Field recordings are usually made with portable recording equipment in less than what anybody would consider ideal conditions, with the result being less than perfect recordings as far as sound quality is concerned. However, since the earliest days of recording music they have been invaluable tools for preserving the music of cultures all over the world. Music anthropologists in the 19th century used wax cylinders to record everything from Native American singers to Appalachian folk music.
Field recordings of African American blues and gospel music were often most white people’s introductions to both genres. Even today, field recordings are playing an invaluable role in ensuring older artists’ music is recorded and not forgotten. The Music Maker Relief Foundation has used field recordings to help bring the music of Southern blues artists, who otherwise might have been forgotten, into homes and concert halls around the world. However, field recordings aren’t limited to North American music. The Centre for Traditional Music and Dance’s archive of recordings is a treasure chest of music from around the world. One of their most interesting collections of recordings were those done in the Balkans during the 1960s and 1970s by Martin Koenig.
His Balkan Arts Centre (the forerunner of the Centre for Traditional Music and Dance) was formed to help keep the music and culture of that region alive. Koenig’s original recordings were made into LPs and 45s, which he used to teach the folk dances of the region. However, they were never made available to the public. Now that’s all changing. A box of the original vinyl records was found in the Centre and have now been restored. They are being released as a 13-part series of special edition vinyl EPs by Evergreene Music, with the first release being Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances.
Now don’t worry if you don’t have a turntable as every EP comes with a code which not only allows you to download the four tracks from the recording, but also gives you access to liner notes, photos, and additional audio files including a recording of an interview with Koeing. In the interview he talks about his experiences recording the music in communist Eastern Europe and why it was important then, and remains important today, that these recordings exist.
Like most field recordings made prior to the digital age, the sound quality of the four tracks aren’t the greatest. However there are other compensations. This is music we would have no record of if these recordings hadn’t been made. Folk music which encouraged nationalistic feelings or celebrated ethnic differences was strongly discouraged under communist rule in Eastern Europe. An entire generation grew up without knowing the traditional music of their culture. Recordings like these are the only way they have of learning anything about the music and the dances of their people.
Listening to the four cuts, “Zborinka”, “Ruka”, “Chukanoto”, and “Dobrolushko Horo”, the first thing you might notice is the similarities between this music and what we call “Gypsy” music. They both have a kind of wild abandonment to them and a heavy reliance on what sound to be stringed instruments. This only makes sense, as Bulgarian folk music would have many of the same influences as other musics from the region. Like their neighbours in Romania, Bosnia, and Greece, Bulgaria was at one point part of the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire. You can hear this influence in rather high-pitched skirling noise produced by the combination of a type of bagpipe and the violin.
The next thing you’ll probably notice is the lack of anything like a bass line providing an underpinning for the song. Unlike the majority of the music we listen to, which is built around a very distinctive beat, there doesn’t appear to be any one instrument responsible for maintaining the song’s rhythm. However, by listening closely you do hear the sound of a drum buried very deep in the mix. Whether that’s intentional or a result of deficiencies in the recording process is unclear.
However, even without the drum, you’ll notice each of the songs has a pattern. Out of what appears to be a sort of free for all, with all the instruments playing leads at the same time, gradually evolves something we can discern as a carefully constructed song with a noticeable rhythm. The secret is to listen to the song as a whole, not the individual instruments, and then you’ll be able to hear the song’s pulse. This is the engine which propels the dancers who would move to the music.
It might be hard for us to remember this is dance music, as it no way matches our idea of how it should sound. Even those of us familiar with other Eastern European music will feel somewhat lost, as it doesn’t have the definite beat of Polish polkas or the Cossack music of Russia. No, this is far wilder, evoking the wind swept hills and crags where the shepherds who created it tend their flocks.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine this music ever being recorded in a proper studio setting. It sounds like it needs to be played out in the open air with its skirling notes being allowed to escape into the sky and the mountains. It’s made to be played in the village square or on a hillside around an open fire, not in the sterile environment of the recording studio. Thus we discover the real value of field recordings. They not only capture music, they capture the music and its environment like no other recordings can.
The four recordings on Bulgarian Folk Dances aren’t, by any stretch of the imagination, high quality. However, they are exciting, exhilarating, and a timely reminder that music used to be played for the sheer joy of making it and the chance it gave us to celebrate living. Listening to the music, it’s fun to try and imagine the kind of dancing it encouraged and the people who danced to it. How often have you been able to say that about anything you’ve heard recorded recently.