Sound Portraits from Bulgaria review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month

(Smithsonian Folkways)
Martin Koenig’s wonderful collection, recorded in rural Bulgaria between 1966 and 1979, is quietly heroic

On the edges of eastern Europe, Anatolia and the Black Sea, an incredible wealth of folk music kept flowing long after other countries saw their traditions decline. This fascinating release from Smithsonian Folkways compiles music recorded in rural Bulgaria between 1966 and 1979. This is tradition in the raw – diverse, complex and moving by turns – and the story behind it is quietly heroic.

Sound Portraits from Bulgaria: A Journey to a Vanished World Album art work

Song collector Martin Koenig was aware that industrialisation and countryside-to-city migration were starting to silence these songs. Folk tunes were also being shunned, understandably, in this ex-communist country (they had been used as tools of the state, and diluted, too). This 37-track anthology, complete with original photographs and bilingual liner notes, reopens the izvor (“wellspring”) of what came before. And what did was torrenting and life-giving.

These tunes pack a punch far beyond language barriers. Saying that, titles such as Potaino Rada Godiya (Rada Was Secretly Engaged) underline the arresting agonies in the overlapping voices of Linka Gekova Gergova and Menka Illieva Aronova. So does Zhalna Goro (Oh, Sad Forest) against the austere, stunning wail of Bozhurka Tupankova (unsurprisingly, one of the great rural singers). Shtiliyan Tihov’s traditional instrumentals on the kaval (a Balkan flute) flicker and flit and flicker like mosquitoes, while violins and gaidas (Balkan bagpipes) tangle and unravel in captivating, clashing combinations.

The group singing is especially gripping, so dense and intense you feel you can delve into its recesses forever. And better still, Koenig found many of the original performers of this music, or their families, when he returned in 2015 to get their consent, and to pay them. Some impossible expeditions have happy endings after all.

Also out this month

Charles Rumback and Ryley Walker’s Little Common Twist (Thrill Jockey) plays with folk instrumentation in subtly psychedelic, inventive ways. Alison Cotton’s The Girl I Left Behind Me (Claypipe Music) is not an album as such, but a 10-inch of two very long tracks, adding wintry twists to her eerie palette of folk soundscapes (both were originally recorded as soundtracks to Muriel Spark short stories).

Catherine Rudie’s The Möbius Kiss (Hudson Records) is a fascinating, personal debut from the Scottish folk singer, exploring the experience of a long-term relationship ending as her home and studio were destroyed to make way for luxury flats. Her rootsy voice and folk melodies mesh with electronic sounds, warmly drawing you in.

Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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