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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bulgarian Accordion Dynamo Petar Ralchev Blows Into Town

Posted By on 10.15.09 at 08:35 PM

Petar Ralchev
  • Petar Ralchev
To lots of Americans I suppose the phrase “Bulgarian wedding music” sounds like part of a punch line, but if you’ve heard the stuff—it’s one of the most exhilarating and technically demanding eastern European Romany styles—what those words will most likely bring to mind is the name Ivo Papasov. A virtuoso clarinetist, Papasov is credited with perfecting the mongrel form, which emerged as an underground phenomenon in the 70s after the communist regime cracked down on expressions of ethnic identity. Papasov and his cohorts took the music to wedding celebrations, where they played endless sets—keeping the party pumping while indulging their own love for experimentation.

The accordion is an important part of Bulgarian wedding music, and on his sporadic visits to the States, Papasov has brought along either Neshko Neshev or Ivan Milev; the former, now based in New York, is widely considered one of the greatest accordionists in the style. To be honest I wasn’t familiar with Petar Ralchev until I learned he was visiting Chicago this weekend; I looked him up, and it turns out I’ve already heard him. He’s played and recorded with Papasov, and he cowrote a tune with Stian Carstensen, leader of the brilliant Norwegian group Farmers Market, which is inspired by Bulgarian music.

Having listened to Ralchev’s stunning 2002 album Bulgaria (Gega New), I now feel comfortable saying that he’s influenced Carstensen quite a bit, particularly the way he and his crack quartet play with tempo as though it were taffy. The combo can shift between time signatures like most people breathe—without a thought or a hiccup—and Ralchev fires off nimble barrages and crazed melodies with razor-sharp clarity. His rich harmonic palette allows him to create dazzling chords, change keys seemingly at will, and answer his own improvised phrases with statements that thread them all together and push the music inexorably forward.

An earlier Ralchev recording billed to the Zig Zag Trio, with guitarist Ateshghan Yuseinov and tapan player Stoyan Yankulov (who also plays on Bulgaria), is far stranger, doing away with any connection to Bulgarian wedding music. As with his quartet there are frequent excursions into jazz, but here the energy is tamped down and the arrangements are far more spacious. There’s certainly a prog-rock feel to some of the material—which can be said of Papasov’s work as well—but it’s decidedly experimental, with flashes of fusion as well as Indian and Arabic sounds. Taken together the two records are enough to convince me completely of Ralchev’s virtuosity and creativity.

Here’s a vintage, lo-fi video of Ralchev performing with Papasov—buckle your seat belt:

For these Chicago visits Ralchev will be supported by veteran local Bulgarian group Orchestra Kolorit, which also plays in the wedding music style. I’m hoping to check out one of the shows—they play both Friday and Saturday night at Restaurant Bulgaria, 4724 W. Lawrence at the Edens (admission is $20). If Ralchev turns out to have half the chemistry with Kolorit that he does with his own bands, the place is gonna need a new roof come Sunday morning.

Today’s playlist:

Humcrush, Rest at Worlds End (Rune Grammofon)
Wynton Marsalis, He and She (Blue Note)
Drive-By Truckers, The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities and Rarities) 2003-2008 (New West)
Dinosaur Jr., Farm (Jagjaguwar)
Mamadou Barry, Niyo (World Village)

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