HOW STALIN INVENTED WORLD MUSIC Or Le Mystere de Voix Sovietique - by Joe Boyd
Bob Dylan's manager, the legendary Albert Grossman, flew back to New York from Paris in the spring of 1965 with a tape in his briefcase. He was closing a deal for his new group, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Elektra Records' owner, Jac Holzman, had put his final offer on the table. "OK", said Grossman, "on one condition. You have to release this as well." And he placed the mysterious tape on Holzman's desk.
In a Paris flat, Grossman had heard Music of Bulgaria by the Phillip Koutev Ensemble, Bulgaria's Official State folk ensemble (performing May 27 at the Barbican as part of the X-Bloc Festival, 23-31 May). He sought out the French label that issued it and paid for the American rights in cash. When the record came out, I understood Grossman's obsession. To 1965 ears, it was like music from another planet: the sound of thirty-five women singing - or shouting, more like - unearthly harmonies in 'head' or 'open throat' voices jumped out of the grooves and through the speakers. Phil Spector eat your heart out - this was a real "Wall of Sound". The origins of this thrilling music were unfathomable. How did they make dissonances and quartertone intervals sound so magnificent? I found, as did many of my friends, that lighting a joint, donning headphones, and putting on Music of Bulgaria was an entirely satisfactory way to spend an evening.
Twenty years later, the Cocteau Twins' label, 4AD, put one of their trademark collage covers on a recording of Koutev's arrangements by The Radio Sofia Women's Choir under the title Le Mystere de Voix Bulgaire and sold a hundred thousand lps in Britain. Elektra/Nonesuch, by then a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, sold another half million copies in the US. Todora is Dozing became a staple of the John Peel show and provided the background music for tv commercials around the world.
By the early '90s, competing Mystere choirs from post-Perestroika Bulgaria were regular visitors to the world's concert venues and I had made enough scouting and producing trips that I could drive a rented Lada from Sofia airport to the Grand Hotel Bulgaria with my eyes closed. On one occasion, Kate Bush overcame her aversion to flying and joined me on a shaky Balkanair Tupolev to work out arrangements with the Trio Bulgarka (lead singers from the Mystere choir) for three tracks on her new record.
How did such magnificent music emerge from such an unpromising source? Eastern European Folk Ensembles virtually define kitsch. In the '60s and '70s, Cossack Choirs and the Moiseyev Folk Dance Ensemble used to settle in for extended runs at the Royal Albert Hall, but I doubt there were many overlaps between their audiences and the hip purchasers of Mystere lps. The primary legacy of those troupes must now be River Dance (which includes an interlude by some borrowed Moiseyev dancers) and we can agree that taste has always been a stranger to Michael Flatley's phenomenon. Can't we?
Early strands leading to this concept can be found in the turn-of-the-century quests into the countryside by Bela Bartok in Hungary and Cecil Sharpe in England. It never occurred to Sharpe or Bartok to bring the singers and musicians they found to the city to perform on stage. The fruits of their research were the melodies for Bartok's own compositions and for works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Percy Grainger in England.
Ironically, one of the first attempts at concert performances in something resembling the vocal style of the peasantry was in Russia: the Piatnitsky Choir. In pre-Revolution Petrograd, Piatnitsky organized groups of workers newly moved to the city, singing in their natural voices. No recordings of the original formation survive, but they were impressive enough to inspire the young Conservatory graduate Phillip Koutev when they visited Bulgaria in the early '30s.
By then, however, time was running out for the Piatnitsky approach. The Bolsheviks had never had an easy relationship with the rural peasantry. They ought to have been grateaful for the expulsion of the landowners, but they had their own ways of working together and dividing the land and resisted early attempts at collectivization. Famine in the early '20s forced the Party to grant a good deal of private initiative to farmers as part of Lenin's New Economic Plan. Stalin, like Thatcher with the coal miners, never forgot or forgave. By the late Twenties, the purge of the kulaks (prosperous peasants) was under way and the decision had been made to hammer the rural proletariat until they were forged into a new class with a new mentality. That meant the elimination of superstitions, religious observances, shamanism, rituals, non-Socialist celebrations, regional differences (the Soviet Union holds hundreds of linguistic and cultural groups within its borders) and all other roadblocks to progress. "Make War Against the Past" was the slogan.
