The acoustic, mostly vocal, music on Introducing Perunika Trio is powered by the excitement of energy packed into a suppressed space and released in brief glints. There is a low drone, and then words begin to flick out with the quickness of a quip or a whip, snipped off at the end. The voices don’t linger around for hours stickily collecting dust like Celine Dion’s heart going on, or Whitney Houston always loving you—they fling themselves outwards, rise to a swift crescendo, and chop back. Then they flick out again, and once again withdraw. It’s the glee of no-nonsense schoolmarms, all tight-boned bodices and hairbuns, casting off their glasses and splintering into sharp fermentation at the front of the classroom. Window glass explodes and the children sprint away in panic, shocked by the Bacchic peculiarities of adulthood.
That was the impression I came away with the first time I listened to this album. Listening to it again, I realised that not all of the songs work around the drone and the whip, but it’s these yips and yelps that have lingered; the intense sound of high-pitched and precise female explosions. There are also church chants, humming and simmering, and songs that are closer to conventional madrigals. Some of the songs are Macedonian, some are Russian. Most come from Bulgaria, the Trio’s homeland.
This yipping style of Eastern European folk singing was brought to the attention of the outside world decades ago by Marcel Cellier’s Le Mystére des Voix Bulgare recordings of the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. The Choir itself was formed during the 1950s by the Bulgarian composer Philip Koutev. The idea of good country people coming together to perform their folk tunes wholesomely in formalised arrangements under a group leader is one that appears to have held great appeal for Communist rulers, for, I suppose, obvious reasons. The people in these groups were expressing pride in their regional culture, but it was a bounded pride, contained, scenic, and non-threatening.
The three women in the Perunika Trio are city-bred city-dwellers who met while they were all living abroad in London, yet they borrow much of their material from the same countrified regions of southern Bulgaria that the Choir drew on in the Voix Bulgare albums. There is music from agricultural North Thrace, and from mountainous Pirin. Pirin is also the source of the Trio’s name. The goddess Perunika was assumed to live on the mountain with a rainbow for a belt.
Introducing is not, however, a rehash of the Voices Bulgare. The limited size of the Trio gives its singing a different character. When the three women rise to meet a note, they don’t have the same wall-of-sound effect as the Choir, instead they sound sweeter, simpler, freer, and cleaner, a flexible independent entity rather than a mass. They also sound less imposing. The noise of those disciplined Choir voices shooting steadily upwards in unison was designed to make your spine tingle and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It felt like a primitive defensive instinct reviving itself in the modern age. “Danger,” said the lizard brain, “a large crowd of forceful strangers is approaching.” The Perunika Trio, being smaller, seems more neighbourly. It doesn’t bring out that saurian zing.
The sharpness is still present, though, and so is the Eastern melancholy. Even when the voices are rising, there’s sadness in the tone, colouring it, tilting both downwards and upwards at the same time. Bulgaria has, in its time, been occupied by the Ottoman Empire and dominated by Communists, and even while the women are singing about love, there’s still an air of resignation and mourning, as if life is never really entirely happy. This helps to set the region’s folk music apart from other forms of folk. West African folk, for example, is more likely to be straightforwardly pleased or straightforwardly sad. The Bulgarian songs pull in two directions, and the tension at the centre gives them a trembling core of power. The drone hums along like a constant memento mori. Et in arcadia droning.
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