A mystery is the only way to describe what's happened to the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir. Two short years ago, these sturdy Eastern European women with babushkas on their heads and red onions on their breath exploded onto the world-music scene with their evocatively titled debut album Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares.

Filled with the otherworldly sounds of massed a cappella female voices singing strange, rhythmless harmonies, the record baffled even jaded musical ears. In what seemed like weeks, critics gushed, other singers were astonished and fans of everything from Carmen to Metallica rushed out to buy the album. Trendy rock stars like Robert Plant and the Grateful Dead even began playing tapes of the choir's record to open their own concerts. "Mystery" became the choir's marketing watchword. Album liner notes were vague and pictures of the choir were unavailable. When Time magazine and a few other publications finally snagged photos, what they showed was a gaggle of 25 stout, plain-faced women dressed in garish native costumes, looking like the cast of Bride of Frankenstein gone Guatemalan. Despite the hype, the music itself was undeniably weird. Listening to the record was akin to hearing a glee club from space, or celestial cries from a planet of coloraturas on LSD.

Most of the pieces are folk songs arranged in two parts, a drone and the melody. Dissonant harmonies, asymmetrical meters, and a dynamic style that features swooping lines and abrupt pauses give the music its unearthly quality.

Well known in Bulgaria today because of its airing on the radio, the choir's music would have the same shock effect on a Bulgarian villager of the 1920s as it has had on the Western audiences of today. It is not folk music as the country once knew it. Despite the choir's claims of cultural purity, its music is as much a reflection of classical European musical practices as it is of the native music of Bulgaria.

Whatever its origins, the music blindsided musicologists and Phil Collins fans alike. Against all logic, the Bulgarians rapidly became one of the more bizarre and inexplicable cultural tsunamis of our time. But fads pass and the Bulgarian women were no exception. Three years after their shadows first fell into the floodlight, the members of the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir, accompanied by much less hype, are back for their third world tour. Much has happened since they came to America for the first time in 1988. They are now citizens of a democratic country. The transition has not been easy for these former darlings of the communist regime. What the political whirlwind will mean to their finances--they may lose their state subsidy--has yet to be decided.

There has also been a youth movement in the choir since its last stateside tour. Half the veterans have been let go in favor of younger members. And the group is now fighting the backlash that is the inevitable lot of fads.

Penetrating the mystery of the music is a picnic compared to piercing the protective covering of conductor Dora Hristova and her personal mystere de la langue Bulgare. When the choir's past laurels are being discussed, Hristova chatters away in fluent English. But when more serious matters come up, Hristova gropes for words and hides behind a sudden language barrier. Eager to speak with the press during the heady days of 1988, this canny, thoroughly Westernized woman now gives the impression that interviews are a chore, something she has to do.

Her evasiveness is understandable since the bloom is now off the rose. The question underlying this entire tour is, where does the Bulgarian State Choir go from here?

"We have such a different vocal style and we perform at such a high, professional level that everyone loves us," Hristova says, deflecting the question. "Everything amazes American audiences. Every night two encores and a standing ovation."

At home in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, the choir's routine has changed little since its inception in 1952. The women rehearse three hours a day and perform at the end of each week on the national radio station. The radio performance is also recorded, and each week a new song is included in the repertoire. Every spring the choir collects all the new songs into a single program it performs live and in the studio. Most of that concert is then rerecorded for the international market. Hristova denies that anything is lost in the translation when the songs are sung out of context--out of Bulgaria.

"No, no, no. We lose nothing. We love the feeling, the enjoyment of singing Bulgarian songs here."

Borne through the centuries by a strong oral tradition, the music comes from chants and folk tunes that began in pre-Christian times. What is now called Bulgarian folk music is really a mishmash of influences, from a country shaped by the successive invasions of Bulgars, Slavs, and finally Turks. By the mid-Fifties, after the war and the communist takeover, this music was in danger of being lost. To save it, Philip Koutev, a native composer who founded the State Ensemble for Folk Music and Dance, decided to preserve it by writing and arranging hundreds of choral pieces based on traditional sources. He formalized the music and gave it most of the Western musical structure that can be heard in it today.

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