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Jordan Iliev - Bulgarian Wedding Music


Jordan Iliev, from the small village of Gabra, just south of Sofia, is the featured artist tonight. Raised in a musical family, Jordan began playing the kaval at age 16. He soon switched to the clarinet to take advantage of the full range of keys and chromaticism necessary to play wedding music. Being tall and thin as a child, Jordan's nickname was "Pisetsa," the Bulgarian word for the flat, wooden reed of a clarinet. While maturing physically over the years, he has also matured musically, learning to use the entire range of the clarinet in his lightning-fast improvisations.

Tonight, in an interesting combination of the modern and the traditional, Jordan will place the reeded mouthpiece of a saxophone onto a kaval to imitate the sound of the zurla (zurna). He also promises to sing a song or two.

Jordan Iliev has been playing weddings for 26 years. For ten of those years, he toured with Dom Na Uchitelia, a "Union of Teachers" band supported by the government. Now he is the musical director of SREDETS, which just issued its third album, The Gun Is Firing.

Democracy and capitalism since 1989 have not come without a price to musicians in Bulgaria. Though musicians are now free to play the wedding music that was formerly prohibited, it is harder for them to get hired for weddings. Without government subsidies, prices have soared, putting the cost of a live wedding band out of reach of the general public. Many families are therefore opting for a DJ to save money. Whereas Jordan had been playing at least five weddings a month, he is now fortunate to play three in the same period. As it is now the off-season for weddings in Bulgaria, he is able to be with us here tonight.

What is Bulgarian 'wedding music'? Bulgarian wedding music (svatbarska muzika) refers to the amplified, largely improvised and highly ornamented, impossibly fast dance music played-as the name suggests-at weddings in Bulgaria, but also at other social celebrations, like soldier send-off parties, and increasingly at concerts (like this one) and festival-competitions.

Since the 1970s, Bulgarian wedding music has coalesced into a distinct genre that has more to do with conceptual approaches to performance than what we might call the content of the music, much like jazz. In fact, both performers and writers frequently compare Bulgarian wedding music to jazz; Ivo Papasov, a clarinetist who credits himself with the creation of the style, calls his music "balkanski dzhaz" (Balkan jazz). And just as jazz has historically derived much of its expressive power from its life in the margins, Bulgarian wedding music has represented and conveyed a powerful message of resistance to Bulgarian state control of artistic expression.

But there must be some content, otherwise the musicians wouldn't know what to play. Sure, the melodic material does come from somewhere, but because it is drawn from melodies associated with all the regions of Bulgaria-Thrace, Shope, Sedernashka, Rodopska, Pirin, Dobrudzha-combining elements of Greek, Macedonian, Serbian, Romanian, Turkish, and Rom traditional music as well as American rock and jazz idioms, it is difficult to generalize about the content. The conceptual approaches, therefore, move to the foreground.

What are these approaches? We can speak of three.

First, the music is played LOUD. Ever since amplification helped crystallize the genre in the early seventies (not long after Bob Dylan "went electric" and revolutionized folk music practices in this country), it has remained a crucial component of wedding music performances; the use of ample reverberation or echo even enhances the effect of organized chaos. Instrumentation usually includes accordion, clarinet, electric bass guitar, and a trap drum set. Sometimes added are electric guitar, synthesizer, saxophone, trumpet, violin, kaval (rim-blown wooden flute), gaida (bagpipe), gudulka (three-stringed, bowed lute with short neck), and a vocalist (usually female), all heavily miked, of course. Bulgarian wedding music "unplugged" just doesn't make any sense.

Second, the individual is featured prominently during solo improvisations. Unlike the large, formal, and rigidly directed folk ensembles associated with state socialism, Bulgarian wedding bands encourage the display of personality. Virtuosic improvisation contributes to the creation of star status for wedding musicians.

Third, melodies are deliberately manipulated beyond recognition with techniques that include arpeggiation, profuse ornamentation, chromaticism, frequent key changes, and irregular phrasing, all at a blinding speed. Such creativity and spontaneous musical 'conversation'-both to challenge and to amuse the other musicians-keep the music energized and allow the musicians to stay focused for the 10 or 11 hours of continuous playing required at a typical wedding celebration. Though it is possible to play the regional melodies 'cleanly' (chisto) and 'sweetly' (sladko), these three aggressive conceptual approaches to performance effectively separate svatbarska muzika from narodna muzika (folk/people's music).

-Stephen Lessard, ethnomusicologist

This Master Artists series is sponsored by the California Arts Council, Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund and the Slavonic Cultural Center.


Location: San Francisco, California

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