FolkWorld #70 11/2019
© Smithsonian Folkways

A Journey to a Vanished World

Between 1966 and 1979, educator and cultural documentarian Martin Koenig made half a dozen trips to Bulgaria. Working in villages throughout the country, Koenig filmed, recorded, and photographed the lively, yet endangered, aspects of Bulgaria’s traditional culture. The results are indelibly gathered in Sound Portraits from Bulgaria: the vibrant rural life he experienced, the virtuosic musicians and dancers he met, the extraordinary music they made, and the joyous rituals and festivals he witnessed. This collection celebrates a way of life that has largely vanished due to industrialization, technology, globalization, and emigration.

Smithsonian Folkways

»Folkways - 70 Years, 70 Stories«

»Just Around the Bend«


Sounds Portraits from Bulgaria: A Journey to a Vanished World Dances of Sound Portraits from Bulgaria

Artist Video Various Artists "Sound Portraits from Bulgaria: A Journey to a Vanished World 1966-1979", Smithsonian Folkways, 2019

Various Artists "Dances of Sound Portraits from Bulgaria", Smithsonian Folkways, 2019

Martin Koenig

Martin Koenig arrived in Bulgaria in 1966 at age 27 with letters of recommendation from fellow recordist Alan Lomax and anthropologist Margaret Mead, an educator and cultural documentarian determined to study the folk dances of rural communities throughout the country. As he travelled, absorbing the culture and speaking with the people he encountered, Koenig became captivated by the earthy and ancient, yet very much alive, music he heard all around him.

Valya Balkanska


»Music of Bulgaria«

He recorded the music he was exposed to, and took photographs of not only dancers, but the village singers and musicians as well as those going about their daily lives around these hotbeds of creative expression. Enraptured with the people of Bulgaria, their way of life and the art they made, he returned several times between 1966 and ‘79, documenting everything he could.

Although much of this music went unheard for over 50 years, on November 1st Smithsonian Folkways will issue much of Koenig’s archive as Sound Portraits from Bulgaria: A Journey to a Vanished World, continuing its core mission to preserve rare and endangered musical traditions and share them with the world. The collection is housed in a large format art book featuring intimate and candid photographs taken during his travels that chronicle the beauty and complexity of life for the musicians, dancers, and artisans he met, as well as recollections by Koenig, and notes on the music by several leading American and Bulgarian scholars in both English and Bulgarian.

The release celebrates a way of life that has largely vanished due to industrialization, technological shifts, and emigration, telling the story of a rural lifestyle that was shifting rapidly during the mid-20th century and continues to evolve today.

The reedy bagpipes, ecstatic and drone-centric singing, and odd-metered rapid-fire dances featured on Sound Portraits from Bulgaria paint a vivid picture of a multi-faceted culture that sat at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East. The styles and traditions included here evolved over the course of hundreds of years, developing alongside dances, agricultural rituals, and other hallmarks of agrarian life. Koenig witnessed many of these ceremonies, documenting them with his audio recorder and camera.

One piece included here, recorded by Koenig and his colleague Ethel Raim in a classroom in downtown Smolyan in 1968, is the haunting folk tune “Izlel e Delyu haidutin” as sung by Valya Balkanska. In 1977 this recording was chosen by Carl Sagan to be included on the famed Golden Record that sits inside the Voyager spacecraft, currently being hurdled at forty-thousand miles per hour outside our solar system.

The work of Lomax and Mead, two legendary cultural preservationists and thinkers, is an apt frame for the work documented in Sound Portraits from Bulgaria in its forthright, yet affectionate, look at the way music and dance impacted the life of rural Bulgarians and what is lost as it disappears. As Koenig writes in his introductory essay, this music and culture “should not be forgotten, as it reveals a dimension of strength and beauty in the human spirit that we, in our longing, may not even know we are missing.”

Sound Portraits from Bulgaria: A Journey to a Vanished World 1966-1979. 109 minutes of music in 2 CDs; 144-page book with photographs and extensive bilingual notes.

Ivo Papasov Oratnitza The Bulgarian Voices Angelite The Mystery Of The Bulgarian Voices Dimitar Gougov Eugenia Georgieva Ivan Georgiev

Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Smithsonian Folkways (4) Valya Balkanska (5) Martin Koenig (6),(8) Oratnitza (7) Ivo Papasov (9) The Bulgarian Voices Angelite (10) The Mystery Of The Bulgarian Voices (11) Dimitar Gougov (Violons Barbares) (12) Eugenia Georgieva (13) Ivan Georgiev (unknown/website).

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