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Bulgarian folk singers find eager US audience

The shimmering, otherworldly voices and electrifying, dissonant harmonies of traditional Bulgarian folk music have recently captured the ears of American audiences. The sold-out North American debut of the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir here at Lincoln Center was greeted by throngs of eager fans. Why the sudden interest in Bulgarian music? One factor was the release of the two-record ``Le Myst`ere des Voix Bulgares'' (Elektra/Nonesuch), just as the new interest in ``world music'' is growing dramatically.

The program consisted mainly of selections from the group's album and opened with the full choir of 24 women in traditional apron skirts, embroidered vests, and headdresses.

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The Bulgarian music is an intriguing combination of Eastern and Western influences. While the opening song, ``Svatba'' (``The Wedding,'' sung by the full chorus acappella), sounded quite Western, a traditional duet from the second half of the program, ``Vjatar Vee'' (``The Wind Is Blowing,'' sung by Vaska Andonova and Kremena Stancheva and backed by an instrumental trio), was full of the scales and vocal ``quivering'' of Middle Eastern music.

In a further departure from Western singing, the pure, almost vibrato-less voices gave out curious ``yelps'' that punctuated the vocal lines; then again, a song might end with the kind of decay you hear sometimes in big-band arrangements, where the horns just die out after a descending phrase. The effect was startling and sometimes quite humorous.

Most of the folk-song melodies extend no farther than four or five notes. But they move around a lot within that range, and in ways that sound quite exotic to Western ears. Some of the most popular moments of the evening were the duets, quartets, and sextets, which seemed to accentuate the Bulgarian style.

In the context of ``ethno-pop'' music (ethnic music combined with a Western rock sensibility and modern studio technology), the choir is quite traditional. Nevertheless, on several numbers, it wouldn't be hard to imagine a synthesized background and a dance/rock beat.

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