It just hits you straight in the belly
June 6, 2019 10:23 AM   Subscribe

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices (formerly Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, formerly the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir) is a Grammy-winning musical group that sings arrangements of traditional Bulgarian folk music. Founded in the 1950s, the group became known to Western audiences in the 1980s through the work of ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier and the record label 4AD, and even appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show (including a rendition of "O Susanna"!). Here's a more recent performance for KEXP. The current iteration of the group is touring with Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance, and are profiled in the Guardian. Want to learn how to sound like a Bulgarian folk singer? Dessislava Stefanova of the London Bulgarian Choir shows you how (via).
posted by Cash4Lead (25 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I remember being gobsmacked by the unearthly beauty of their music back in the day. Also discovered The Roches about the same time, for a different sort of unearthly beauty.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:40 AM on June 6 [8 favorites]

I was just thinking about them (or some of them, part of them) again while listening to Kate Bush yesterday.
posted by pracowity at 10:41 AM on June 6 [3 favorites]

I have a couple of their albums. It's haunting and beautiful music, but my wife doesn't like it and won't let me play them in the car (where I primarily listen to music). I'd love to see them in concert.
posted by briank at 10:57 AM on June 6

One of the startling things about seeing them sing live (Edinburgh festival in '86?) was how so few people could produce such a huge sound. I'd anticipated a large choir but there were maybe half a dozen singers.
A friend of mine used to say he wanted Polegnala E Todora (Theodora Is Dozing) played at his funeral.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:58 AM on June 6 [2 favorites]

I took a world music class in college and we heard them and they asked us to guess where they were from and none of us had the slightest clue but it was the kind of music that sends shivers down your spine, and I could never remember later where it had come from to look them up again. I know what I'm listening to all afternoon, now, apparently.
posted by Sequence at 11:05 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]

I was introduced to them by my French horn teacher in high school. Spine-tingling-ly beautiful.

If any acoustics type folks are curious about the resonance patterns discussed in the last link, some quick Googling turned up this brief study of the different styles.
posted by damayanti at 11:41 AM on June 6 [2 favorites]

Malka Moma is heartbreaking:
Malka moma si sa Bogu moli:
Day mi, Bože, oči golubovi,
Day mi, Bože, oči golubovi;
Day mi, Bože, kriltsa sokolovi,
Day mi, Bože, kriltsa sokolovi,
Da si forknam otvad beli Dunav,
Da si forknam otvad beli Dunav,
Da si nayda momče spored mene.
Ču ya Gospod.
Stori oči golubovi,
I kriltsa sokolovi,
Ta y dade kriltsa sokolovi
Ta si nayde momče spored neya,
Ta si nayde momče spored neya,

A young girl prays:
“Grant me, dear Lord, eyes of a dove
Grant me, dear Lord, wings of a falcon
To fly over the white Danube
To find the boy I love.”

God heard her prayer.
He gave her eyes of a dove
And wings of a falcon.
When God granted her wings of a falcon
She found the boy who loved her.
posted by CheapB at 12:53 PM on June 6 [2 favorites]

One of my Desert Island Discs throughout the 1980's and 90's.
posted by Coaticass at 12:54 PM on June 6

Kalimankou Denkou - love it
posted by Quillcards at 12:58 PM on June 6

I love Balkan dance and music, would love to hear them in concert. We do a simple dance to Dragana I Slavei. The harmonies are enchanting.
posted by theora55 at 1:19 PM on June 6

I'm undoubtedly uncultured, but my only familiarity with them is from Xena's theme song.
posted by worldswalker at 1:58 PM on June 6

This one is my favorite. The call and response is amazing
posted by azarbayejani at 2:08 PM on June 6

Also, the rhythm of Bulgarian folk music is really interesting. The beats aren't always equally proportioned, so you get something like 4 beats of lengths: 2, 2, 1, 2.
posted by azarbayejani at 2:12 PM on June 6 [1 favorite]

The odd meters help bring in some math rock fans and prog heads (myself included) -- such as Hubava Milka (7/8 or 7/16), or Elenke (adapted from a folk song, also in 7)
posted by kurumi at 3:25 PM on June 6 [3 favorites]

'60s folk group, the Pennywhistlers, sang choral music from Bulgaria, Macedonia and elsewhere. They were a much smaller group so the sound isn't quite the same but a rare example at that time.
posted by Botanizer at 3:45 PM on June 6 [2 favorites]

If you like Bulgarian music you might also want to check out Oratnitza, veering towards jazzy but based on traditional music as well.

Note that there are similar polyphonic singing traditions across the Balkans, for example: Serbia, Thrace, NW Greece and Southern Albania
posted by talos at 4:17 PM on June 6 [1 favorite]

I saw them at the Primavera festival in Barcelona last week. There were about 17 women in folk costume singing, and a small group of musicians playing drums and guitar and such. What surprised me the most was the presence of one guy who was beatboxing into a microphone; proper hip-hop-style beatboxing, laying down a beat with his mouth. The surprising thing was that he was air-scratching, as if on a turntable, as he did this.
posted by acb at 4:58 PM on June 6

The first time I remember encountering music like this was in a very early This American Life episode called The Cruelty of Children, specifically in Act Two: The Man in the Well. The whole episode is worth listening to--it's one of the handful they recommend to people who are new to the show. If memory serves, the music in that episode is from a Bulgarian children's choir, but a quick youtube search retrieves only the Bulgarian National Radio Children's Choir. None of their videos that I listened to capture that haunting sound.
posted by msbrauer at 5:34 PM on June 6

My favorite all-female mostly-balkan-music group is Kitka, I really enjoy their albums
posted by JZig at 6:36 PM on June 6 [3 favorites]

It was interesting to hear about that loudness in the voice being a cultural thing. I've noticed that a lot of Greek women tend to pitch their speaking voice a bit higher than what I'm used to in NA (and a wee bit louder too).

I played a tape of this for my dad as he lay dying (age 55) and he was just alive enough to let me know that he didn't really get it.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:46 PM on June 6

Have loved their sound (in small doses) for decades. So interesting to hear about their vocal technique. I should have guessed that they were emphasizing the overtones, like the Mongolians/Tuvans do to an extreme.
posted by kozad at 7:04 PM on June 6

kozad, have you heard Tuvans and Bulgarians singing together? You might even call it...Legend. That's Huun Huur Tu and The Bulgarian Voices Angelite (not Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares). So excited to see Huun Huur Tu live again (Sept 28 in Seattle!). Haven't gotten the opportunity to see a Bulgarian choir live.

Now to listen to a little of The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices before bed. Four hours of sleep is enough, right?
posted by easyasy3k at 11:47 PM on June 6 [1 favorite]

Oh! So that's what ASMR feels like.
posted by OMGTehAwsome at 10:04 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]

My first time hearing this otherworldly music was in this otherworldly scene from Werner Herzog's "Encounters at the End of World". (Do yourself a favor and watch this fullscreen with headphones.)
posted by Vitamaster at 7:53 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

I'd love to see them in concert.

I’ve been enchanted since that 4AD album and finally saw them last year at Town Hall here in Seattle and all I can say is, do go see them if you can, and get high before hand if you are so inclined.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:09 PM on June 8

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