Gyuro, Dobwr Yunak

Of the dozen songs thrown at me in my individual lessons so far, one particularly strikes my gong – Гюро Добър Юнак (Gyuro Dobwr Yunak) from Trakiya region, as arranged by Stoyan Paurov.

Our protagonist lays in a prison tower, a hawk chick in hand. He breaks his own fingers to pieces to feed the bird, he gathers his own tears to water it, to raise it to be able to fly, on his behalf, to get news of his family… the grown bird does fly, but brings back only word of overgrown yards, empty houses and a single dead tree.

This epic piece is travelling me. The ornaments, designed to flip and tumble from steady arching phrases, are like running your fingertips through the longing of calm water, and watching the light break up, flash and ripple out into eternity…

I thought it fitting to sing you some of it in the bathroom of a friend’s atelier, located on the 15th floor of a soviet style block in the Sofia suburbs… a tower indeed. A tower where you will hear the water pipes grinding against the weight of time, as I croon in this language that is not mine, but that teaches me so much about making sound!

LISTEN to “Gyuro in the Tower” HERE

Though scored, the timing of this piece is completely elastic, dictated by the story itself – a breathable rather than beatable meter, meticulously coached by my vocal tutor Svetla Stanilova, and lovely piano accompanist, Maria Akrabova.

For me as a vocalist and as a person, this song is like a supreme challenge to be powerful yet tender, broken yet whole, active yet still, ahead yet present, vast yet concise… A piece I believe I will be working with for years! I sang it for the class, accompanied by Maria, for our end of semester sharing on Wednesday:

LISTEN to “Gyuro for AMTII” HERE

And for the vocal geeks:

Something I am finding particularly interesting is learning how to apply the right impulse and pressure of a particular ornament onto different vowels (depending on the lyric). For example the “ko” from sokolovo that you hear in these recordings, is a particularly loving sound (round yet contained), to apply this pattern to. Later in the song (there are two more cycles), a “te” from da te dwrja, risks splaying and hardening, and requires particular attention to keeping the tongue active, yet lower jaw relaxed and throat open, thus allowing the ornament to percuss freely in the larynx…

My favorite pattern looks like this on the page:

Sokolovo Pattern

Listen to this, and more, on my sound-cloud below… (ps – that luminous bird you see just appeared in my motion photo experiments… What happens when you dance and click?  Sometimes magic!!)

Blur Bird square

What a song can do…

Tzigani Street

As living bones are steeped in a damp cold and Koleda (Christmas) lights deployed, Plovdiv pedestrian center takes on a new kind of fast-footed, steaming-breath hush… the furtive cats still own the open rubbish bins, glossy people bustle to buy shiny things, while the matt-finish homeless are less visible, hunkering down somewhere else… fake furs speak with real furs, bling boots insult colored berets, and you learn which paving stones you must not step on lest your weight elicit that mini-mud-geyser up your own leg…

One night, in the soft rain, the gravity of a familiar melody drew me around a street corner to encounter two beautifully weathered Tzigani street musicians: teeth missing, bright eyes and all. On accordion and fiddle, fingerless gloves take on a whole new meaning…

Click here to listen!

Bachkovo Lovin’

When the ache to get out of the city grew too large in my heart, I stuffed a backpack full of warm things and put myself on the bus to Bachkovo – so close and yet a world away. Arriving for sundown – steep slopes still green through the autumn rust, peaks wearing just a sprinkling of snow – I wandered through the village… wood-fire smoke, over-ripe grapes, exposed brick, barking dogs, and the powerful constant roar of the mountain torrent. Across it, the path up to the Monastery…

As the stalls close and day-visitors file out, I sign in and am shown to my room. Prepared for a “monks” night, with sleeping bag, best socks, thermos and all, I am shown into a warm space with linen, towels, blankets, heater, bathroom… umm!? Then ushered down to the dining room – a cosmic art-deco chapel with star studded blue sky and angels flitting about in the clouds. I eat alone, it being barely past 5pm, and note that all the food is mushy. I think of tooth-less jaws masticating beneath great white beards. Roast pepper paste, chicken broth and sweet semolina.

Called outside by sung prayers, standing still for ages in the courtyard beside the laden persimmon tree, listening, imagining a circle of monks, a private ritual echoing out into the weight of the now moonlit valley… I eventually realize that the chants are amplified throughout the complex and that the ceremony happening just inside the chapel is open to all. I take my cue and light a couple of candles for the dead as it happens to be Arhangelova Zadushnitsa, All Souls Day. Plain clothes mingle with robed monks (yes, bearing great white beards) and relay, prayer upon prayer, in beautiful earthy voices, of which I understand nothing. Soul to soul, then!

