THE BALKAN GENIUS, MILES DAVIS ON THE BALKAN CLARINET
IVO PAPASOV (IBRYAM) – a legendary virtuoso clarinettist
As a creator of contemporary Balkan music, Ivo Papasov became an important part of global culture a long time ago. He started to play live music with his father at the age of 12 years. When he was 16 years, he already performed in a wedding band.
47 years ago, in 1973, long before Balkan music was discovered on the major music scene, Papasov started his music revolution with his Trakya Band, parallelly to musicians like Fela Kuti and Paco De Lucia. At that time Papasov could have hardly known that he was creating a new movement, later known as wedding band music, a mix of Bulgarian and Balkan folk with contemporary funk, rock and jazz instruments and elements. His work profoundly changed the face of Bulgarian and world music and developed it in new directions.
No wonder his fans around the world call him the King of Wedding Band Music. In deference to his amazing talent, Bulgarians call him The Aga(The Master). And Papazov really is part of the best moments of their lives. His music resounds not only at major concert venues, but also at the important days of their lives, their weddings and family celebrations.
As a clarinet player Ivo Papasov enjoys worldwide recognition and respect from professionals, professors, journalists and musicians alike. As a clarinet player he is well-known, but Papasov also plays the saxophone very well – sometimes even both together.
Papasov’s music lives from and in the moment. You never know what to expect. At one time you might think this is the pick, they have just started and then on top of it there is something unexpected and unorthodox. There is something very specific for his music – a great range of dynamics with very fast changes and power but it is his lyrical parts that are pure magic.
The beauty of his melodies gives him the force to change us.
Now at the age of 70 Ivo Papazov has had a brilliant musical career. He appears on innumerable productions and albums. Two of his albums were produced by Joe Boyd (who produced Pink Floyd, REM and others). Global media like The Guardian, Downbeat, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Mondomix, Songlines, Froots, The Washington Post and The New York Times etc. have written about him in superlative terms. Ivo Papazov has been praised by world-famous musicians like David Sanborn as well as the late Frank Zappa and famous, respected experts and connoisseurs like Simon Broughton and Timothy Rice.
With the album Fairground (Kuker Music) Ivo Papasov WON the BBC World Music Award in 2005! The album Fairground is also a source of what we all love so much: a tender, lyrical and crazily exuberant mix of bright sounds, beautiful melodies, improvisations in half-tones and rhythms, so lovingly created that it draws from our hearts what we cherish most.
Ivo Papazov works with world-renowned musicians like Milcho Leviev, Peter Ralchev, Teodosii Spasov, Antoni Donchev, Stoyan Yankoulov, Johnny Griffin, Hector Zazou, Okay Temiz, Enver Izmailov, Ferus Mustafov, Michel Portal, Glen Velez, Kepa Junkera, Arild Andersen, Kalman Balogh, Iva Bitova, Sergei Starostin, Pantelis Stoikos, Michel Godard etc.
He has played on festivals all over the world from Sofia to Hong Kong, from New York to Sydney, from Oslo to Istanbul, from Paris to Moscow.
For more than 30 years Ivo Papasov has been playing with the same band “Ivo Papasov And His Wedding Band” and the same musicians who are his wife, the wonderful singer Maria Karafizieva, and his old friends from the Trakya Band: Nesho Neshev on accordion, Salif Ali on drums and Vasil Denev on keyboards and gadulka. Twenty years ago, in 2002, two other great wedding musicians – Ateshghan Yuseinov on guitar and Matyo Dobrev on kaval (flute) joined the band. After the death of Matyo Dobrev in 2019, the great young wedding musician Nenko Tsachev on the kaval is part of the band as well. After Vasil Denev’s Covid19 health problems in 2022 his son Mitko Denev became a member of the band and plays the keyboards as his father before him.
IVO PAPASOV about his music
When I started playing with my father, I was 12 years old. I have worked with a band since the age of 16. For 54 years I have been on stage and able to present my music.
We mainly play Bulgarian folk music – the music for Bulgarian weddings.
The music of Bulgaria is a very specific music with a lot of different and difficult rhythms and changes. There can be very big differences in the specific playing and styles of the music from village to village. At the same time this is also a music full of melody where the song is very important.
