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Balkan Alien Sound: all the way from the Balkans to the Emerald Isle through music

БНР Новини
Photo: Hanna Michtel
Few Bulgarians would be able to pinpoint on the map the second-biggest city in Northern Ireland, but their curiosity will surely be sparked once they learn they can go to a folk club there and dance to the rhythms of Bulgarian folk music? Since 2007, the music scene in Derry already has a solid Balkan presence and interestingly enough, it is delivered to the audience by a bunch of musicians of various music backgrounds yet none of them from the Balkans. Brought together by their common passion for the successful blend between local melodies and the musical diversity of Eastern Europe, seven Irish musicians gather crowds at their gigs, dancing to tunes they only later recognize are not originally Irish – and it’s all done it under a really catchy name – the Balkan Alien Sound.

Bouzouki player Martin Coyle, one of the founder members of the band, says Bulgarian folk music has it all – amazing melodies, fast-paced dances, and virtuosity. Among his favorite Bulgarian folk musicians are clarinetist Ivo Papazov, tamboura player Rumen Sirakov, and accordionist Martin Lyubenov. But how did his personal love story with the musical legacy of the Balkans evolve?

Снимка“My first introduction to Balkan music was through an Irish folk-musician called Andy Irvine who brought some Bulgarian folk tunes to Ireland with his group Planxty in the 1970s, some tunes like smeseno horo or mominsko horo”, Marty Coyle recalls. “The music seemed to really stick with Irish music and instrumentation, and after that it seemed really natural to follow. So I followed in Andy Irvine’s footsteps and for 6 or 7 summers I went through Eastern Europe, listening to music and meeting people, collecting music to bring back to Ireland. I went through Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, of course, Bulgaria, and stayed usually three months at a time, meeting families and musicians, trying to absorb the sounds and listen to as much music as possible. It wasn’t until I got back to Ireland that I approached some of my friends who were band members, showed them the music and we thought it was a really exciting project to get involved in as it’s translated very well into our style of playing.”

And these enthusiastic musicians are Robert Peoples – fiddle, Yvonne Mc Ginley- accordions, Martin Coyle – bouzouki, Omar Merino – guitar, Marc Forbes – bass, and Niall Lynch – drums. The band’s vocalist Aideen McGinn is faced with the daunting task to tackle a few unknown languages like Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian, and Roma, “a nerve-wrecking endeavor sometimes, but we do it with a lot of research and advice from musicians we meet from Balkan regions”, Marty explains. One of them is Bulgarian guitar/tamboura player Anastas Mihaylov who was teaching in Northern Ireland for a period and collaborated with the Balkan Alien Sound. Despite the distant languages, what are the resemblances between Irish and Bulgarian traditional music?

Vocalist Aideen McGinn

“Obviously, the concept of traditional music is very similar, especially with the songs telling stories of love, loss and longing. They are both communal kind of music, written for weddings, dance and parties, which is very similar to Irish traditional music. Also the instrumentation - if you look at the family of instruments, the bouzouki can translate into the tamboura, the violin – into the gadulka, the Irish pipe would be the gaida, you have the kaval and we have the Irish whistle. They are quite similar, although the main thing obviously is the rhythms and the time signatures which are very different”, says Martin.

The energetic infectious Balkan rhythms often leave crowds riotous with dance at the band’s gigs attended by many members of the Balkan communities in Northern Ireland. The band often perform at events organized the Belfast-based branch of the WOMAD festival and Beyond Skin NI, including their latest gig on September 19th in Colraine where they had another Bulgarian collaboration – with duo Veselka Ivanova and Nikolay Ivanov, a family of musicians living in Newry and promoting Bulgarian folk music in Northern Ireland. The musicians from the Balkan Alien Sound are now working on the release of their second album of interpretations and original compositions of Irish-Balkan fusion entitled “Balk'n'Funk” due to be showcased at the Echo-Echo festival in November. Still, they have not yet played anywhere in the Balkans but are really eager to turn these plans into reality soon:

"We are trying to organize that for next year. We are really interested to do a culture-swap project in Bulgaria. We have Bulgarian friends here such as the Virtuoso Ivanov duo and also in Bulgaria at the Wild Thyme eco farm, Chris Fenton and Claire Coulter, who run a musical retreat there. We are in the process of making more connections in Bulgaria and prepare a nice tour to your country.”


What is more, the Balkan Alien Sound run a folk and gypsy club in Derry based on Balkan music as every three months they invite a band from around Europe to come and share the stage with. All musicians are guided by their belief that traditional music plays a really important role in modern life. “What we try and do at our club is to ensure the whole room dances together. We use the music for the right reason as a social event and try to give people a good time. Traditional music is a reminder of a communal sense of music and it brings people together”, the members of the Balkan Alien Sound sincerely believe. And we are eagerly looking forward to their Balkan tour next year!

Author of photos: Hanna Michtel

All photos are provided by Balkan Alien Sound.

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