Dawn, and the cluster of white doves sleeping on the chapel roof stirs. Still no one out as I fill my gourd with icy spring water and begin the ascent towards… the awesome. (Not without take-away coffee from the machine by the hotel to wash down my walnuts and goji berries mind you!) A lone man and his dog reflect my morning contentment. We soak in the colors together, already amplified by a potent blue sky. Ground frozen hard, boots crunch over white grass to reach latent blackberries, swollen with autumn rain and eternally tart. The valley below is golden, the ridges above, abrupt and crumbly. Cold knees. Wide eyes. Happy heart.

I scaled the flank of a mountain in search of some sun. Found some. Nested there for hours, in the wild thyme and sang with the birds. It’s called Bachkovo Lovin’


As I eat my breakfast each morning, I love to watch the wall. The wall of the abandoned building across the street, that is.

It is in the stillness, the sameness, the repetition of my attendance, that my sight deepens.


One morning, I suddenly perceive the weathered shoe on the windowsill of the 17th window, till now a chameleon, in its perfect lime off-white. The following morning the word QUEEN appears – delicately scratched into the alcove of the once-was-mint-green rusted over door.

Time shows, and the interplay of tags are genuine – a fine blood-red scribe mid-wall is echoed further down in bold block letters, standing like elephants feet on the mossy footpath. The peeling wallpaper inside the 23rd room runs in waves with sharp crests, mimicking the broken glass, still in the grip of the window-frame. The variations of ochre on this wall are infinite – a surface many a painter would be proud to claim as his work.  The human stories have evaporated. Now it is the dust that speaks to the pigeons, while the dead-end wires dance with their own shadows.

Before we are taught what is beautiful, the sight of a river-rat being devoured by a dog is fascinating. Before we are taught what is delicious, a fistful of sand is a feast like any other.  Acquired tastes and sense of value…

The първи глас (soprano) hits a high C# at full open throated velocity – the sound of a banshee. Satisfied ripples on my skin. It surprised me last year to note how many of my World Choir participants initially disliked, or should I say – hated with a vengeance, the sound of one of the songs I proposed. Because I have listened to this music and admired it for years, it never occurred to me that it could be disliked. That very night, on National Radio, was discussed the nature of taste and how we can only love what we know. And yet, some souls are struck like a gong, while others, not.  The mysterious currents of music continue to move…





The distinct sensation of being a jellyfish – carried by the currents, tumbled by the waves, exhibiting a generally transparent personality, with not a word to say. I have become an ambivalent witness of the lights passing through me and frequently quiver with salty emotion.  My dear partner returned to Aotearoa/NZ yesterday. This singular year begins…


Stepping out from my school, each turn is a cobbled cross-country exercise. Large, irregular and ancient stones carry high-heeled women, walking as if they were crossing a river ford (romance is augmented when there is a man’s arm to hold onto…) Aside from this riveting spectacle, the narrow streets, misty today, lead into gardens, churches, galleries, houses for music and their courtyards, where roses hang their heads, heavy with rain, where words emerge triumphantly from a child’s mouth, “o, чадър! как се казваш?” (Oh, umbrella! What’s your name?) And so, a grandfather chuckles, while the milk-bearing mother cat streaks across the way, furtively seizing her moment…

Plovdiv AmphitheaterFilip-Kutev-EnsembleThe roman amphitheater, onto which the academy opens, is home to grand performances, two of which I have been lucky enough to catch. The famous Trakia and Filip Kutev Ensembles spread their brilliant wares even though it rained. My favorite acappella quartet, Eva Quartet, will sing in a music-house at end of the month. Classical music is also in high regard and I am learning to sort my outings by preference as the West European classics ‘à la Bulgare’ have markedly less spine-chilling watts for me, than the gripping arrangements of local polyphony.

With Plovdiv vying for some “cultural capital of the year” European title in 2019, council money is lavished on swish ruin illuminations, stars beneath our feet, and plenty of concerts / presentations, in what seems to be an extra long warm up, while just a street or two back, large old houses are in ruin and graffiti reigns…

My-VistaFacadeNevertheless, praise to the muted sound of the main pedestrian street at night – how calm a city can be with the sweet absence of cars! I’ve only been in one since I am here. The intercity buses are brilliant.

I am renting a room in a house built at the beginning of last century. Sharing no language with my landlady, I discovered after some time that I was not flatting with a fiery artist, but with her nifty mother. With the pension being but 200lev per month (not enough to live on) pennies are pinched: cold-water dishes and shower water heated just enough for one at a time, menus consisting mostly of potatoes, beans and tomatoes, as they are in season. Cigarettes are cheap, so those don’t count. I’m keeping up with a little more than spuds myself, and feasting on olives, goats cheese, dark bread, walnuts, honey…

The floorboards are pretty wild to say the least, some windows don’t open and each door has its own voice. The bathroom and kitchen are like caves that you climb into, built hugging the shape of the mountain. Because yes, the charm is that I am at the foot of one of Plovdiv’s 5 hills, each rising abruptly out of the pure plain.

