4,000 shows later, a Bulgarian vocalist takes on the universe

Raised under difficult conditions in a family of seven without a father in a small Bulgarian village, vocalist Valia Balkanska went on to become a universal figure – literally. Her voice eventually traveled into space, via a NASA satellite program. Balkanska, who will perform at the upcoming Balkan Voices Festival to be held in Thessaloniki tomorrow and Saturday, spoke to Kathimerini about her bleak upbringing and views on Balkan traditional music. Early on, Balkanska’s mother warned she would prefer death over a singing career for her daughter. To bolster her position, the mother poured petrol over the youngster’s wardrobe and torched it. I stood by our home’s front steps watching my dresses, socks, and woolen jackets burn. The tears running down my face couldn’t extinguish the fire that burnt a part of my life, Balkanska recalled, who later left home. I woke up very early on February 15, 1960, washed my face, combed my hair, grabbed my sack and left, she added. On her way out, Balkanska’s mother did not wish her luck, choosing instead to lay curses on her. A big career followed. Her song Izlel e Delyu Haidutin will be orbiting in space for 60,000 years headed toward a distant galaxy, as part of a NASA program. In the first-ever artistic Olympiad, in Los Angeles, Balkanska won a gold medal. Your voice is orbiting in space on the Voyager I and II satellites. What do you think a human voice sounds like in space? The voice is an invaluable means of communication. If my voice is to be heard by some being traveling with the Voyager, I’d want it to sense the feeling of love that I’m trying to convey. What do you consider to be your most significant experience with an audience? It would be difficult to identify after more than 4,000 performances. Though 51 years have gone by, I still recall the national celebration which was my debut performance. When I saw the faces of the people who had filled the hall, I felt very jittery and hid behind the stage curtain. My instructor, Petar Betsev, took me by the hand and led me back to the stage. The love I felt calmed me down and, instead of singing just one song, I did three. You were granted the title Citizen of the World by UNESCO. What does that mean to you? I respect all the recognition I’ve received. Nothing is won by chance. UNESCO awarded me as a singer, mother, grandmother, and woman who did not place her career above all else. For me, family, agricultural life, and life as a singer go together and will continue to do so. What do you consider to be the common elements of Balkan music? How can these remain alive against pop culture? As far as I know, the greater part of traditional Balkan material has been saved through recordings and scores. With all this body of work, one can study the material and determine the similarities and differences. With action, only with patience and persistence by artists who love tradition. And, of course, with collaboration within the spirit of world music, as long as it’s done by artists who know and respect the archetypal material of their respective countries. Voices Festival To be held on two separate stages at the Thessaloniki port, the Balkan Voices Festival will bring together vocalists, renowned instrumentalists, vocal ensembles, and street theater groups, and will also offer ethnic cuisine to visitors. The two stages will each present traditional and contemporary artists. Events start at 8 p.m. and continue till 6 a.m. Following the performances, the Balkan Bar will play electronic and dance music, trip-hop and dub live. Action on stage one will include numerous Bulgarian bagpipe players, such as Milos Petrovic and Ivo Papazov. A variety of local musicians and instrumentalists will also perform. Esma, a Gypsy singer from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), known in her country as the Queen of the Gypsies, and Romania’s Anna Bacatius will be among the highlights.

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