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“May it fill your soul”: remembering legendary bagpipe player from the Strandzha region Kostadin Varimezov

Photo: Archive

Known in his lifetime as “the king of Bulgarian bagpipes”, “Saint Kostadin of folk music”, Kostadin Varimezov’s students in Canada and the USA addressed him as “professor” even though he had no academic title. “May it fill your soul” is the title American ethnologist Prof. Timothy Rice gave to a documentary about the famed bagpipe player and his family.

Kostadin Varimezov is one of the first musicians to have popularized Bulgarian folk music beyond the country’s borders. It is thanks to his performances that the Bulgarian bagpipe is now included in world music encyclopedias. And even though he travelled the world he was never influenced by any modern trends, he never attempted to modernize tradition but remained true to authentic music and performed it exactly as it has been played at village fairs and in village squares, and during traditional rituals in the region of Strandzha.

He was born in Rosenovo village near Bourgas, and grew up with the music his father played on the traditional flute – kaval – and the songs his mother sang. When he was 11 a man from the same village Stoyan Popchev, Popeto gave him his bagpipe and taught him some of the subtleties of bagpipe playing. By the age of 15-16 he was being invited to play at weddings across the entire region. When still a teenager he met famous kaval player Dragan Karapchanski who encouraged him in his musical development. In 1954 Kostadin Varimezov joined the Bulgarian National Radio’s folk music orchestra. After a brief period in which he learnt to read music and got to know the folklore styles of other folklore regions, he recorded a huge solo repertoire, more than 150 titles in the BNR’s audio fund, particularly valuable among them being the authentic recordings of the typical performances accompanying different Strandzha rituals. Together with fellow musicians from the orchestra Kostadin Varimezov set up the Strandzha Group. The group performed melodies and horo tunes from Strandzha, frequently together with renowned singers in concert, or in the recording studio.
Later he played with the Balkana group, and, together with the Trio Bulgarka conquered the audiences of Europe.

In 1978 Prof. Timothy Rice invited him to teach bagpipe playing at the Faculty of Music, of the University of Toronto in Canada. His teaching experience at the Izvorche junior ensemble, the bagpipe classes at the music school in Kotel and the academy in Plovdiv helped him a great deal with his foreign students, among them Prof. Timothy Rice himself.

Singer from the Strandzha region Manol Mihailov remembers the renowned bagpipe player:

When I came to Sofia in 1979 I made the acquaintance of Kostadin Varimezov, a prominent musician with style. What we had in common was our love of the songs of Strandzha. Once I was established as a singer I would often sing with him at the Trakia club at get-togethers with music from Strandzha and Thrace. After being approved by a commission I made my first recordings at the Bulgarian National Radio with the Strandzha Group. Kostadin helped me a great deal for the stylistic features of the tunes, the performance.  He really enjoyed the song “Zlatka and Milka”, while I was recording it he kept waving his hand, as if he was conducting and I followed the movements of his hand. In December 1980 when I was recording at the BNR again he introduced me to renowned singers Nadezhda Hvoineva, Dimka Vladimirova. Kostadin Varimezov is the epitome of the spirit of Strandzha. He will live on with his bagpipe melodies.

English: Milena Daynova

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