West-from-SahatThese rockin’ bumps are home to roman ruins, minarets from the Ottoman time turned bell-tower, humongous soviet style statues left over from socialist times, clusters of satellite dishes, prolific graffiti on rock, kissing youth, pre-teens having their first cider out of school on a Tuesday, dogs walking their masters, the occasional lost soul – monologuing, and many scratchy bushes and trees that I don’t know the name of…

I made my first geranium cuttings and, lo and behold, despite it being autumn, they are budding on my windowsill.  I practice yoga facing the south window (where the warmth is!) and have already lost count of the yellow leaves falling. They are swept away, daily, by the Roma sweepers… Yes, all the sweeper women, with their brush brooms, are darker eyed, darker skinned, and have experienced the weather… I have been shocked by more than one vehement comment on the subject of this unofficial ethnic hierarchy.

My anticipated health sacrifice – to spend a year in a place where they smoke madly indoors, in search of music – is null and void.  Three years ago the Bulgarian people passed the no-smoking-indoors law, which is a total blessing, considering that they are 2nd in the world (smokers per capita) just after Greece and just before Serbia… one can sense the Philip Morris mantel sweeping steadily across the landscape.


There has been more than one administrative riddle and it has taken a good two weeks to understand my timetable and attend the right classes as the right time! The road was not paved – so to speak, and the phenomenal ability humans have to misunderstand each other in normal life, was visibly augmented by our language/cultural barriers. But school is beautiful – see one of the back doors and the steps of the singer’s building below…

School-DoorSingers-BuildingNow with a whole 8 afternoons of language class under my belt, I forage into conversation and just try to keep “спокоино” (calm) when it goes over my head – which is usually by the 2nd or 3rd sentence. There are some angels undercover here, who take the time to smile into my eyes, listen patiently and find words in their broken English to help.

The all female Folklore Choir makes a sound you wouldn’t believe. This, being the main attraction for me, ironically, was the class I wasn’t given information about for two weeks. I could hear them down the corridors but didn’t dare barge in, mid-rehearsal. All is well that ends (or continues) well. I got my dose of shivers today and have a pile of scores to catch up on, with the double task of learning text that doesn’t mean anything to me… yet! I am a sponge, I am sponge, I am sponge…  Here is a short sample of their rehearsal today in Plovdiv. Those of you who know me will understand why I am in pure bliss at the notion of soaking in this for a year.

Otherwise, the dear Prof. Dora Hristova welcomes me into her vocal ensembles on Thursdays – singing in trio to quintet formation. Such a blessing to study intimately with this experienced woman, the conductor of the LMVB (Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares) choir itself! She is bright, generous and inclusive.

The third strand of my study, individual Folklore singing, has opened up its share of tasks with 5 songs already – lavishly ornamented, of various odd-meters, I am encouraged to maintain a particularly clear and forward vowel resonance, and to use short percussive consonants – which is extra funny when there are 4 of them in a row! The 7 distinct regions of Folklore song in Bulgaria will be revealed to me as we go. For now I have 3 tunes from Trakia and 2 from Rodopi on the boiler…

Places where you can hear your breath

Pilgrimage to Bidarray, Vallee du Baztan and up to Col d’Ezpalza, one of my favourite places on the planet… It turns out my guardian tree – an ample chestnut with bowed mossing arms and broad green leaves – was entirely ravished by the 4th July rains. In its place, a gigantic gouge in the mountainside, an open casket of raw red earth. And I thought my ashes would go to its feet! Turns out I lived longer. Reactive and vigorous climb through the heat, shelter from the sun beneath out-crops of slate rock like a land toad, wet your hat in a trickle of moisture -say the armpit of the land, then, climb some more. Reaching ridge-lines, breathe with the vultures, feel their 2m+ wingspan brushing the space above your lonely head in broad strokes of pure glide. A place where you can hear your breath.


I feel a real fondness for Aotearoa/NZ weather. I feel akin to the constant shifting of skies, close clouds swift and the distant ones, still. The hush of the coastline today – is that water to sand or wind to leaf? The glossy wink of Pohutukawa foliage along cliff-tops echoes that of the sea-skin, ruffled this afternoon by the fingers of a tender northerly.  And the sharp cry of gulls deepens the sky… how much does this inform I? Do these moods, shifting over the land and sea of me, form in communion with my surroundings? I look forward to observing what changes in me and what stays constant, while immersed in a different land… soon Bulgaria.

Words can only go so far, so I sang us a sun-shower…