Flummoxed. That’s a good way to describe someone trying to play Bulgarian meters for the first time. Actually, even guys familiar with odd meters, including great drummers who have played with Holdsworth and Don Ellis—I ain’t mentioning names here—sometimes scuffle. They’ll limp along, barely nailing a couple bars, then falling completely apart.
No, we’re not talking about just a simple 7/8 or a slower 5/4. Each measure in a Bulgarian kopanitsa (11/16 subdivided 4+3+4), can whiz by in just a second. Check out Farmers Market’s thrash Gankino Horo, from the compilation, Balkans Without Borders.
Yes, there are a few isolated examples of super-fast odd meters scattered around the world, like Venezuela’s Merengue, but, by and large, Bulgarian folk music is home base for the really weird shit. Plus, the melodies are equally nuts: streams of relentless 16th notes, over half of them ornamented with mordents, grace notes, or turns.
HEAR IT FIRST!
The first step is to get the meters into your head. That means not having to count, for example, each of the 11 beats in the kopanitsa. Let’s go back to something we all know. When you play a funk-style, 16th-note based rhythm in 4/4, you’re not counting all 16 of the 16th notes. You instinctively know (or should know) exactly where each falls, and you’re probably patting your foot on only the quarter notes and working around those four major pulses.
The same holds true for any fast, odd meter, like the kopanitsa. The good players don’t count all eleven 16th notes zipping by, but you’d better believe they know exactly where each one falls. That’s why they groove so hard on them.
How do you get the meters into your head? Lots and lots of listening—that’s as important as practicing. If you have sequencing software, program in the bass examples shown in the “bulgarian meters pdf” below. Put an accent on the main pulses, loop each example, and listen to it over and over. You’ll be surprised how listening to the same two bars for just 15 minutes (do this while cleaning cat litter or doing something equally mindless) will really open up your head to a new pattern. Listening to recordings (see suggested listening material) is also important.
NOW PLAY IT!
Once you start to hear the patterns, whip out your bass and play the two and four-bar examples shown. If you don’t have a sequencing program to play along with, set a metronome so that each click represents a 16th note.
A typical performance tempo for the examples shown would be a quarter note equals 100 bpm (16th note equals 400 bpm). But you should start much slower to get a feel for things. For each meter shown, the first repeated bar or bars is a simple pattern which could be played in a more traditional context. The second repeated pattern would work in a more progressive setting.
As you play along, you’ll notice that the meters (each of which—believe it or not—has a Bulgarian folk dance to go along with it) have their own character and each can, and should, groove hard. Though the Bulgarians will often play one section faster than the preceding section, they’re capable of a dead-even metronomic pulse. This gives a strong reference point by which very subtle tempo changes, accelerando, and ritardando, are possible.
After you’ve become comfortable with the meter, try playing along with recordings. Where to find charts with reference mp3s? Get ready for the hard-sell part of this story. I respectfully submit for your perusal my highly-acclaimed online songbook, Bulgarian & Macedonian Instrumentals & Vocals. It contains over 20 print-ready transcriptions (in hi-rez PDF form), of great tunes with meters ranging from 2/4 to 18/16, plus mp3s of the original recordings in normal- and half-speed versions. Check out the link for more info and reviews, plus audio and transcription samples.