our old tune
The melody I once had sung for you

You may not even know I’m back,
may not be at your place
Or maybe you are out with someone else

I did my duty, I returned
the soldier’s life no more
And long I kept your photo hidden
In my uniform

You maybe just forgot our signal, blanked on our old tune
The melody I once had sung for you

I heard it whistled round the corner, heard our melody
I ran and saw you on the street, with someone else

You wounded your beloved soldier more than war it seems
You turned your back on our shared hopes and dreams

To another man you gave our favourite sweet old tune
From my little melody I once had sung for you.

As the soundscape of the world was changing, so was Bulgaria’s, and “vocal-instrumental groups” (pop bands) became more and more popular. A talented entry from the 1970’s is soft rock band Tangra:

Lyrics:

I hear people whisper as I pass
That I don’t have two cents to rub together
But I’m prepared to tell anyone
That there are many other things that matter

My tiny flat is on the upper floor
An attic hanging just beneath the stars
A little window is its only door
And I gaze upon them gleaming and I ask:

“I wonder if one day beneath these stars
The lights behind the window pane will play
Will people still be grooving to the Beatles
and reading still the poets of today?””

“And will the landlady my stairs ascend
So bright and early, coffee on a tray
Instead of asking when she’ll see the rent
Will she smile and ask, ‘Did you sleep okay?'”

And would it sound so far beyond belief
To anyone if someone dared to say
That I am rich beyond my wildest dreams:
With a window and the stars to light my way

Vanya Kostova is a Bulgarian singer of considerable renown, known for soft rock renditions and a powerful voice. Here’s one of her songs with lyrics:

Time is always rushing, time is swift and coy
playful little girl with a playful boy
Strolled into the forest, whistled carefree
And they did not notice when the night came in
They just fell so much in love with their little game
That in the deep dark woods they lost their way

So they shouted vainly, tears in their eyes
Walked and walked to no avail beneath the darkened skies
So the night engulfed them in its tight embrace
When the little girl reached for the young boy’s face
with her little hand, and like a little bell
rang the words “I love you” from his lips as well

Suddenly they realized, suddenly they knew
Into a young woman and a man they grew
They set out together, and they’re walking still
It is hard to find the path but I know they will
They set out together, and they’re walking still
It is hard to find the path but I know they will

To this day, folk motifs from traditional songs are interwoven with modern dance beats to create unique performances, like this Eurovision 2007 entry by duo Elitza & Stoyan:

Motifs from Bulgarian folk songs are also sometimes used in soundtracks, like this one from the movie “300” credited to composer Tyler Bates but originally a Bulgaro-Macedonian folk song called “Zaidi, zaidi, yasno slunce”:

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