by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Thousands of people gather in Gela to experience the best and the worst of traditional Rhodope music

bagpipe festival bulgaria 5.jpg

The Rhodope, some insist, are the mountains where Orpheus roamed, charming all things living and non-living with the magical music of his lyre. If that mythical hero were to reappear, he would surely play the bagpipes.

The traditional Rhodope folk music is slow, curvaceous and heavy, just like the slopes of the mountains where it is performed. Rhodope melodies have a special quality, the ability to create a sense of vastness and space, of eternity. In 1977, a Rhodope song, Izlel e Delyu Haydutin, or Brigand Delyu Is Out, performed by Valya Balkanska, was included in the Voyager Spacecraft Record.

A great part of the mesmerising effect of the Rhodope music comes from a single instrument, the kaba gayda, or low-voiced bagpipe. Unlike the ordinary high-voiced gayda popular elsewhere Bulgaria, the sound of the kaba gayda is low pitched. It is not so suited to mad horo dancing, but to the human voice. It blends perfectly in large ensembles, the most popular of which contain 100 kaba gayda players, although experienced musicians say that even beginners can play in such a group, as their mistakes are be covered up by the melody. Playing in a duo of kaba gayda, however, is only for masters.

bagpipe festival bulgaria

Today, kaba gayda music is everywhere – on TV, on YouTube, on web sites trying to sell you an unforgettable wedding. In 2012, it entered the Guinness World Records when 333 players participated into the largest mass bagpiping. A symbol of Bulgarian-ness, kaba gayda players are a regular presence at political rallies, most recently during the summer 2013 anti-government protests.

Kaba gayda sounds best in the Rhodope, and there is a particular place where you can experience it at its best – and its worst. This is during the annual kaba gayda competition in the village of Gela (put the stress on the second syllable), near Smolyan.

During the first weekend of August, kaba gayda players gather in the pristine meadows around the old chapel of St Elijah. They are of all ages and come from all over the Rhodope, Bulgaria and abroad – in 2012, a musician from Scotland took part. The kaba gayda, like every other gayda, was traditionally played only by men, but today there are many girls and women who have mastered it and come here to show their talent.

bagpipe festival bulgaria

The competition takes place on the Saturday and ends with a concert, the Sunday is a time of unorganised fun and large family gatherings spreading out from Gela.

Both days of the festival are filled with the sounds of the kaba gayda. On stage a youngster struggles with the melody of Sos ma karash, maychinko, or Why Are You Scolding Me, Mum?. A master bagpipe-maker shows an interested customer the quality of his kaba gaydas. In a relatively quiet corner, two musicians are rehearsing their entry, Karat li te, Ruske, le?, or Are They Taking You Away, Oh, Ruske?.

The festival at Gela is not only for listening, though. It is for all the senses.

Competitors, craftsmen and enthusiastic visitors come clad in traditional Rhodope costumes. Women wear red-and-green-and-yellow aprons, their heads covered with the traditional red head-scarf. The men are the epitome of local masculinity, with their full-bottom breeches pulled in to their waists with beads-encrusted leather belts, into which bone-handled knives and vintage pistols are tucked.

bagpipe festival bulgaria

The clean mountain air is filled with the heavy aroma of spit-roasted lamb, associated in the Rhodope mindset with having a good time.

The gathering at Gela is also a time to trade. You can buy a genuine rug, a mini gayda for a souvenir or a scoop of old fashioned milk ice cream.

Thousands of people come to Gela and many chose to camp for the night. You need to arrive early to grab a good spot and if you prefer a hotel or guest house, book as early as possible. There are not much places to sleep in Gela itself, and driving on the winding Rhodope roads in the dark after some spit-roasted lamb and rakiya is not advisable.

The festival at Gela is a young event, but there is a reason why it is held in that particular village.

In the early 1950s, predominantly rural Bulgaria rapidly industrialised. Folk music was industrialised, too, as the original was seen as "unsophisticated" for the modern ear. Professional choirs and ensembles were created and classically educated composers refashioned old melodies and dances to make them more appealing, with varying success. The result was the highly-stylised music and dances performed by groups like the Filip Kutev Ensemble and Le Mystère des Voix Bulgare. Near Gela, in the village of Shiroka Laka, a school of folk music and dance was established. It continues to function, although some of its graduates later switch to more profitable chalga.

bagpipe festival bulgaria

In many villages, however, traditional musicians without any formal training remained. They still performed the authentic tunes, which they taught to a next generation. In some places, amateur folk groups appeared. Some of them tried to imitate the professionals, others stuck to the traditional.

Gela developed one of the finest amateur folk groups, established in 1953 and still active.

In 2004, the Gela musicians made the headlines. The group was invited to perform at the international folk music festival in Llangollen, Wales. At that time, Bulgarians needed visas to travel to the UK and, for some reason, the British Embassy refused to issue them to the Gela musicians.

Gela struck back. When a group of British tourists approached the village, Mayor Kalinka Draganova would not let them in, citing a certain Biblical principle. Soon afterwards, the Gela musicians got their visas and went to Llangollen. They returned with a hoard of prizes, including second place for ensemble performance.

Interestingly, Gela claims to be the birthplace of Orpheus.

This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.

bagpipe festival bulgaria

bagpipe festival bulgaria

bagpipe festival bulgaria

bagpipe festival bulgaria


America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.


    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.