Since their Grammy-winning recordings in the early 1990s, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares (The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices) has connected audiences around the world to the ancient voice of Bulgaria's musical heritage with their rich, gorgeous timbre, surprising harmonies, and effortless precision. Yet the true mystery of their vocal prowess lies in the romance, magic and celebration that have long fired traditional music in Bulgaria. The group tours the U.S. this November and December with a special program that includes traditional favorites, fresh repertoire, and holiday songs. (Check GR's Tour Section for Cities and Dates.)
In the past, small groups of young men and women would meet for "work parties," an excuse to get together, flirt, and exchange the vivid, full-voiced songs that formed the backbone of courtship across rural Bulgaria. Women would sing to the first signs of spring, to the harvest, and to the festive days around Christmas. With stops and glides that resounded magically off the mountainsides and across the fields surrounding these remote communities, Bulgarian women used their voices to awaken the love of their future husbands, the bounty of nature, and the joys of the season.
From these rural traditions sprang the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir, famous worldwide as Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. The 26-member, all-female a capella ensemble's appeal stems from its ability to capture the essence of Bulgaria's diverse and age-old vocal traditions and at the same time to sound strikingly new and original, thanks to a unique choral arrangement approach pioneered by Philip Koutev, who started the ensemble half a century ago.
Koutev gathered songs and singers from Shope, Thrace, the Danube, and many other regions in Bulgaria, but instead of encouraging the kind of folk-orchestra standardization typical of many Soviet choirs, Koutev highlighted the regions and singers' unique qualities, expanding the traditional solo and duo performances to modernist-inflected six-part harmonies. Current conductor Dora Hristova continues his legacy, recruiting local talent, and bringing these women's bright, wild songs to the wider world. "The choir is like a bunch of flowers.... I try to tread a fine line between keeping people's individual voices and unifying the voices into a choir," Hristova explained to journalist Simon Broughton in World Music: The Rough Guide.
While the choir may be a relatively recent innovation, Hristova links its distinctive sound with Bulgaria's past isolation from the rest of Europe during five centuries of domination by the Ottomans: "The vocal technique was once widespread in Europe, but the historical circumstances meant that it was only preserved in Bulgaria," she told Broughton.
The power of this technique comes from the chest, not the head voice common in singing further west. This demands physical strength and a resilient set of vocal chords. Hristova feels that singers capable of performing a particular regional style are born, not made, and that once a woman has learned one region's approach, she will be unable to master the songs of another area. This is what makes each flower in the Bulgarian Choir's bouquet so important: Every village vocal star lends her own color to Le Mystere's prized sound and brings her own bounty of songs to the group.
The group's diversity is matched by the variety of devoted fans it has won over the years since its first release, everyone from musicians like Jerry Garcia and Pat Methany to the world's preeminent music critics. Its work has garnered awards worldwide, including a Grammy in 1990 for Best Traditional Folk Album ("Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares II") and a nomination for 1994's "Rituals." This tour, their final North American engagement until 2008, promises to bring listeners, new and old, deeper into the mystery.