Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Clarinet in Bulgarian Folk Music (third in a series on "instruments of torture")

(photo from Wikipedia)

"Clarinet: An instrument of torture operated by a person with cotton in his ears. There are two instruments worse than a clarinet – two clarinets."
Ambrose Bierce

My parents and my younger brother would have certainly agreed with that.

Many years ago, when I was in the 7th and 8th grade, I took a music class in school which was mandatory. Over 40 years later, I'm glad I had the experience. It gave me some basic grounding in music theory. My best friend and I had a blast poking fun of the music teacher, who was a bit eccentric.

There were two types of instrumental music offered at my school: orchestra and band. I was assigned to band; my instrument was the clarinet. Little did I know that many years later I'd develop a passion for Bulgarian folk music, much of which is played on the clarinet.

If I had known now what I knew then, I would have continued taking lessons. Would I have been good at it? I don't know.

No one in my family was musically literate. There just wasn't any money for music lessons or any of that stuff when I was growing up, so when my parents heard I was assigned to a music class, they were dreading my bringing home the clarinet that I had to practice for a half hour every day. They complained constantly about the squeaks coming from the bedroom, and my brother couldn't hear his favorite TV shows. In my family, the clarinet was considered an "instrument of torture", except when played by Benny Goodman, whose music my mom danced to during World War II.

I did fairly well with the clarinet after the "squeaky" phase, when I was struggling to learn the upper register. I considered it an accomplishment when I was able to play Greensleeves without peppering it with squeaks.

When I went to high school, there were no instrumental music classes, and I developed interests in other things. Many years later, when I discovered the clarinet was an essential part of Bulgarian folk music, especially in wedding bands, I wanted to take it up again, to the point of trying to bribe one of my daughter's friends to give me lessons in exchange for favors. She wasn't buying. My daughter didn't want her to teach me. The last thing my daughter wanted to listen to was me practicing narodna muzika on the clarinet.

So I may take it up sometime in the future, when the kids are out of the house.

Here's a band from Greece who do an excellent job with Bulgarian rachenitsa. The clarinetist is amazing and the accordion player is good too!

Ivo Papazov, a Bulgarian of Roma descent, is a master of the clarinet. His speciality is ethno-jazz and wedding music. Listen to him and his band here:

Wedding bands usually have a clarinetist. Here's one of my favorite bands, Kabile, who have been on a couple of U.S. tours.

And finally, here's one of my favorite combinations, a clarinet and an accordion. If you know someone who hates either one or both of these instruments, you will be subjecting them to some wicked musical torture. This is payback for my daughter when she plays that awful country music on her computer.

If you are interested in other instruments of torture and their use in Bulgarian folk music, these posts are required reading :)

The human voice is also a considered a musical instrument, and in the right situation can be used to torment annoying neighbors.
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