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Prof.Timothy Rice - an American in love with Bulgarian folklore

A shot from the film of Prof. Timothy Rice on Bulgarian folklore
Photo: www.cinefish.bg
One of the most curious titles in the documentary program of the 16th edition of the International Sofia Film Festival was the movie May It Fill Your Soul It tells the story of Bulgarian folk musicians from the Varimezov family. Interestingly, the documentary is directed by American professor in ethnomusicology Timothy Rice, who has dedicated 40 years of his life to studying, teaching and preserving Bulgarian folk music, which in itself is a story worth telling. "Bulgarian folk dances taught me to "open my soul and to be free”, says Professor Rice in fluent Bulgarian, which, in his words, he learned in order to be able to freely communicate with the elderly men and women living in the countryside and in the remote mountain villages. Today he teaches at the University of California in Los Angeles and is director of the Herb Alpert School of Music there, which employs many Bulgarian folk musicians.

© Photo: siff.bg

Timothy Rice’s first encounter with the irregular rhythms of Bulgarian folk music happened while he was studying at Yale University more than 45 years ago. He accidentally came across a dance club where traditional dances from the Balkan countries were performed. What impressed him most were the Bulgarian folk dances, especially those from the Shoppe region near Sofia. At that time he wanted to become a doctor, but with his characteristic sense of humor he says now: "Music made me take the wrong way." He decided to return to his native Seattle and began studying ethnomusicology. After the first year of study, he visited Bulgaria. For one summer, he traveled across the country and made recordings of songs in the Shoppe region, the Rhodopes, Thrace and Dobrudja to understand more about the local people and their traditions. It was then that he saw for this first time how elderly women become girls again in the moment they join the chain dance. "I would have become a doctor, a very serious person, and perhaps from the Bulgarian point of view I would have become narrow-minded, but after I came to Bulgaria, after I met with people here and we drank and ate together, my soul became open and free”, he says.

Timothy’s longest stay in Bulgaria was 15 months in the period 1972-1973 when he came here to write his graduation thesis on the typical two-voice, diaphonic, sining in western and southern Bulgaria. Then he did not return for nearly 10 years, but since the mid-'80s he has been coming fairly regularly to his second homeland, as he calls it.

"My scientific work has always been closely related to Bulgarian folk music. Otherwise I know a little about a lot of things - teaching folk music from around the world. It's very difficult to answer the question why and how Bulgarian folklore is different. Surely there is something like a "Balkan style", but the quality of rural clear voices of Bulgarian folk singers is specific and unique. Bulgarian folk instruments are found in other countries as well, but the combination of bagpipes, shepher’s flute (kaval), rebec (gadulka) is charactersitic for Bulgaria only. The undisputed fact is that Bulgaria has the largest variety of beats and tempo of in dance music”.

In 2008, President Georgi Parvanov awarded Timothy Rice with the St. Cyril and Methodius state order for his outstanding contribution to the popularization of Bulgarian folklore, art and culture worldwide. Today he admits that there is a lower quality of musicians in recent years, however, he is optimistic about the future. The film he showed at the Sofia Film Fest proves this. "May it fill your soul - this is a phrase used by Teodora Varimezova, we we listening to the radio one day with her to the song of an old man, a folk singer”, Prof. Rice recalls. “At that moment, Teodora compared the the self-taught singers and girls from the music schools in Shiroka Luka, Kotel and the Plovdiv Academy and told me that in her opinion these young people cannot fill your soul because they are not feeling the music in the same way as rural singers - with all their heart and soul. "

"When I was in Bulgaria in 1972-73, though I was then writing my dissertation on the diaphonic singing, I wanted to learn to play the bagpipe or kaval. My research advisor from the Bulgarian Academy of Scineces Nikolai Kaufman decided to introduce me to Kostadin Varimezov – he was a piper and soloist in the orchestra of the Bulgarian National Radio, who accepted me as his student. An extremely good relationship grew between us. I quickly realized that he was a very good and serious man. When I became professor in Toronto in 1978-79, I invited him to come there and for nine months we lived together. After 1989, many Bulgarian musicians wanted to come to the U.S. and I was sort of landlord for many of them. In 2000, another musician from the family, Ivan Varimezov, came to LA who teaches there today. The film is actually a blending of two themes - a history of Bulgaria through the life and destiny of a musical family whose roots can be found back in 1878. And the second theme is migration, something which is close to us, Americans. When you move from one place to another, something always gets lost, but you hope that you will find something new and good to offer your children, those who remain after you. Music is present in every scene in my film, it is my soul in the story”.

The documentary May It Fill Your Soul has already been screened at the Los Angeles Festival of East European cinema last year with great success and very warm reaction from the audience. Professor Timothy Rice is already thinking about the next movie on the same theme - the history of Bulgarian families in the U.S.. "There are five such families of professional musicians who have decided to leave their homeland in search of better life for themselves and their children. Their stories, as similar as they may seem, incorporate specific details, which is worth to be seen and preserved", says Prof. Rice. And while he finds the time to materialize these future film projects, he wishes Bulgarians and himself to be able to keep an open soul, good relations between people and love of love always alive. 

Translated by Rossitsa Petcova

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