Welcome to the heart of traditional music

Bulgarian music combines different Byzantine, Slavic, and Ottoman influences within the framework of Balkan traditions. The gaïda (traditional instrument) attests to a very ancient presence and cultural exchanges in Thracians with the Celtic world. Traditional Bulgarian music is of a ritual nature and is linked to the rural way of community life (dances, festivities, and calendar celebrations). Traditional music is very varied and differs from region to region and time of year (meetings, fieldwork, weddings and funerals, markets, quests, and gatherings). Music precedes and accompanies daily life. There is also a great tradition of polyphonic vocal music.

It is called изворен фолклор (“source folklore”), folklore in the sense of knowledge and popular practices. As in the rest of Europe, it was collected in the middle of the 19th century.

After 1945, to support communist ideology– folk art as opposed to bourgeois art– traditional music was privileged and encouraged and served as a basis for official music.

Despite the profound change in society and the disappearance of rural traditions, traditional Bulgarian music continues to live on thanks to the formation of amateur ensembles in the villages and by the chitalishte.

Children singing a folk song, Preslav / ©Hunt On Photos Studio

Interview With the Vocal Teacher in the Chitalishte of Prelsav

Valentina Yankova

Profession, place: artistic director/vocal teacher, Chitalishte “Razvitie 1897”, Veliki Preslav

  • What ideas come to your mind when you hear “intangible cultural heritage”?

Intangible cultural heritage is an expression of cultural diversity between different nations and people. Its purpose is to make people accept other cultures, different from their own, and to advance cultural exchange among people. It is meant to be shared, preserved, developed, researched, popularized, and passed on to future generations in order for there to be acceptability and tolerance. National folk art, called folklore, is represented by the works of folk art crafts, folk costumes, traditional ornaments, folk instruments, folk dances, and craftsmanship. Intangible cultural heritage is recognized as a cultural value of great importance.

  • How long have you been singing? Are you a professional?

I have been working in this Chitalishte since 1977 with an interruption of 5 years. I graduated from a professional school of folklore arts. Only two schools like this exist in Bulgaria, in Kotel, and in Shiroka Luka. I am good at my job and I love it. It’s what I studied for 5 years after all. I practice every day and I always strive to be better. It wouldn’t be modest if I say I am a professional because you learn new things throughout your whole lifetime.

  • How many hours per week/month do you spend on it?

I mostly work with kids, which come for vocal lessons after their school day is over. They are between 4 and 14 years old. I give lessons every day of the week in the afternoon. In the hours before my lessons start, I prepare myself and search for different songs according to the skills and capabilities of each individual child.

  • How did you discover traditional singing? Where did you learn it/practice it?

My mother, my grandmother, and my two aunts are very good singers and they discovered the same talent in me. It was not easy for me to leave my family and go to study in a distant town. Kotel, where I studied, is 80km away from my hometown Veliki Preslav. It is located in a scenic valley in East Stara Planina. It is a town with beautiful architecture and it is declared an architectural-historical reserve with more than a 100 preserved houses from The Bulgarian National Revival.

  • Why do you practice this type of singing? How did you come to it?

I practice this because it brings me joy and pleasure especially when I see how the kids progress musically and become better at singing. Many of my students continue to practice singing and continue their education in music schools and universities, which makes me very proud.

  • Do you also practice dancing? Do you play an instrument?

In the school at which I studied, we had folklore dance classes. There I was able to learn the rhythms and steps of different Bulgarian dances like ruchenitsa, pravo horo, pajdushko, and dajchovo horo, kopanitsa, etc. A year ago, I joined a folk dancing group in this Chitalishte, but I discovered that I just don’t have enough free time to attend their lessons.

I used to play the kaval for 5 years, but after I graduated and started to work in this Chitalishte, no one wanted to attend my lessons on this instrument. And if you don’t practice it often enough, you just forget how to do it. I can play the piano and the accordion but not professionally. In the school where I studied, it was mandatory to learn how to play the piano.

  • Do you participate in competitions? Do you attend events organized by the Chitalishte primarily as singers, but also as citizens? How many times a week? Why do you like to show these songs to the public? Why do you think it is important?

Every year my students actively participate in different events in this town and region. From spring to autumn, we participate in many festivals and competitions all over Bulgaria. I am very satisfied when I see the smiles on their faces after they have won a competition. After every event, we come back with awards, medals, and certificates. This of course makes not only their parents proud but also our Chitalishte. Our folklore is our national identity to this day, especially today when we are a part of the big European family. Using it, we try to enrich the whole European culture. Our mission is to introduce the youth to the values of our national folklore because it is their responsibility to preserve the roots, spirit, and memory of Bulgaria. This practically is demonstrated in national and international festivals.

