The Magic of the Bells (“Hlopkee”) – Sound, Rhythm and Light
There is not a single Bulgarian, who does not tremble with excitement when he hears the Bulgarian chan. Their lucid ring to this day occasionally gives voice to the forest meadows and reminds of the spirit of a past time. The elderly people remember how once upon a time, there were such large herds, that the chans of the animals voiced the mountain reaches with a sweet song with no end from Georgiovden (George Day) to Dimitrovden (Dimitar Day). Their farmers were competing not only about who will have the best and healthiest stock, but for whose’ bells will be the most sweet-voiced. Tens of bell craftsmen (hlopkars) from around Bulgaria up until and after The Liberation specialized in their complicated manufacturing and earned recognition as the “Bulgarian Stradivarius” with their exquisite works of “Thracian”, “horned” or round bells. The wonderful music of the bells from copper, brass and silver would inspire Nikolay Haytov in the XX century to devote one of his “Wild tales” to the “Kalinkini chans” and the love story, cast in their song: „Wonderfully you wonder if these are just bells like bells, if chimes are ringing, are brides singing and crying…”
Each region has its own craftsman, as even today in the complex “Etara” near Gabrovo, the skills of the old masters are practised as they manufacture marvellous bells in front of the curious visitors. The hands of the master form the crossed cone of the ringing body, they pull out “an ear” to hang it up from its tip and on its inside they lower a brace to attach its striker (“glagorets”). The bell masters celebrate their professional holiday upon the wintry Atanasovden (Day of Atanas, 18th January).
Bulgarians bestow a special place in their hearts for the jingly voice of the bells. In the rhythm of the crisp sound they welcome the winter months with the dance of the Kukers, the elderly, the sourvakars, the djamalees and the babugers. The day of the Kuker is an ancient Bulgarian custom, which some researchers refer to the culture of the Thracian or the cult of Dionysus. To this day, it inspires thousands of Bulgarian men to put on heavy leather costumes with double and triple loincloths arranged with bells, as they go from house to house, to chase away the evil spirits and to bring fertility and prosperity for the new year. Each January Kukers from the whole country gather for a show of strength and originality at the International Festival “Surva” in the city of Pernik , which is emblematic for the region and is included in the list of UNESCO’s non-physical cultural heritage. Every five years, the best Kuker folk song and dance ensembles participate in the most grand fair in Bulgaria – the National fair of folk-art in the city of Koprivshtitsa. A mandatory ritual element in their costumes are bells of different sizes, bigger “hlopkee” bells and “klopachkee” bells, while the biggest of them could even reach over a meter wide. The full amount of 21 bells could reach a weight of 50 kilograms.
The bells are so important to the Kuker ritual, that they literally turn the performer into a dancing “human-chime”. Anyone, who has participated in the ritual as an observer or performer, knows that the never-stopping rhythm resounds in the body and doest stop ringing in one’s ears long after the festivities have come to an end. Mythological thinking affirms that, a body in movement and amidst sound connects with the idea of fertility, fruitfulness, life and health, and that is why the Kukers aim to turn their bodies into “dancing human-bells”.
It is believed that the sound of the bells chases away the evil spirits. Legends, folk tales and beliefs, tell us that all devils, ghouls, karacondjuls (goblins), vampires and banshees scour at the sound of the jingly song. Snakes and lizards, hales and dragons were scared of the sound and that is why in the beginning of spring, on the day of Blagovets (the 25th of March), women beat on the iron trivets, fire-tongs and ryes, in order to chase away the winter and invite the summer. In the region of Plovdiv, past the village of Sirnitsa, masked youth symbolically bring fertility to the crops as they play their bells in the dead of night around the fields. The people hail the power of the bells to be healing and believe that the ones suffering from asthma should drink water from a “honey” bell, brought from a well or a river outside of the village. From the chime plant (Campanula persicifolia), one could prepare soothing concoctions or spells for hate.
The “mamuzi” bells and other ringing metal elements are mandatory for the “rusalee” (mermaideers) healing companies, which chase away the mermaids and nymphs each year in Northern Bulgarian around the summer solstice, and heal the “mermaid sickness”. They place the bells on their clothes, on their wooden clubs as they merge the rhythm in a mutual musical background, in which some researches find traces of ancient Bulgarian shamanism. The shamans used the sounds of kettle-drums and bells to fall into state of trans ecstasy and in order to venture in to the netherworld of the spirit, from whom they ask for advice, healing power and enlightenment. Many traces pointing to the existence of shaman practices through-out the Bulgarian lands, can be found in medieval images on the fort walls of the city of Great Preslav.
Modern musical psyhotherapy proves, that sounds affect the human psyche and reflect themselves in our emotions, psychic well-being and in the psycho-physical condition of the organism. Today, ethnomusical researchers are proving, that the rhythm of the Kuker chans follows the ancient human rhythm of the Golden Ratio. In the rhythmic sound formulas one can discover the same algorithm such as the one, which follows the harmony of nature forms described by Leonardo Fibonacci, the pulsations of planets in the solar system and the geometrical ratios, exhibited in the Vitruvian man of Leonardo Da Vincci. It is considered that, the „golden“ rhythmical code of the Kuker bells acts as a”magic” instrument, which uplifts man above his usual state of mind, above time and above space. “The magic of noise” of the Kuker ring follows the same “golden coefficient”(The God number, The Divine proportion), which can be found in plants, animals, the human body and architecture.
In this manner, through the musical metal ringing the Kukers, as well as the rusalee, mark the transition from the old times to the new, from the “nether”world of mankind and place the foundations for the world and man.
Author: Mihaela Videnova