Cvetelin Andreev became enamored with the kaba gaida, a type of Bulgarian bagpipe, eleven years ago, after spending several weeks hiking Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountain range alone. “If you stay, let’s say, two weeks, only with yourself, you change a bit,” Andreev says with a laugh. “After that time, the bagpipe came to me.”
When people think “bagpipe,” they are apt to conjure a familiar image: a kilted Scotsman in full regalia, pipes silhouetted regally against the green Scottish moor. But various incarnations of the bagpipe—a reed instrument animated by air pumped through the aforementioned bag—are practically ubiquitous throughout folk traditions in Europe, the Middle East and the former British empire. The kaba gaida, native to the Rhodope region in Bulgaria, is one of several Bulgarian bagpipes. It is the mission of Andreev’s band, the Kaynak Pipers, to not only keep the kaba gaida tradition alive, but to spread it throughout the world. To that end, a trip to the States this fall will include a stop at Killian Hall in Cambridge on Sept. 28 as part of MIT’s Sounding Series.
The kaba gaida was a shepherd’s instrument, and a tool, in Andreev’s telling, for wiling away the lonely hours on the mountaintop. Andreev describes the act of playing the kaba gaida as almost meditative—despite the fact that, like all bagpipes, it produces sounds at rock club-level decibels. “The bagpipe gives the shepherd something like mindfulness, something to make his day meaningful,” he says. “So this is something we try to keep—that this instrument is something to make you calm, to help you grow personally.”
The Kaynak Pipers Band comprises a rotating cast of musicians, usually three pipers and two percussionists. They play centuries-old music exclusively from the Rhodope region of their home country of Bulgaria—no new tunes or cross-cultural pollination, apart from the occasional use of a Hang, a flying saucer-like steel drum that was invented in 2000 by the Swiss couple Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer. Because the mountains are so isolated, the kaba gaida, unlike its Scottish brethren, has remained largely unchanged by modern technology. “Materials like plastic and so on—they were introduced very, very late, so the materials used for making the gaida are wood and horn and skin from animals,” Andreev says. Because natural materials react more strongly to changes in humidity and temperature than plastic does, the instruments can be devilishly hard to tune. “You have to have a lot of patience and devotion to make it play. I’ve played for 11 years and sometimes it’s hard for me to make it in tune,” Andreev says. “But in some magical way, it starts playing.”
The kaba gaida is pitched lower than other Bulgarian bagpipes, at once husky and quintessentially piercing. Many of the tunes are slow, winding and meterless—the meandering hum of a lone shepherd on the move. Others are quick and notey and perfect for dancing. The music is resolutely pentatonic—that is, based around a five-note scale—and as a result of this melodic limitation, the style of ornamentation is highly evolved. “In ornamentation, you’re not limited,” Andreev says. “The old masters, the way they play, you can hear sounds from nature. They imitate birds, they imitate the way the river … bumps on the stones.”
Andreev is keenly aware of the fact that the kaba gaida may seem like a relic in the face of modernity. Many of the cultural practices that the bagpipe was traditionally used to celebrate, like the harvest, are no longer widely observed; the majority of Bulgarians are not farmers or shepherds. But Andreev sees a purpose for the Kaynak Pipers Band nonetheless.
“Now nobody goes to harvest the wheat, so you cannot have the same tradition,” he says. “But if you look at the truth about this tradition, you can see that people are going to do something meaningful, and the bagpipe is helping them to connect with each other.”
For a long time, Andreev assumed that the goose pimples people described upon hearing the kaba gaida was a reaction unique to his countrymen—that the bagpipe was so intimately entwined with Bulgarian identity that Bulgarians couldn’t help but be moved by it. But he eventually realized that audiences around the globe responded in much the same way.
“It’s like a washing machine for the mind. Because when you are thinking a lot about things–about what you have to do, about what you have done–when you hear the bagpipe, you stop thinking about these things. It’s an instrument to bring you to the present moment,” Andreev says. “When we start playing, everybody shuts up.”