Bistrishki Babi Bulgaria The Singing Grandmothers of Bistrishki

Bologna, Italy - 5 November 2008

by Sunil Deepak

19th festival of ethnic music called "Sounds from the World" organised by Department of Music and Spectacle of University of Bologna, was inaugurated by a women's group coming from Bulgaria, called Bistrishki Babi.

Prof. Mila Santova On the concert day a meeting was organised to explain the music of Bistrishki Babi and Prof. Mila Santova, director of Institute of Folklore from Bulgarian Academy of Science talked about the group. This article is based on her talk and a brief interview I had with her. (In picture on left)

In collaboration with UNESCO, Prof. Santova had started a mapping and documentation of cultural significance of Bistrishki during 2001-02. The third proclamation of UNESCO in 2004, included archaic singing tradition of Bistrishki Babi as one of the "Cultural Heritage of Humanity". 

Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is located in the Shatuk valley and is surrounded by mountains. The village of Bistrishki is situated about 10 km from Sofia, in the mountains of Bitosha. From a cultural point of view, it is a very conservative area. The village has maintained and nurtured an antique form of polyphonic singing, that was once common in Europe, from Corsica to Georgia. Today you can still find traces of it in countries like Italy, Spain and Morocco, usually in the form of male polyphonic singing. Bistrishki has the distinction of having preserved female polyphonic singing traditions.

Bistrishki's singing tradition is an oral tradition and nothing is annotated down on the paper. All the musical repertory stays inside the head of its protagonists. The group in its present form was formalised in early twentieth century and now it has persons of third and fourth generations in it. Before that the informal singing groups go back some centuries.

The village women start being inducted in singing groups at a young age and there are many Bistrishki polyphonic singing groups of different age groups. Bistrishki Babi or the Bistrishki grandmothers' group represents the culmination of this experience, the most experienced singers. To learn the ancient polyphonic singing, it is better if the young women do not have any formal musical training. It is felt that formal music training creates a barrier to learning of this traditional singing form. This traditional singing continues to quite vital, with strong interest from the younger generations in maintaining it.

Bistrishki Babi, singing grandmothersThe group sings in two sub-groups, one composed of four persons and the second of five persons. In the first sub-group there are different elements - one representing the cry that starts the song. Second is represented by roar, that follows the cry. Finally the two persons representing "border" that build the sounds around the first two. The phonics of one group are followed by second group and then they sing alternately or jointly, bringing out different and complex patterns of phonics. The traditional form of music may sound strange to you and very un-music like if you have never heard such music before.

Comments: Prof. Santova didn't speak English and my French is not very good so I couldn't ask her many questions that I would have liked to ask her.

For example, I would have liked to understand more about the spiritual dimension of this music for the singers. The crescendo of vigorous sounds was very stirring for me, making my heart palpitate. What does it mean to the singers? And do we maintain traditions just because it is something old or because they give us a personal joy and a sense of fulfillment?

How has their role and their singing changed after they have been recognised by UNESCO and are probably objects of studies? Have they become more conservative in maintaining the traditional music? Are younger women attracted to this music now because it offers possibility of going around to give concerts? If a boy or a man wants to learn it or practice it, what happens?

These were questions that I couldn't ask to Prof. Santova and to the women of Bistrishki.

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