It’s Still the Universal Language : Bulgarian State Radio and Television Choir

Times Pop Music Critic

Linda Ronstadt calls the music “some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard.”

After listening to the same vocal group’s album, Graham Nash declared: “Every musician who considers himself accomplished should listen to (this group’s album) and rethink everything he knows (about singing).”

And just who is this group that not only has these pop veterans enthralled but has also stirred enough interest in British pop circles to see its album bounce onto the charts there?


Would you believe 24 women from Bulgaria, who sing Bulgarian folk songs--mostly a cappella--and dress in traditional village costumes.

The women--mostly 30-50--comprise the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Choir, and they will be at the Wiltern Theatre tonight as part of their first North American tour.

“I can’t wait to see them,” Ronstadt said in a phone interview this week. “I’ve loved this music for 25 years--ever since a friend of mine played me a record (of Bulgarian music). . . . It changed the way I thought about singing.

“There is such a purity and power to the singing. There are some Arabic singers and some flamenco singers and some Jewish cantors who I think are as good as that, but I’ve never heard anything better.”

Tanya Andreeva, a tour administrator, said in a separate phone interview this week that the musicians are “thrilled” by the response so far on the 14-city tour, which began Oct. 30 in New York.

“At the same time, we are not all that surprised that people here enjoy the music, because the choir has had very successful tours in Europe (and elsewhere) . . . very enthusiastic crowds.”

As Ronstadt noted, recordings of this highly distinctive Bulgarian singing group have been celebrated for years among some musicians and ethnomusicologists, but the current wave of pop fascination can be traced largely to the release in England late last year of an album titled “Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares” (“The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices”).

The album, released in England on 4AD Records (whose roster also includes such imaginative rock acts as the Cocteau Twins), sold well enough for Nonesuch to issue it in this country. Reaction was so good that Nonesuch has just released a second volume.

In liner notes for the first album, Ingram Marshall traces the history of the Bulgarian vocal tradition, which employs elements not normally found in Western pop or folk styles: “scales not based on major-minor tonality; melodies of limited range yet with expressive power; harmonies which incorporate ‘dissonant’ intervals as freely as consonant ones, and timbres which seem more akin to Asian than European traditions.”

The women who sing in the choir, Marshall writes, are “sought out for the natural beauty of their voices . . . and brought into a quasi-professional training situation.” The result, he says, is not genuine folk music but an “artful elaboration of its timbres, rhythms and spirit.”

On record, the voices use their extraordinary power and purity to move easily from moments of great celebration to disarming longing. The haunting, mysterious quality of the music was underscored by the absence of any photo on the Nonesuch album.

“Until I saw their picture recently, I didn’t know if the singers were old or young . . .,” explained Ronstadt. “I thought about going to Bulgaria to find them, but I didn’t know whether I’d have to go out to a wheat field and see people standing there with sickles in their hands or whether they would be playing at a gig in a club.

“I still don’t have any idea what they are singing about, but I feel I can understand it because they draw such clear pictures of the emotions.”

LIVE ACTION: Michael Jackson’s concerts Sunday to Tuesday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena are expected to proceed as scheduled, a Jackson spokeswoman said Friday. There are, however, still no new dates for the three shows that were canceled this week because the singer was suffering from swollen vocal cords. . . . Tickets for Keith Richards’ Dec. 14 concert at the Universal Amphitheatre go on sale Sunday at 10 a.m. . . . Luther Vandross and Anita Baker have added a fourth show (Dec. 5) at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Tickets go on sale Sunday. . . . Jane’s Addiction will be the New Year’s Eve attraction at the downtown Embassy Auditorium. . . . Fishbone will be joined by Public Enemy and Living Colour on Dec. 17 at the Santa Monica Civic. . . . Living Colour will also be at the Whisky on Dec. 15 and at Bogart’s on Dec. 16.