  • What do you think of the activity of the chitalisté and its missions?

The Chitalishte is an example of a sustainable cultural institution with the specific mission to preserve and develop the traditional cultural values of the nation. The Chitalishte seeks to satisfy the cultural needs of the population. Our Chitalishte is visited by kids from the age of four to elderly people who sing, dance, and practice recitals. For special occasions and holidays, the Chitalishte recreates old traditions from our region and organizes concerts and events.

  • What sensations do these songs give you? Why is traditional singing important to you? How do you feel when you sing?

Folk songs are creations of the mind in a poetic form, where text and melody are integrally linked. These songs were created by people as a way to express themselves, their thoughts, and their experiences. They are sung on sad or happy days, on big celebrations and holidays, while working on the wheat fields, while weaving, or at weddings. Their creators are poetic people with talent. The folk song was created and developed mostly in the villages. It is passed on from singer to singer and in this way, many variations of songs were created.

  • Have you passed on the traditional song to your family and friends, do you want to pass it on (grandchildren, children…)?

At home, we often listen to Bulgarian folklore music, mostly when we get together with friends for happy occasions. My granddaughter loves folklore music and can sing very well, but my grandson isn’t good at it.

  • Are you the only person in your family who practices this type of singing?

Yes, referring to traditional folk singing I am the only one who does it in my family.

  • How do you learn to sing? How is the music education in Bulgaria going? How do children learn to sing?

Firstly, you have to show at least a little bit of ability to sing, musical sense and inclination to music, after which you have to find someone who will help you and guide you to discover your real talent. Someone to encourage, motivate and help you. This is what vocal teachers are for. When a music teacher senses that a student of his has a talent to sing and develops it well, he has to orientate him on where to go to further develop his musical talents, either in a music school or in a conservatory.

  • According to you, why is it important to preserve, practice, and pass on folk Bulgarian songs and traditions in general?

Folk traditions, rituals, customs, dances, and songs represent the cultural, historical, and societal development of the nation. They are a way to pass onto future generations the perceived and absorbed moments of the past the nation has gone through. Folklore as a whole is a bridge between the old culture of the nation and the current youth, which mostly perceives folklore as knowledge of how their ancestors lived. Communication between the human mind and folklore art or art, in general, should start at a very early age.

  • In your opinion, what is the future of traditional folk singing? Are there more and more young people interested in this practice? What could be done to make it more popular?

The future of folk singing? – I consider folk singing as a very important thing that is worth to be preserved for our kids, grandkids, and future generations in general so that they have a way to learn about their origins and roots. Folklore is what connects the past with the present and the future. Our folk traditions are largely present in our folk songs. Every song talks about some experience that happened at some point to someone and was a part of their life. Back then, people didn’t have television, phones or any of the technology we have now and most of them couldn’t even write, so they used songs as a way to capture the moment and share it with others. That is how our folk songs and our folklore has survived till today. I believe that Bulgarian folklore won’t be lost and in fact, interest in it and especially in our folk music and dances is steadily rising. For me, it’s a challenge but also a joy to work with kids. One has to be creative, to come up with easy and fun ways to teach them, to spark their interest. This is achieved with easy-to-learn playful songs and dances.

  • What type of singing do you practice? Do you have specific types of folk songs in Preslav?

I mainly practice folk singing because that is the essence of my job. With the younger kids, we practice fun pop songs for kids, in order to be up to date with modern music and be ready for every occasion, event, or competition. There are songs specific to Preslav.

  • What types of costumes do you wear? Are they specific to Preslav and its surroundings? Did you buy them or where they handed over to you by your family? Do you wear them only during the holidays or do you wear them all day?

In the Chitalishte where I work, we have a lot of different folk costumes – from ones specific to the Shopp region to ones specific to the Northern region. They are manufactured in specialized factories for traditional folk costumes. They are beautiful and colorful and most of them have been embroidered by hand. Only participants of different collectives of the Chitalishte use them. They only wear them when there are special occasions or events hosted by the Chitalishte.

Folklore is our national identity to this day and through it, we manage to preserve our dignity as a true Bulgarian nation.

Group singing lesson in the chitalishte with Valya Yankova, 2019, Preslav / ©Alice de Villeblanche