Orders went out to the Cultural Bodies: all art must be uplifting, inspirational and unifying. In the field of 'national music' there shall be no individual performance, no obscure regionalisms and certainly no dirges or songs which celebrate superstition, mysticism or religion. There would be no lapte (birch-bark boot) wearers on Soviet stages and no babushkas. An entirely bogus set of "traditions" was created. The Piatnitsky aesthetic of respect for rural styles was recast as a subversive and possibly fatal error: "Kulak Art". The new template was to hire trained composers to write stirring 'folksongs', classically trained singers to wear camp outfits based on a romantic pastoral vision and ballet dancers who hadn't made the cut at the Bolshoi to leap around the stage in a choreographic fantasy of rural jollity.
Male dancers had to be 1.82 meters tall. Even the smiles of the women - young, pretty and of the same height - were measured for uniformity. Folk Ensembles became gigantic metaphors for Stalinism: that the supreme will of one man could orchestrate the transformation of a culture. Out of the gloomy, primitive, obscure and individualistic melodies of rural Russia would emerge a shining, optimistic, progressive, happy musical style in which doll-like performers would never allow sorrow or weakness or a love for old ways to cloud their sunny countenances. Improvisation, the hallmark of traditional musical forms, was forbidden. Formal notation is inadequate to represent the subtleties of Russian folk melody, but all singing would from now on be from written scores.
During these same years of the early '30s, collective farms across the breadth of the Russian and Ukrainian farm belt were given tractors and told to eat their mules. When the tractors broke down there were no spare parts and even when they could be fixed, there was no petrol. And now no mules. Depending on which account you read, between 3 and 6 million people perished in the Soviet countryside in the 1930s. Rural traditions of skilled craftsmanship were destroyed - too individualistic. Entire peoples whose culture was unable to integrate easily into the new Soviet plan were uprooted and re-located thousands of miles to the East. You could view the Folk Ensembles as a metaphor for the destruction of the countryside - if the monstrous events taking place had any need of added nuance, which of course they didn't. As starving peasants roamed the land dying in their millions, the ensembles continued to perform their cheery dances and songs in the cities. The Soviet Proletariat is a happy Proletariat!
Perhaps, looking back, one could argue that only such a delusional society, one on which optimism was imposed by the will of the Leader, could have defeated the German army ten years later. Without the hypnotic effect of mendacious images of a united and progressive people - which they insisted on calling socialist realism - would the Soviet Union have survived? And if it hadn't, how could we have won the War? Does our freedom from fascism owe a debt to Soviet kitsch?
After the War, the USSR's new "allies" in Eastern Europe followed the Soviet model, including the setting up of Ministries of Culture. Delegations were sent to Moscow to learn how to use Folk Ensembles to inspire the population and eradicate regressive tendencies.
Bulgaria's role in the Bloc was unusual for a number of reasons. Linguistically and culturally closest to Russia, it was regarded as a "little brother", while at the same time viewing itself as cultural parent to the Big Bear. The Cyrillic alphabet was created there in the 8th Century and brought to Russia later, along with Byzantine Christianity. Even Russian linguists grudgingly admit that Old Slavonic was probably derived from Bulgarian roots.
These ties gave them special duties and privileges. Bulgarian secret police were expected to carry out dirty jobs, like assassinations (of the Pope, for example) in order to grant the KGB "plausible deniability". At the same time Bulgaria was granted a bit of leeway to ignore orders that other COMECON countries dared not disobey. Publishers in Sofia translated banned Western literature and Soviet intelligentsia would combine a Black Sea holiday with a book-buying spree on the way back.
While the USSR perceived that its interest lay in homogenizing its patchwork of nationalities and cultures, Bulgaria had a different agenda. For 500 years it had suffered under the "Turkish Yoke" of Ottoman rule. Survival depended on pride in language, religion and culture. It is a small country, with distinct regional differences, but a clear identity. Such nationalist tensions as exist are centrifugal, not centripetal: they dream of returning West Bulgaria (Macedonia) to the fold and talk nostalgically of when Thessalonika was largely a Bulgarian city.
