Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares

Incredible solos and collective power from the famed Bulgarian vocal choir

In 1986 a man called Ivo Watts-Russell was handed a third generation C-60 cassette of some Bulgarian folk-tunes by the lead singer of Bauhaus. This seemingly inauspicious action led to my weeping openly in the Ulster Hall this evening. Not something I would ordinarily do at a live gig, but then this was quite the most extraordinary music I have ever heard.

Watts-Russell was the head of 4AD records, imprint of choice for the more esoteric end of the Goth market, and he released the record, in a typically moody Vaughan Oliver sleeve, under the title Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, a name that The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir has since adopted.

The music on that first disc was revelatory. Eerie and dissonant, it was alternately anguished and sorrowful and joyous and mischievous. Strange music from a distant star.

The Ulster Hall stage is bare for the concert tonight and the lights are bright as the choir troop out dressed in their Bulgarian pinafores. They stand in a long curving row, a copse of brightly decorated Christmas trees, with their rouged Russian-doll cheeks and floral head-dresses.

Conductor Dora Hristova, a dominatrix in a severe leather sheath, stands before all, a black candle on a birthday cake. They begin to sing. And that’s when the tears come. The harmonies tight, careful and layered, the vocal lines eliding, tumbling. Deep, dissonant choruses rumble and solo lines are naked, powerful and visceral.

There’s something of a sobbing flamenco in this music, a lot of Romany influences and a Greek theatrically to the clanging and clashing of the voices. It sounds like old, old music. They sing as a full choir, or in pairs or little groups, stepping forward from the chorus and bowing gently at the end of each heart-stopping tune.

There is an interval, a chance for the Bulgares to slip into something more comfortable, and they return in long black dresses and sashes. If anything the second half is even more incredible. The harmonies are markedly bisected, with the strident voices of the altos and sopranos measured against the slow, murmuring contraltos. The difference is almost disturbing, the dissonance sounding so wrong, even the tempo of the contralto’s funereal chanting sounding out of kilter.

Yet as the piece continues the two sections seem to slide into one another, pushing into an astonishingly vivid and powerful vocal landscape. I would challenge any sturm und drang rock band to produce something as fierce, as weird and so utterly compelling. And yet it is the human voice, unadorned and transcending cultural and language barriers, that creates such an extraordinary and chilling effect.

It isn’t all life-changing, tear-jerking drama though. A couple of Voix Bulgare chaps take the stage in costumes halfway between New Age healer and the Swiss Guard. Their contributions are fine, but necessarily lack the power and romance of the rest of the choir. They sound rather as though they are chatting over a garden fence, their twittering song charming but somehow light-weight.

There are a surprising number of tunes that feature yelping like a small dog, chattering hand-claps and moments when the entire choir break down into a wash of gossiping whispers.

And there is the interaction of the choir members themselves, forever linking arms, always turning to one another, enjoying each other. It may be stage-craft but it is very effective stage-craft. There is a real sense that these women, in their pantomime peasant garb, are an actual community, sharing the experience, even as we are. A magical evening.