AN IRISH-SCOT LOST IN THE BALKANS – by Chris Lyons

📷 by Chris Scott for Hidden Door Festival

I will be playing Bayan-accordion and possibly some other instruments at the Bulgarian-Scottish fusion dance and music event Thistles and Sunflowers on 22 August at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. As an enthusiast of Bulgarian musical culture, being involved in this event is extremely interesting for me. Like many non-Bulgarian musicians, my first taste of the music was discovering performances by ‘the world’s best clarinet player’ Ivo Papazov and being utterly stupefied by how fast and accurately the band could play the irregular time signatures in this style. This started a fascination that has led me to running several (mostly impractically enormous) Balkan-style bands in Scotland and Germany. It was at a memorably sweaty and very over-capacity performance by the Blue Giant Orkestar that I met Ariana Stoyanova, leader of the Bulgarian dance ensemble Hop-Trop who will be performing as part of Thistles and Sunflowers. Interestingly enough, this collaboration with Traditional Dance Forum Scotland emerged after performing at another of their events, at which I was playing the Oud (Arabic-style lute) with a Chinese dance troupe who were performing an Egyptian-Scottish fusion piece while a German artist live-drew the performance in real-time (!)

The rehearsals so far for this event have been interesting. Angela (Rodan), the singer, is based in the States and arrangement plans have been made over Zoom. Meanwhile I have transcribed some very fast and elaborate tunes that would terrify most players and had to find some of the most fearless musicians in Scotland who are willing and able to play them (it’s no joke trying to book musicians to play fast dance tunes in 13/16). The band will also include one of Scotland’s most multi-tradition fiddlers in Morag Brown, Borders-based percussionist Frazer Watson and Romanian cellist Anoukia Nistor. Working with the dancers is fascinating but it’s not always easy as nearly everyone involved has full-time jobs and finding rehearsal venues in Edinburgh is almost impossible around the time of the fringe. The rehearsals have so far been taking place in the abandoned Debenhams in Ocean Terminal and which has now been turned into a quirky community space.

The main question for me has been how to realise what the performers who are actually from this culture want, but how to do this with the resources I have at my disposal. I dont have kaval or gudulka performers and a lot of the music has to be given as sheet music rather than taught by ear but hopefully, the result is authentic enough! I always enjoy arranger/orchestrator type work and this one is unusually challenging.

I quite often get asked how it is that I ended up playing these styles of music and/or instruments. I dont really have a good or exciting answer except that I have always been fascinated by collecting and learning new instruments and try to be involved in as many different styles as I can. I am a classically-trained pianist and violinist and have been gigging as a jazz musician since I was around 14 but later on I gradually picked up other instruments and now my studio is a pile of Ouds, Sazes, Banjos and various Lauotos and Lyras. I run or co-run the only two Balkan-style Brass bands in Scotland as well as a project performing traditional Greek music. One of these (Blue Giant Orkestar) can be seen performing at La Belle Angele on Saturday 12 August with admission at 11.30pm. 

Things I am working on at the moment include: the Leith New Music collective (a local forum for composers to get their works heard and which had its first sellout event last month), Hegeduk (a very prog multi fiddle folk band which has an album written and yet to be recorded), a couple of new jazz related projects and the recently-recorded and Creative Scotland-funded Blue Giant Orkestar record which is currently being mixed and is jam-packed with guest musicians from all over the world. Apart from that I compose classical pieces. You can see some examples of my playing here on this channel: Chris’ YT.

To anybody reading this who is wondering whether to go to this event, I would say: make sure you do! To ‘Western’ audiences and musicians, Bulgarian music can seem fearsomely complex; a lot of Bulgarian pieces are in time signatures such as 15, 13 and 11 and are taken at breakneck speed, but it’s very fun and spectacular. In some ‘music geek’ cultures, this sort of thing can become a bit of an obsession so to actually get to play this music with traditional dancers and see it danced is fantastic! Although it’s a bit wilder and weirder than a lot of other traditions, it’s extremely fun and very worth coming to see as it’s not something you see all the time. Plus this an event with dancing and singing and also even some of Scottish-folk fusion elements as well.

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Chris Lyons is a Scottish-Irish multi-instrumentalist, composer and teacher. He is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London and is an in-demand freelance composer and performer. Chris is a prize-winning composer, having won the Broadcast Music Incorporated prize for composition and has composed for BAFTA nominated films.