The magic of the clarinet in traditional Bulgarian music

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The European clarinet, invented in 1690 by Christoph Denner is a wooden wind instrument. Its rich, full and powerful sound, wide tonal range, diverse dynamic and technical capacity has made it an instrument that can be used to play practically any music, including Bulgarian folk music. Having asserted itself as a solo instrument for more than a century, the clarinet has brought change and transformation to Bulgarian folklore that has marked its development throughout the 20th century. The names of many a virtuoso pioneer have enriched tradition and gone down in history. The instrument was introduced to Bulgarian musical practice in the 19th century by professional Roma musicians. The first to have made a name for themselves with their clarinet folklore performances are also of Roma origin. Ramadan Lolov and his brother Gosho Lolov from Sliven are famed clarinet players from the 1930's – 1950s period.  The name of Ramadan Lolov (1904-1967) stands out, shrouded in legend and mystery – information about his life is scarce. Even today he is highly spoken of – he is considered the founder of the clarinet tradition in this country. In his early years he played mostly at weddings in Thrace, Southeastern Bulgaria. He performed authentic Bulgarian folk music but also urban, Turkish and gypsy music. Later he was to record numerous gramophone records abroad for Bulgarian record companies and they made him a household name. He played accompaniment for singers famous in their day – Ivanka Georgieva, Atanaska Todorova, Goudi Goudev.

“A fine connoisseur of Bulgarian folk songs, a virtuoso player of the instrument he seemed to be one with. There was no other so refined. He sang and his solo performances would attract listeners too. He bewitched them with the magic of his clarinet so they would become indefatigable horo dancers or humble listeners,” writes Vassil Chaprazov, journalist and public figure and rounds off the portrait of the legendary Ramadan. “He would keep away from other clarinet players. He was the model they would follow without asking too many questions; he wasn't much of a talker. They followed in his footsteps. They would even copy the way he dressed – expensive, fashionable, black pinstripe suits, bow tie... And always – the clarinet tucked under his arm. He was not tempted by the two foremost ensembles that have gone down in the history of Sliven. His was a different kind of music. He was a wedding musician.“

According to folklore expert Academician Nikolay Kaufman, Ramadan Lolov is the “father” of “the virtuoso traditions of wedding clarinet players, the scourge of the vulgar musicians of the 1930's, no less famous then than Ivo Papazov is now.“

Prof. Lozanka Peycheva describes him as the man who started a new tradition and his work – as the start of the hybridization of local Bulgarian music, “the age of Ramadan Lolov”.

Many are the clarinet players who have left their mark in traditional Bulgarian music and have asserted the clarinet as a solo instrument in wedding bands. Famous names from the first half of the 20th century include Ahmed Babakov, Rady Angelov, Zapryan Saliev. Rady Angelov played accompaniment for the then young Vulkana Stoyanova, the future star of folk music. Her song “Dimitar loading a barge” is one of the few, preserved at the Bulgarian National Radio Golden Fund.

Other clarinet players that have gone in musical history include Todor Pichourkov (1921-1998), Georgi Pendov (1933-1989), Nikola Yankov (1932) who have all enriched and developed instrumental tradition as band leaders and founders of the

Purvomay, Sadovo, Lenovo wedding bands.

Talking of the magic of the clarinet in Bulgarian folk music, there is another name that is not to be omitted – that of Georgi Koev (1910-1983), a vivid virtuoso from the region of Pazardjik in the Thracian folklore region. Born in Malo Konare, he developed as a musician at the hundreds of weddings in the region where he performed. And it was at these weddings that his inimitable slow melodies were born,  using his clarinet to imitate all kinds of animals, the sound of the bagpipe etc. He himself says that he spent hours in the cemetery, listening to women cry and then approximated what he heard.

Georgi Koev is an original musician in a class of his own. His performances were admired by musicians such as composer Philip Koutev and clarinet player Petko Radev. His quaint, archaic music combining the best of tradition is to be found in the Bulgarian National Radio fund – more than thirty feast, harvest and horo tunes. After self-taught talents in clarinet folklore music like him, the time came for highly educated musicians like Petko Radev (1933). Being heir to a Thracian folklore performer from the village of Svoboda, he has remained devoted to traditional music to this day. Petko Radev graduated the Music Academy in Sofia and went on to win prestigious competitions for instrumentalists. And they opened the door for him of La Scala in Milan, where he has been soloist for many years. But he never severed his bond with folk music and founded an orchestra. His performances set down a standard of precision and cultivation in traditional music while at the same time preserving the rules of horo construction, folk musicians say. His performances are a model for many clarinet players; of them closest to his style is Dimitar Paskov (1949) from Vrubnitsa, Shoumen district.

It was Petko Radev that Ivo Papazov-Ibryama (1952), the star of the 1980s emulated. His name is connected with the subsequent turbulent period, when the rules of folk music in clarinet playing were broken. Ivo Papazov is indubitably a virtuoso player; he has toured the world and is holder of the BBC award for world music. His performances – a medley of genres – are unique with their improvisation, frenzied tempo, powerful sound and are frequently not recognized by listeners as folk music.

English Milena Daynova


The audio features the following recordings:

-  Village wedding, Demir Cholakov;

-  Red fez – Macedonian horo, Ramadan Lolov;

-  Dimitar loading a barge, Rady Angelov orchestra;

-  Straight horo from Purvomay, Stoycho Kouzmov with Purvomay band;

-  Harvest song and ruchenitsa, Georgi Koev with the Kosta Kolev orchestra;

-  Novakovo horo, Petko Radev;

-  Celeste from the album Fair, Ivo Papazov-Ibryama.


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