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Written in Folk Roots issue 162, 1996

Bulgarian A Capella

JVC-5389-2 (1996)

Cross The Danube

Osmosys OSMO CD009 (1996)

Philip Koutev started the first Bulgarian national folk ensemble in 1951, inspired by the Russian Pyatnitski ensemble. As part of a plan to generate a sort of Bulgarian classical music, and drawing organisational (and hierarchical) ideas from the western classical music infrastructure, a network of 14 regional ensembles evolved; each had a choir, an orchestra of traditional and remodelled folk instruments, and a dance team. (The womenís choir of the Bulgarian national radio ensemble is the one whose recordings when released abroad came to be titled, as a result of the involvement of French recordist Marcel Cellier, Le MystŤre Des Voix Bulgares). A number of music schools were set up, mainly in Thrace, providing a steady source of folk musicians who could read music and so could play and sing the new obrabotki, written arrangements of traditional tunes.
      While several arrangers were held in low esteem among the musicians, Koutev, and also fellow-arranger Kosta Kolev, had good reputations for listening to their ideas and allowing them to play ďfrom the heartĒ. However they were all trapped within a system which allowed players to offer tunes (from their birth region only) for arrangement, and be rewarded by taking the solo part, but rarely allowed them to do the actual arrangement; the bureaucracy of the Radio Commission ensured that that lucrative employment was in effect reserved for members of the Society of Composers. (A study of these ensembles, and the views and frustrations of their musicians, by Donna Buchanan, published in the Autumn 1995 Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology is the source of most of this information, and makes enlightening further reading.)
      Whatever the rights and wrongs, or politics, unique and majestic music, and stunning musicianship, emerged from the narodni (folk music) ensembles. This 1988 recording of the Koutev Ensembleís female choir without its orchestra, fourteen songs including ten of Koutevís arrangements, sounds remarkably similar to recordings made when he was still director (he died in 1984); indeed the soloist on the first track is Elena Iranova, an Ensemble member since 1951.
      Most of those, originally released on state label Balkanton, arenít reissued on CD (yet?), so this, excellently recorded in Tokyo Post Office Life Assurance and Annuities Hall (clearly acoustically a long way from Post Office Counters PLC), is a recommended access point to music which despite considerable acclaim (some of it for much less exciting works) still hasnít fully achieved its deserved worldwide high status.

      In communist times the state ensembles, if they went abroad, toured en bloc, but gradually, and more rapidly as Bulgaria has changed politically and economically, Bulgarian singers and musicians have been turning up in musical projects across the world. For twenty years Kalinka Vulcheva was a leading soloist in the Bulgarian Radio ensemble, indeed she features, singing Petranka Has Begun Swinging, on the 1974 Balkanton LP which is still the most startling recording of this music Iíve heard and which (together with the Nonesuch albums by Ethel Raimís US ensemble The Pennywhistlers) opened my window onto it.
She was singing with her band Loznitsa when the British band Whippersnapper encountered them at a European festival in 1988; subsequently the groups toured together, and four years later Whippersnapperís mandocello player Martin Jenkins and Kalinka married.
      Jenkinsí music has echoes of the English guitarist-singer styles which evolved in the late 60s and early 70s; indeed his voice shares some characteristics with that of Bert Jansch. On Cross The Danube the very different traditions of Vulcheva and Jenkins meet and to some extent intertwine. Vulcheva brings her extraordinary, wonderful vocals, sometimes hair-raisingly multi-tracked, to songs by Jenkins and also to British traditional material - they lead The Blacksmith over the edge into being the Balkan song it always seemed to have in it, with the leader of the Dobroudja Ensemble, Jhivko Jhelev, on kaval; Bert Lloyd would have smiled.
      In return Jenkins applies his winding, intricate mandola picking style (often, perhaps rather datedly, phased/chorused) plus some fiddle and mandolin, to Bulgarian songs, with the third member of the Incident, Ted Kay, on percussion, and session musicians including guitarist Ray Jenkins, Martinís son.
      The sleeve isnít likely to attract the attention of a rack-browser, but within lies a remarkable project, with few parallels except perhaps in the work of Mara and in the feel of some of the original Pentangleís music - come to think of it, I can imagine Danny Thompson in here too.

© 1996 Andrew Cronshaw

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