When the time came in 1949 to form a Folk Ensemble, Phillip Koutev was the logical choice to lead it. Born in 1903, he graduated from the Music Conservatory in Sofia in 1929. In 1933 he helped create the "Circle For Contemporary Music", a group of music students who would provide the foundation for the Union of Bulgarian Composers under the Communist government. After the War, he and his wife Maria, a specialist in Bulgarian language, began collecting songs and dances in the countryside - inspired by his brief exposure to the Piatnitsky choir in 1932. His travels in rural areas did not disqualify him, no matter how much Moscow may have disapproved. Premier Zhivkov's wife was herself interested in ethnography and knew the Koutevs.
In arranging Bulgarian folk songs for a female choir, he created a body of work that has transcended its era. His compositions start with the quality of the Bulgarian voice, which can hold a note that is powerful yet vibrato-free. This means that the traditional custom of pairs of women singing ballads, with one holding a drone while the other chants the melody and often approaches to within a quarter tone of the drone can make hairs rise on your arms - but in a good way. A bel canto voice would make such notes unlistenable, the vibrato muddying what in Bulgaria is pure and clear.
These distinctive dissonances can also be heard in early Byzantine church music and Koutev drew on liturgical music to fill out his choral arrangements. These harmonic collisions, simultaneously horrifying and thrilling, are at the heart of Koutev's arrangements and made it impossible to use classically trained voices.
Many of the pioneers of Early Music in Western Europe have attempted to incorporate the Bulgarian voice into their approach. David Munro and Thomas Binkley sent singers off to Sofia in the early '70s to study 'open throat' singing in hopes of capturing something of the style that may have prevailed in Europe before the onset of Italian domination in the 17th Century. They suspected that polite and limpid contemporary renderings of motets and madrigals bore little resemblance to the way music was actually performed in the Middle Ages and that Balkan and Middle Eastern techniques may hold the key to early performing styles.
Other influences on Koutev included Bartok and Kodaly, who had marked out a path for serious composers adapting folk melodies for the concert stage. Echoes of the hackwork of Soviet composers can occasionally be heard, but only distant ones. The songs of Koutev and his disciples remain unswervingly Bulgarian and, though formal, avoid superficial visions of a rural fairyland. But his most radical step lay in his choice of singers.
On my first trip to Bulgaria in 1986, I attended the Koprivshtitsa Festival, an event that takes place every five years. I arrived on the opening afternoon and saw a small stage with a few tinny speakers and some children performing traditional songs and dances. I nervously tried to find out if this was all there was. People kept pointing up. All I could see was a bare mountainside looming over the village, no roads, no ticket gates, no banners. I followed some new arrivals who set off up a steep path. At the top, spread out below me for more than a mile was a high meadowland filled with a riot of colour. There were thousands of people in traditional costume - every village and every region has a different pattern - sitting under trees eating lunch or gathered around small stages where singers, instrumentalists and dancers would take turns for their five minutes of folkloric fame.
For three days I wandered around that magical plateau finding astonishments and delights at every turn. Each region had its own stage, with a panel of judges marking the performers. Under trees, masters of the gaida, the tambura, the gadulka, the khaval and the teppan (bagpipe, lute, upright fiddle, flute and drum, respectively: all will be part of the Koutev Ensemble's performance May 27) passed around jars of homemade rakia and jammed for hours, professionals from the Koutev and other ensembles sitting in with village virtuosi. At night in the campsites, huge circles would be formed near a gaida player and a bonfire and people would dance wildly, shouting to be heard above the wail of the piper. It was one of the most extraordinary weekends of my life.
I thought back to childhood summer evenings in Princeton, New Jersey, when the Folk Dance Society would meet in a park near our house. Those circles were filled made up of young men with pocket guards and slide rules and girls with glasses, long corduroy skirts and sandals. When a tricky 5/4 or 9/4 rhythm came on the record player, you could see them counting under their breath as they tried to avoid tripping over their own feet or their partner's. Even at a young age, I could sense that this was the least sexy thing imaginable.
But that first night in Koprivshtitsa I saw girls' hips swaying easily to the complicated rhythms - no counting under the breath here - and the eye contact that passed back and forth as the men gripped their waists and flung them forward and back across their bodies seemed to indicate that was not, in fact, an unsexy phenomenon.
