Ilia Uchikov: The bagpipe is a magical instrument, it is my life

Maria Becheva and Ilia Uchikov
Photo: private library

If you are on the lookout for the distinctive sound of the songs of the Rhodopes, to the magnificent accompaniment of the kaba (low-pitched) bagpipe, then the music of Ilia Uchikov is exactly what you are looking for.

Uchikov founded and is leader of the Orpheus ensemble from the town of Chepelare with the idea of preserving and popularizing the ancient style of the musical tradition of the Rhodopes. To this end, in 2007, Ilia Uchikov brought together children, youngsters and adults to present the original songs, dances and local traditional clothes from these parts. He also set up a bagpipe school for budding talents and offers individual tutorship to gifted soloists for their stage performances at festivals and competitions, playing the bagpipe as accompaniment.

Orpheus ensemble was set up at the Rodopska Iskra 1880 (Spark of the Rhodopes 1880) chitalishte (community culture club) in Chepelare. With his work, Ilia Uchikov quickly conquered the hearts of the locals and became bagpiper of different groups of singers in the central Rhodopes: in the villages Pavelsko, Vurbina, Smilyan and others. With outstanding results – his formations and soloists have taken part in numerous festivals and competitions, winning countless awards. Being an accomplished bagpipe player, he also invested his skills and talent in making kaba bagpipes. For years he has had a bagpipe workshop in Chepelare with many of his students also taking an interest in the making of bagpipes.

Ilia Uchikov was born in Shiroka Luka village and even as a child he was enthralled by the sound of the Rhodope bagpipe. By the age of 10 he had begun to learn to play it. The fact that he is related to famed bagpipe player Dafo Trendafilov probably also affected his decision to take up this instrument. Having discovered Ilia’s talent at an early age, the famous musician said: “Ilia shall succeed me in bagpipe playing.” Ilia lived up to these words, pursuing a career in music – as a performer, ensemble leader and guardian of the ancient folklore tradition of the Rhodopes.

Here is what Ilia Uchikov says about the beginning of his career, his successes in Chepelare and across the central Rhodopes:

“I played the bagpipe for a folklore group in Chepelare at the local community culture club 20 years ago. I started out as bagpipe tutor and that was how the idea came about to bring boys and girls together to sing and dance. Some of the bagpipe players and almost all of the girls from the ensemble dance, the women just sing. The children are so enthusiastic at rehearsal and when they perform on stage in this country and abroad. We have a huge repertoire which was put together and has been collected since 1951 when the group was founded. We have one or two women who have been with us since the very beginning. When we perform on stage we always sing something we have never sung before. We try to find new songs, songs unfamiliar to the audiences, but we continue to perform the old ones as well, so they shall not be forgotten. The bagpipe is a frail instrument – the cords break, the reeds get damaged. I have been making bagpipes for over 30 years, I have a workshop and the tools I need for repairing the ensemble’s instruments and for custom-made instruments. We only go to the festivals that are worth going to. And the only kind of medals we have ever been awarded are gold medals. Last year we were invited by the Bulgarian community in London to organize a workshop and open lessons for Bulgarians and foreigners about music from the Rhodopes and the bagpipe. We spent a fortnight in Oxford and in Cambridge. I play in many culture community clubs here. I am probably the most active bagpiper in the central Rhodopes. There are differences in the folklore of Vurbinka, Chepelare, Mogilitsa, Smilyan, Pavelsko (though so close to Chepelare) and one has to know what these differences are to be able to play it properly. My own bagpipe philosophy is that it is a magical instrument, it is my life, it means everything to me.”

English version: Milena Daynova

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