Language of Food Bulgaria: Bulgarian Voices of Seattle

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For the NWLA’s upcoming event, Moi Koleda: Language of Food Bulgaria, we are thrilled to be working with the Bulgarian Voices of Seattle Women’s Choir, a program within the Bulgarian Cultural and Heritage Center of Seattle.  Formed in 2011, the choir, directed by Mary Sherhart, comprises 30 Bulgarian-born women who now reside in the Seattle area.  The group, with its lush choral arrangements and dissonant, haunting call-and-response, provides a musical bridge to its members’ traditions and cultural past, not only singing together, but teaching and sharing customs and holiday rituals with the community and with one another.  Their songs evoke memories of grandmother’s singing, the sound of bells as a shepherd returns with his flock, swimming in the Black Sea, the smell of the rose valley at harvest, the deeds of ancient heroes, and the poetic imagery of love, separation, nature, and loss.  At our event, the choir will be joined by David Bilides and other musicians and dancers from the Bulgarian community.

The choir is currently working on a very special project, which provided some of the inspiration for NWLA’s Bulgarian event.  Called “Songs of Our Families,” it is an in depth heritage project to collect and share family songs and the memories attached to them.  There are four components: a digital collage, a concert, a CD, and a documentary film.  The project resonates so strongly with NWLA’s mission that we wanted to share the details of it here.

Currently, each singer in the choir is working to create a “scrapbook” of songs and mementoes, collected from her family members in Bulgaria and the United States: recordings, family photos, recipes, art, anything meaningful that surfaces as the singer digs into the musical experience of her past and family culture.  Equally important as the songs are the memories that arise as the singer learns and shares them, first with her family, and then with the other women in the choir.   This intensely personal collection of songs will be shared in concert on May 10, 2014, at Carco Theater in Renton, Washington, and on a CD to be recorded next year.

Also premiering at the concert is “This Baba,” documentary film by Bogdan Darev about Bulgarian Voices singer Penka Encheva (preview above). The film weaves personal reminiscences and song together to share the fabric of this one grandmother’s life. Penka joined Bulgarian Voices in 2012. When the choir first heard her voice they were stunned. Here was a living treasure of Bulgarian song in their midst. The purity, simplicity and integrity with which she sings reflect a style and approach quickly disappearing with the older generation of singers. Penka had been an amateur singer in Bulgaria in the 1960’s.  At the time, though her late husband urged her to collect recordings she made with radio and television, Penka’s life took her in another direction. Now only one recording from that period remains.  Penka came to America in 2010 at age 67 to live with her daughter’s family and help care for her grandsons. (Her daughter also sings in the choir.) She thought her singing life was long over, but the Bulgarian Voices of Seattle choir brought it back to her. This year, Penka’s voice was recorded, at Seattle’s Jack Straw Studios, for a CD celebrating her incredible gift and the treasury of songs she knows.

The NWLA community will get to experience this rich singing tradition when we welcome the Bulgarian Voices of Seattle Women’s Choir to our event on December 7th.  Find out more, and get your tickets, at www.nwlanguageacademy.com.