On the second afternoon, as I prowled the stages with my video camera, Rumyana Tsintsarska, the director of folk music for Bulgarian Radio, summoned me and introduced me to an old woman. We were sent off into the woods with a translator and instructions to film her singing a haidouk (partisan) ballad and to interview her. "You will find her interesting", said Rumyana.
Her voice was shaky but strong and she looked the camera straight in the eye. The story she told was sad: she had auditioned for Koutev in her village in 1951 and he had invited her to come to Sofia and join the Choir but her father refused permission. All her life, she regretted the missed chance. To sing for Koutev was the dream of every village girl with a strong voice.
By 1953, Stalin was dead and the imperatives of his era receded. The Soviets didn't seem to bother much about Koutev's apostasy, but they didn't invite the Ensemble to Russia very often, either. In 1958 in Paris, the Chant du Monde label recorded a concert and issued it on a 10" lp. Grossman's initiative provided a cult classic that cognoscenti appreciated, but which did not sell particularly well. Koutev died in 1983, leaving behind brilliant arrangements, some talented disciples and a wobbly legacy.
By the time I arrived in Sofia, urban Bulgarians were mightily sick of their own folk music. The radio blasted it out every day and most of what was performed was of poor quality. The Schools of Folk Music in Plovdiv turned out singers and instrumentalists who were proficient, but had none of the depth of feeling of villagers who had learned from their grandparents. When a journalist learned that, having once produced Pink Floyd, I was in town to record the Trio Bulgarka, he was incredulous. Why, he demanded to know, did I want to waste my time on such useless music when I could record serious rock?
Worse, the younger composers are devotees of the brittle intellectual works of the late 20th Century and saw the dissonances of Bulgarian music as a perfect vehicle for modern ideas. Encouraged by the German label Jaro, they began turning out "difficult" modern music. Few remain true to the spirit of the music of the peasants. With the exception of the Koutev Choir, I now find is impossible to listen to most Bulgarian women's ensembles. The great singers like Nadka Karadjova, Yanka Rupkina, Eva Georgieva and Stoyanka Boneva are retired or past their prime. The last three comprised the Trio Bulgarka and their remarkable sound was due in part to the way the latter two sang their harmonies below Yanka's soulful lead. Their contralto voices were like honey, providing a luxurious warm foundation over which Yanka could soar and return. (The melodies of Yanka's (and Koutev's) home province of Strandja demand chord changes strikingly similar to Southern Soul ballads like "When A Man Loves A Woman".) None of the singers from the Plovdiv School sound anything like them. Koutev's daughter, now leading her father's ensemble, continues to recruit singers from the villages, but times have been hard. The Radio Choir and its splintered successors caught the gold ring of the Mystere and finances have been difficult for the original ensemble after post-Communist state support dried up.
In Hungary, things developed differently. After the failed revolution of 1956, the country had settled into a compromise version of Communism. Russian soldiers were confined to barracks, both to spare Hungarian sensibilities and to save Russian lives (which were often lost down dark Hungarian allies). Prime Minister Janos Kadar navigated a 'middle road' which adhered to the broad principles of Soviet Communism, but allowed daily life to edge closer to the more relaxed model across the border in Yugoslavia. Hungary remained quiet while neighbouring Czechoslovakia experienced the 1968 "Prague Spring" and the suppression that followed. But underneath the calm, resentment seethed.
Folk dance was the last thing anyone would predict as a flash point. But in 1969, an Ensemble sponsored by the Chemical Workers Union and named after the country's most famous composer began experimenting with some radical ideas. A scientist and folklorist named Gyorgy Martin suggested to the "Bartok Ensemble" that they study how village musicians actually played, rather than using classical techniques and trite Soviet-style arrangements. The dancers also started learning how folk dances were performed in the countryside. The Bartok Ensemble's concerts quickly became the most popular events in a dreary calendar.
Other ensembles were outraged at their 'primitive' approach. Eventually, a "dance-off" was scheduled, where the leading ensembles would have a showdown. Crowds formed in the street after the hall filled to capacity. Two things became apparent that night: performers from the other companies could not actually dance outside the shelter of their choreographed routines; and the audience wanted to learn how to dance, too. One of the Bartok Ensemble organizers announced that there would be session the following week with instruction for all comers. The year was 1972. The Dance House Movement was born.
