Siren songs from the wilds of Bulgaria

Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares

The Barbican Centre, London

There was a time, not so long ago, when all Bulgaria meant to me was red wine and wombles. Then I discovered - officially, The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. Established in 1952, their function was to perform concerts for state broadcasts, and thus they might have remained a national secret. But tours to other Eastern-bloc countries led to larger acclaim when, in 1987, America and the UK (two albums were released that year on 4AD) became aware of their sound, an eerie, elemental ululation. Bulgaria has a colourful history - including five centuries of bloodshed and occupation under the Ottomans - and the women, combed from towns and rural villages, are recruited as apprentices of the folk songs and stylings of their homes: from Western Shope and Pirin, sparse melodies over a low, sustained tone; from the Thracian plain, a terrifying vibrato; from the north, ornamentation as delicate as the embroidery on a wedding dress.

Tonight, they troop on stage in national costume, exotic and identical to the last flower on a headdress. Each holds out an arm for her neighbour to clasp. Twenty-three faces, some barely out of their teens, some in their late fifties, some homely, some startlingly lovely, a catwalk's worth of Slavic cheekbones. They smile benignly and you imagine our equivalent, a group of students and grandmothers from, say, Thornton Heath to Thurso. Then they open their mouths and casually unleash a sound like sabres clashing, softening to something like the lonesome cry of birds. These unaccompanied voices aren't soft, rarely sweet, though there's an eroticism Kate Bush exploited (you can hear them on The Sensual World). It's a hard, organic noise, bounced against the thorax and forced up from chests like shields. The secret's in the genes, a configuration of inordinately strong muscles - as an expatriate Bulgar ensemble in the US discovered, when they experimented and damaged their vocal cords. Now, as the voices rise, the shock hits you like an icy waterfall, its chilly rivulets running down your back. You know these are stories of love, death, birth or seasons changing because a sheet of notes tells you; but you can get the sense from a heartbroken drone, or fluting, flirtatious yelps of joy. Soloists and quartets occasionally take front stage, and the feeling changes again; the women become houris, lush, threatening and unknowable, or seem to wink at us, with gossipy, girlish laughter; even when a soloist gets a standing ovation, there's no jealous narrowing of eyes. Siren songs from thousands of miles away - and they're dragged back for encores until they start to cough.

Glyn Brown

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

    Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

    Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

    £100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee