Sunday, June 27, 2010

Now THAT’S what I call singing! Volume 1

Last week I wrote about the kinds of singing that I like (I may not know much about music, but I know what I like!).


Now I want to give you some concrete examples of the kinds of singing that I love. This week Europe: Corsica, Georgia, Russian orthodox, gypsy, the Balkans and Bulgaria.

I could list songs forever of course, but have only chosen a handful of representative songs from each culture to give you an idea of where I’m coming from. Please contact me if you’d like to know any more about the songs listed or others that you might know.

Most of the links here are to available YouTube videos so are not necessarily my favourite versions. The recording of Nyne sily nebesnyia (Russian orthodox) is by my choir Woven Chords and is on their latest live CD.


First up is a song that I discovered on a cassette that I borrowed from the local library. Unusually for Corsican singing, it is by an all-female trio. The song is called Terzini Guagnesi and the title is apparently a place name: “Guagnesi, poem in three lines”. It is sung from the point of view of somebody who is about to go away to sea for some time and is asking to see their lover before they go to make sure they’re still an item.

Before ploughing the waves of the sea
I hope to see you once more
So that I can have a chance to say goodbye.
I’ve taught this song many times to small groups and never tire of it.

Another Corsican song that we have in the choir repertoire is Dio vi salvi Regina – notoriously difficult to get right!

This 16th Century hymn basically means “God save the Queen”, but ‘Queen’ in this case is the Virgin Mary who is the patroness of Corsica. It is effectively the Corsican national anthem.


I was lucky enough to be living and working in Cardiff in 1994 when the Centre for Performance Research brought over two Georgian ethnomusicologists (Edisher Garakanidze, founder of Mtiebi – who sadly died in 1998 – and Joseph Jordania – now based in Australia). We worked for a whole week to learn a range of Georgian songs. This was my first real encounter with Georgian singing (I had already heard a recording of the beautiful song Suliko, but that has very Western harmonies). I fell in love instantly!

Shen har venahi has typical Georgian harmonies and is guaranteed to send shivers up my spine. If you ever need a song for a wedding, this is it! It is a hymn from the 12th Century which compares the Virgin Mary with the vine, Georgia’s sacred plant.

It doesn’t matter which of the 300 or so versions of Mravalzhamier I hear, every version is a treat. ‘Mravalzhamier’ means Years and epochs of happiness to you (basically: “may you live a long life”) and is commonly sung as toasts at Georgian feasts. This version is from 1912 and is one of the first recordings made in the Republic of Georgia.

Russian orthodox

I just adore the lush harmonies of Russian church songs. I stumbled across one on a Dutch male voice choir’s website some years ago and begged them for the sheet music. It duly arrived, but the Russian transliteration was in a Dutch version, so very difficult to understand! Fortunately, one of WorldSong is a fluent Russian speaker and he was able to decipher it. The song is called Nyne sily nebesnyia (opens in new window).

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find out who composed it, but I have managed to track down a live performance which demonstrates how slow it's usually sung:

Another Russian church song that’s doing the rounds of community choirs is Tebe poem by Dmitry Bortniansky (1751 – 1825). We praise you, we bless you, we sing for you Lord.


I just adore the passion and heartache of gypsy singing whichever country it comes from. I learnt O postaris avel from the indomitable Czech gypsy singer Ida Kelarova.
The postman is coming And he’s bringing me a letter When I read it I will tear all my hair out Get lost, boy, I don’t want you anymore

Here’s a Russian gypsy song: Maliarka. It’s another one that I got from an obscure compilation cassette and got a friend to transcribe and arrange for me.
Maliarkitsa (a girl) is walking through the wood. Pashkale (a boy) follows her, he is sad. Pashkale addresses Maliarkitsa: “Let’s run away, Darling”. Then he addresses the Night: “Dark night, help us”.

the Balkans

One of the first songs I came across from the Balkans was Zaspo Janko which I learnt for a theatre piece whilst I was in Cardiff around 1988. It’s quite a mournful song, but we sang it rather more upbeat as we didn’t know what the words meant!
Zaspo sleeps beneath the poplar. “Oh, my dear one, look at me. I broke off a golden branch.”

Since then I’ve fallen in love with songs from Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, many of which have associated dances. Here are a few I really like: Polegala (Croatia):

Crven fesic (Serbia):

Ajde Jano (Bosnia):


Although strictly part of the Balkans, Bulgarian singing is perhaps more widely known across the world than music from, say, Croatia or Albania.

Many people came across singing from Bulgaria through the amazing LP called Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares released in 1975. For most of us, this was our first introduction to The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir which was formed in the 1950s.

A very famous song of theirs is Polegnala e Tudora (try to see when they breathe!!) which we have almost cracked in the choir after many years of trying!
Tudora lay down under an olive tree to rest. A wind blows down from the mountains, breaking off a small branch, which wakes her. She curses the wind for waking her, saying, “Why did you have to blow just now? I was having a sweet dream in which my sweetheart was bringing me a bouquet with a golden ring inside.”

Another cracker which I’ve done with small groups is Dragana i Slaveja. Again, very hard to nail properly. It is a special Christmas blessing for a singer.
Dragana was sitting in the garden under a white rosebush embroidering a piece of cloth and singing, when a nightingale came by and challenged her to a singing contest. ‘If you win, you may cut off my wings. But if I win I shall cut off your fair hair.’ Dragana won the contest and the nightingale then pleaded with her, ‘Cut off my feet, but not my wings, for I need my wings to fly and to feed my young.’ Dragana answered, ‘Oh my sweet nightingale, I do not want to cut off your wings. It is enough for me to know that I have outsung a nightingale.’

And fiendishly difficult, but one which we perfected in Foot and Mouth voice-theatre is Ergen deda. The song comes from the Shope region near the Bulgarian capital of Sophia.
It tells of an old bachelor who struts down the street in festive attire, hoping to find a new wife as he joins the young ladies engaged in a circle dance at a village festival. But alas for the old bachelor, they all run away, leaving him only with Angelina, the youngest.

more songs

You can find some of my favourite songs from Africa, the Pacific islands, USA and even the British Isles in Volume 2 and Volume 3.

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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