It may be a stretch for British readers to imagine a cutting-edge, hip, revolutionary movement based on folk dance. But even on my first visit to Budapest in the waning days of the movement in the mid-1980s, I saw mini-skirted and blue-jeaned teenagers skipping around in circles, expertly following the convoluted time signatures of Hungarian csardas. For an event to draw the prettiest girls is always a good sign of fashionability and dance houses always seemed filled with beauties. Throughout the '70s it was a craze and it maddened the authorities, who did their utmost to suppress it.
Hungarians constitute a unique linguistic and cultural island surrounded by Slavs, Germans and Rumanians. We may think of the Hapsburgs as Austrian emperors, but Budapest was vehemently the twin capital of an Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungarians were the backbone of the army and the civil service and lorded it over lesser peoples, particularly to the East. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Victoria's niece, Queen Maria of Rumania seduced the diplomats with her low-cut gowns and multi-lingual charm. Transylvania, a huge area full of Hungarians, Rumanians, Germans, Jews and Gypsies was awarded to Rumania, reducing Hungary's territory by half.
And it wasn't just territory that was lost. Transylvania is like the Ameican South, the source of 90% of the culture's musical and folkloric traditions. Research trips inevitably took the Bartok Ensemble and their fast-increasing followers across the Rumanian border into Transylvania. Here they ran into another precept of Soviet rule: national boundaries will be eliminated when the Revolution triumphs, but in the meantime, activities that highlight the sensitive question of Hungarian culture in Transylvania were considered unfraternal and contrary to the best interests of the proletariat. But if an urbanite wanted to learn to play the kontra in true traditional style, the best teacher was a Transylvanian gypsy who played for Hungarian weddings - a double-dip into an ethnic powderkeg. (One of the greatest of Transylvanian gypsy groups, Saszcavasz, performs Saturday afternoon May 24 at the Barbican in the X-Bloc Festival.)
As a protest movement, Dance House was perfect. After all, they were just dancing to fiddles in Budapest basements, nothing more. But the fury of the authorities and their desperate attempts to discredit the movement points to the power of the issues that inspired the original Soviet Ensembles in the 1930s. If you validate ancient peasant culture, treating it as worthy and exciting and sexy and true, you are creating Soviet anti-matter. If you find values worth preserving in folk traditions, you can't win the "War On The Past". If different 'proletariats' have different traditions, and if those traditions resonate powerfully for a culture, no matter how far its sons and daughters have strayed from the old villages, the urban proletariat concept is irrevocably altered. And if the urban intelligentsia finds common cause with revanchist elements in the countryside, that is truly Communist Party Hell.
In 1987, I walked up many flights of stairs in a crumbling building in Budapest University to a small theatre. The first half of the performance was a brilliant combination of jazz and modern dance, with a surreal, slightly subversive feel about it. The second half was pure folk tradition, with Muzsikas and Marta Sebestyen, Hungary's leading traditional revivalists providing the music and the same dancers now wearing folk costumes and performing wedding dances and csardas. The finale was a Transylvanian wedding song. When the Hungarian girl I was with heard the opening lines of the song, she - and many others in the audience - gasped. Under her breath, she explained the words of The Unwelcome Guest. "You've drunk all the wine, eaten the food, ruined the party, so please now leave." At once the meaning of the evening - and the Dance House Movement itself - was manifest: the taunting of the crumbling Soviet Empire was daringly in the air.
Russia had begun its own small folk revolution in the '60s when Vyacheslav Shurov started to invite village singers to Moscow to record and perform. By the early '70s he had a folk radio show and even an occasional slot on television until one day in 1973, Brezhnev spotted him while channel surfing (between the two Russian channels) and bellowed: "No men with beards babbling about babushkas on Russian television! Get rid of him!"
Even post-Perestroika, the issues don't go away. Igor Moiseyev, now in his '90s, is in charge of the First Russian Channel's folk music output. He rang the head of documentaries on the Second Channel after seeing some films they had made about village music and warned him to stop showing such things: "they are lies", he said, "such music does not exist!"
