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March 9, 2006

Keep Bulgaria singing

San Jose Mercury News (CA):

Director Dora Hristova

Though the Cold War had started to thaw, many of the countries locked behind the Iron Curtain were still mysterious to the West in the late 1980s, when the unspeakably beautiful music of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares became a world music sensation.

Officially known by an unromantic communist appellation, the Bulgarian National Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir, the ensemble had gained attention outside Bulgaria through a series of recordings made by Swiss producer Marcel Cellier, albums released in the United States on Nonesuch under the name Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. As part of the choir's first U.S. tour in more than a decade, Voix Bulgares performs tonight in Santa Cruz at a concert produced by Zookbeat. The group returns to Northern California on March 17, kicking off the SFJAZZ Spring Season with a concert at Grace Cathedral.

Drawing on regional vocal styles from throughout Bulgaria and a repertoire of folk songs arranged by the country's greatest composers, Voix Bulgares brings a contemporary sensibility to a refined tradition dating to the ancient Thracians. Marked by modal scales, irregular rhythms, bell-like timbres and dissonant harmonies, the choir's ravishing music was featured on numerous network TV shows and greeted with sellout audiences on the ensemble's first U.S. tour in 1988. But hard times in the post-communist era have made it very difficult for the 22-member group to return to North America.

"In the late 1980s and early '90s, they were superstars in the world-music scene, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Gipsy Kings,'' says Shira Cion, the artistic director of the Bay Area-based female Balkan vocal ensemble Kitka, the only U.S. group invited to perform at Voix Bulgares' 50th anniversary celebration in Sofia in 2002. "Their Bay Area debut at the Berkeley Community Theatre not only sold out; they turned away 6,000 people from that concert.

"The sound was completely unlike anything anyone had heard before,'' Cion says. "They took the best of choral composition and merged it with the sound of Bulgarian folk singers from villages, a sound that was so complex and intense. But tastes change. Cuban music became the popular thing, and the choir is a little nervous coming back here: `Will people remember us, remember our glory?' ''

Maintaining the choir's glorious sound has been the most difficult challenge for the ensemble's longtime director, Dora Hristova. During the communist era, the government supported the group's international tours and broadcast its performances regularly. The choir became a beloved national symbol. But as in much of the developing world, young people in post-communist Bulgaria have embraced Western pop music to the extent that some say there is more traditional Bulgarian folk music in the United States than in its homeland.

"Now, we're not supported by the television, radio or the state,'' Hristova says in a telephone interview from Sofia. "We earn our living ourselves. It's difficult to survive, and we depend on our concerts abroad, not in the country. We have survived because of our professional qualities and very hard work. We're still at a very high artistic level.''

The Balkans, including Bulgaria, were subject to numerous cultural currents, often brought by conquerors who swept in from the east, such as the Tatars of Central Asia and the Ottoman Turks, who ruled the region for centuries. The Asian influence is readily apparent in Voix Bulgares' clear, vibrato-free, almost metallic timbres. What sets Voix Bulgares apart from Bulgaria's numerous exceptional female vocal groups is that it performs material from Dobrudzha and Sofia, Rodopi, Thrace and the northwestern Danube shore, regions with distinctive vocal traditions. The songs stem from holidays such as Christmas, New Year's Day and the Feasts of Saints Lazarus, Konstantin and Elena. But instead of offering raw folk material, Voix Bulgares presents arrangements by leading composers, creating a captivating avant folk sound.

"Nobody knows how old these songs are,'' Hristova says. "They are ancient melodies. The composers do research, find folkloric melodies and traditional songs, and they arrange them for this choir, creating something new.'

Posted by acapnews at March 9, 2006 12:27 AM