All this is some kind of big repertoire that we have – this means many hours of music which we can play on every different wedding in every different village in Bulgaria. There are many songs and dance compositions. The set on a wedding is not 90 minutes like in a concert, the set on a wedding can be 3-4 hours of playing music without any break. Then the next song and the next one follows. Sometimes there are weddings with more than 2,000 guests and running for 2-3 days. You have to know that the Bulgarian Wedding music is a big competition. Every band, every musician looks for his very specific style and face. But to be really free in the music you need to know the basics very well and all these folk people can play very well. On the other hand, when we perform on music festivals we don’t perform real wedding music. We perform new music – music that was created and composed by me and my band.
I was born at the border of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, in the city of Kurdzali in the East Rhodope mountains where I have found my music roots. However, at the same time we listen to every kind of music, also classical music. But our music is the Bulgarian folk music. This is what we know very well. We didn’t know what jazz at that time was. Later I listened to Charlie Parker. I liked the “freedom” in his music very much and I started to look for “my freedom” in my music. I began to improvise because the borders of the original Balkan folk music were not really sufficient for me and for my musical ideas. I started to look for something more, something different, something new! We also changed the instruments and put drums on the place of acoustic folk instruments like the tupan. We enhanced the sound with the saxophone, electric guitar, bass and keyboards.
Also when you play at a long wedding – from a special point of the playing you are in some kind of meditation, then you have no more borders and you can be totally free in the music.
All this comes together in my compositions. My work is difficult to define. The music is very complex and full of many different things. My music is some kind of big crossroads between cultures and music. When we are making music no words are necessary, we are taking the audience on the journey right away.
“Ivo’s wedding music, played first thing in the morning, provides thorough and long-lasting attitude adjustment for the busy executive.”FRANK ZAPPA
“Once again, Papasov has his band as well as the listener holding onto the tail of a tiger in this incendiary romp through traditional dance styles given a contemporary facelift.”DOWNBEAT
With a huge gut and unwieldy frame, Ivo Papasov seems an unlikely source for some of the most nimble and virtuosic music; you’ll be left in little doubt that he’s one of most interesting clarinettists around. He and his band race through numbers based on the complex rhythms of Bulgarian folk dances, grafting on jazzy improvisations.SIMON BRAUGHTON editor of THE ROUGH GUIDE TO WORLD MUSIC
If you listen to Bulgarian wedding music, you find that these guys are completely out their mind – the guys that play. One band I’m refering to is a band called ‘Ivo Papasov and his Bulgarian wedding band’. Their whole frame of mind when it comes to things like creating melodies and playing on their instruments and using times signatures and phrasing is completely alien. I mean they are very comfortable in very odd time signatures although they don’t feel as such. And they’re very comfortable playing in different print modes that basically have no reflection to Western music at all and their phrasing in the way that they hit their notes is very different. In order to find inspiration to apply to this guitar I studied some of this music and came up with some cool techniques.STEVE VAI
Although it’s impossible not to admire Bulgarian clarinettist Ivo Papasov’s facility on and consummate control of his instrument, he has never been a particular favourite of mine. Indeed, I’ve always felt that he was something of the Arturo Sandoval, tending to sacrifice feeling to fireworks, and I really haven’t missed him over the ten years he’s been away from the Western market.KIM BURTON / Songlines
Well, I was dead wrong, and this new recording proves it hands-down. From its dramatic beginning with a short duet between keening clarinet and the shattering sound of the tapan drum, succeeded by a hurtling rachenitsa and culminating in a final and moving elegiac clarinet solo, this doesn’t put a foot wrong. Papasov’s band, aided by a series of distinguished guests, slip from the down-home to the cosmopolitan with absolute assurance, and almost absurdly intricate unison passages give way to blistering solos from all participants without anyone seeming to pause for breath. The variety of musical styles – which often follow one another in the same number, yet without any loss of long-term coherence – is breathtaking, and even the excursion into jazzy quartal harmony, unusually, is completely successful.
Both singer Marija Karafizeva’s contributions are of a very high quality and inventively arranged. A special tip of the hat, too, to the Kuker label, who seem to have an unerring knack of hitting on the best, most innovative and most thrilling Bulgarian music around.
Papasov is still a majesty: the sound of his clarinet is sharp and heart-rendering in some kind of free parlando.ULI OLSHAUSEN / Frankfurter Allgemeine