The Soviet attitudes are easy to mock. Their refusal to acknowledge the reality of the life and culture of millions of their citizens echoes the futility of their Five-Year-Plans. The epitome of this denial was the Uzbek cotton scandals of the 1980s - a kind of Socialist Enron. Year after year of target yields had been met, but only on paper, the imaginary cotton sold to make imaginary cloth, which was then exported to imaginary buyers. The only realities about the whole farrago were the money that officials along the line pocketed and the invincibility of Brezhnev's son-in-law at the lucrative centre of the affair. Until his father-in-law's death landed him in prison. All that remain today are the vast man-made deserts of Uzbekistan, its water tables lowered by irrigation and poisoned by chemicals.
Ann Douglas in her book Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhatten in the 1920s argues that the convergence of post WW1 bitterness against delusional older generations, Afro-American culture ("telling it like it is"), realist literature (from Hemingway to Dorothy Parker) and Freudian analysis of human motivation made '20s Manhattan the cradle of modern urban culture and the key to the success of American capitalism. It is an attractive idea and provides a neat explanation for the relative successes of the two Systems. Did the combination of a free press and the liberating power of jazz unleash energies that the Soviets' Potemkin Village mentality could only suppress? Was the willingness to confront reality the real secret weapon in the "Triumph of Capitalism", not Reagan's arms race?
Today, a wonderful troupe of Tuareg women (Tartit) seated on stage, accompanying their ancient songs with simple percussion and handclaps can fill the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Modern audiences have learned to appreciate the beauty, energy and virtuosity of "authentic" music from all corners of the globe. Yet in most "Third World" societies, young audiences crave synthesizers and rappers, anything that can allow them to identify with modernity and escape the poverty of their past - not unlike the desire of the Soviets to eradicate all images of poverty and backwardness.
Our acclimatization to "reality" has led Western intelligentsia to crave authenticity in all things, be it the unspoiled village for the summer holiday far from the nearest McDonald's or the exotic world music concert. The mass audience, meanwhile, transforms the same impulse into huge ratings for "Big Brother" and "Jerry Springer". But are those cigarette and drinks ads showing blonde girls and buff guys, dizzily ecstatic with the sexy delights of consumerism our own version of the Soviet Folk Ensembles with their measured smiles and perfect bodies? Capitalism has so honed its ability to coopt anything into a commodity that the very nature of "real" becomes harder and harder to identify.
African-derived rhythms are all-pervasive as the force underpinning popular music. European music traditions have been backed into a corner with a bad image problem. For me, the conflicts that have marked the intersection of politics and culture in Eastern Europe have helped preserve an intensity and freshness about the music of the former Soviet Empire and kept it from becoming too "post-modern". A wide variety of this music is on show at the end of this month at the Barbican. I shall be there, if for no other reason than to hear the Koutev Choir sing Todora is Dozing one more glorious time.
© Joe Boyd, 2003
[Ed. Joe Boyd's article was published in the Talk Of The Town section of the Independent on Sunday on 18th May 2003 - prior to The Barbican's X-Bloc Festival of concerts which included The Koutev Ensemble - a spectacular show performed with female choir and folk orchestra. Joe chaired a discussion about the legacy of Communism on the folk music of the Eastern Bloc countries at the Barbican on Sunday May 25th, the centre-piece of which was his own video footage of a past Koprivshtitsa Festival. Glastonbury this was not. As an example of honest music's enduring importance as the heart and soul of a people's culture, this lively grassroots gathering, celebrated in a (seemingly) informal and unstructured programme, hidden but not hiding behind an Iron Curtain, was a wonderful experience and one I pray will survive. The best roots music will always survive in the margins of the mainstream but the fear is that Western influences will seduce upcoming generations and leave that wonderful heritage as a Disneyfied preserve of the tourist market.] Look for the albums of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares (4ad) available in UK. Volume One includes Polegnala E Todora as mentioned by Joe. The album illustrated above is the 'live' double album Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares - Melody Rhythm & Harmony, recorded in Nidaros Cathedral of Trodheim, Norway - unfortunately now out of print. And the music? Extraordinary: the langauge may be foreign but the sounds have an eloquence that needs no interpretation, its spiritual power and choral beauty encompassing hundreds of years of cultural history. With modalities, drones and harmonies, alien to the Western ear, it must be the music of angels. SC