Bulgarian Music in Canada

In the mid-1980s there were approximately 6000 Bulgarian-Canadians, concentrated mainly in Ontario and specifically in Toronto. The most substantial influx from this Balkan country took place 1901-31.

In the mid-1980s there were approximately 6000 Bulgarian-Canadians, concentrated mainly in Ontario and specifically in Toronto. The most substantial influx from this Balkan country took place 1901-31. The immigrants who arrived after World War I were mostly from rural backgrounds and became blue-collar workers; immigration after World War II brought many professionals of urban origin who were assimilated easily into Canadian society. An estimated 1500 Bulgarian refugees arrived in Montreal 1989-91, and many others arrived in Toronto. The religious affiliation of most Bulgarian-Canadians is Eastern Orthodoxy.

The major contribution of Bulgarians to Canada's cultural pluralism has been the transmission of a rich heritage of folksong and folkdance. Ritual-ceremonial, calendric, occupational, and dance songs, as well as those sung at evening social gatherings, still are remembered, although they have lost their traditional context of expression and thus their original function. Nevertheless, at private gatherings and weddings these traditional songs assume a new collective function: that of entertainment. Because of the diversity in the regional origins of singers and songs, there is little stimulus for sharing in performance. Consequently a major portion of the repertoire remains in Canada in a form of stasis. The songs shared most enthusiastically by the Bulgarian-Canadian community are town songs (gradski pesni) whose wide popularity in the homeland sustained them in their transition to the new land. Their appeal has been patriotic and national (rather than regional) in character. The women's choir Bŭlgarka, founded by Kina Vŭlcheva in 1983, has performed traditional Bulgarian songs in Toronto and vicinity.

Folkdancing binds Bulgarian-Canadians together much more strongly than does singing. At most social occasions there are performances of one or another of the traditional forms of the horo or round dance: the pravo (straight) in 2/4 time; the teshkoto (heavy) in 2/4; the Eleno mome (meaning 'Dear Helen') in 7/16; or the Daichovo (dance for Daicho) in 9/16. The first thorough study of the folk music traditions of Bulgarian-Canadians was completed in 1974 by the Bulgarian-Canadian ethnomusicologist Irene Markoff for the National Museum of Man (Canadian Museum of Civilization). She found 7 instrumental pieces and 201 songs.

The US ethnomusicologist Timothy Rice, a specialist in Bulgarian folk music, taught 1974-87 at the University of Toronto. He twice invited the eminent Bulgarian gayda (bagpipe) player Kaostadin Varimezov to teach at the university. Some of Rice's pupils formed Staro Selo, a group which has performed Balkan vocal and instrumental folk music, including appearances in Toronto at the Music Gallery in 1990 and at WOMAD in 1991.

Outstanding Bulgarian-born musicians in Canada include the conductor and teacher Zanko Zankov of Hamilton; the Rev R.G. Katsunov, composer and choral conductor, active in Winnipeg and Montreal in the 1920s and 1930s; the concert pianist Slavka Nikolova of Toronto, reputed to have been an authoritative interpreter of Chopin; and Chris (Christoff) Dafeff, a violin instructor 1941-69 at the RCMT, where his pupils included Joseph Pach and Steven Staryk. Dafeff was the founder and conductor of massed folk choirs and orchestras. Later emigrés from Bulgaria include Anastas Fotev, an expert violin-maker in Toronto, and Blago Simeonov, who began teaching clarinet and composition at the RCMT in 1973. The pianist Marion Grudeff and the contralto Mariana Paunova are of Bulgarian descent, as is the violinist Peter Daminoff, who joined the TS in 1963. The Bulgarian violinist Luben Yordanoff toured in Canada 1959-60 under JMC (YMC) auspices, and the opera singers Spas Wenkoff and Stefka Evstatieva have appeared in Canada. The country's national choir, the Obretenov Choir, appeared at the 1989 International Choral Festival. The four members of the Bulgarian rock group Ping Pong arrived in Monteal in 1990 as refugees, and have performed in Canada under the name What? In 1979 the Leamington Choral Society performed in Bulgaria after winning first place in one section of the International Choral Competition at Varna. The Morel-Nemish Duo, performed in Sofia as Canadian representatives at the 23rd Unesco congress in 1985.

Further Reading

  • Balikci, Asen. 'Remarques sur la structure du groupe ethnique bulgare et macédonien de Toronto,' unpublished report for the National Museum of Man, Ottawa 1956

    Markoff, Irene. 'Folk music traditions of Bulgarian-Canadians resident in Southen Ontario,' unpublished report for the National Museum of Man, Ottawa 1973-4

    Pelinski, Ramón. 'Music of Canada's ethnic minorities,' CMB, 10, Spring-Summer 1975

    Markoff, Irene. 'Persistence of old world cultural expression in the traditional music of Bulgarian-Canadians,' Culture and History of the Bulgarian People: Papers Presented at a Symposium (Pittsburgh 1982)

    Moreau, Yves. 'Observations on the recent widespread adoption and adaptation of Bulgarian folk music and dance in North America and elsewhere,' Ethnomusicology in Canada, ed R. Witmer, CanMus Documents 5 (Toronto 1990)