Trio Mopmu's Bulgarian Jazz Odyssey

“It used to be that being a musician was the best possible job in Bulgaria,” says Ryan Francesconi of Berkeley, California’s, Trio Mopmu, the world’s first tambura power trio. “But now, people there are in survival mode and being a professional musician is not a feasible vocation. The music is in danger of being lost forever.”

Not if Francesconi has anything to say about it. On Trio Mopmu’s new CD Torta Bulgarski [Odd Shaped Case], Francesconi (on Bulgarian tambura), bassist Bill Lanphier, and drummer Bryan Bowman keep the tradition alive and kicking with a recording that carefully balances the authentic folk music of the Balkans with harmony and interplay often associated with a modern jazz group.

The Bulgarian tambura, Francesconi’s main instrument, should not be confused with the East Indian tambura (a non-fretted instrument typically used to produce a drone). The Bulgarian tambura is a fretted, double-course instrument that resembles a long-neck mandolin. It is tuned like the top four strings of the guitar: D, G, B, E (low to high). “I was really attracted to the sound of this instrument, and coming from a guitar background, it was a relatively natural move.”

Francesconi has gone to great lengths to insure the authenticity of his music. Formal training on Bulgarian tambura involved travelling to Bulgaria to study with tambura master Lyubo Vladimirov. The first order of business was to improve Francesconi’s tambura. “Tamburas are relatively simple and primitive,” he says, “and it can be hard to find one of decent quality.” Vladimirov modified Francesconi’s ax by adding sealed tuners, a new fretboard and frets, and replacing the bridge and the nut to improve intonation.

Once he had an instrument that could keep up with his formidable technique, Francesconi eagerly soaked up Vladimirov’s wisdom. “The traditional role of the tambura has been one of accompaniment,” he says. “Lyubo showed that it could be used as a lead or melodic instrument. He really helped me with my picking-hand technique and taught me how to get a better acoustic sound out of the tambura.” Vladimirov also schooled Francesconi in the fine points of Bulgarian tambura technique, imparting the trills, grace notes, and other ornamental devices that make up the style. “The ornamentation is really fast and really dissonant in Bulgarian music,” he says. “Most of the grace notes are out of the scale, so there’s a lot of chromatic movement.”

Another big part of Balkan music involves what many Westerners would call odd time signatures. “It’s really just groups of two and three used in different combinations,” says Francesconi. That’s a fairly simplistic description of a chart with a meter of 13/16 for eight bars then a measure of 5/8 followed by a measure 7/16 as in “Krivo Horo.” “It goes by too fast to count it,” he explains. “You’ve got to feel it.” Trio Mopmu navigates these complex meters without breaking a sweat. In fact, unless you’re a musician counting beats, you may never even notice the meter changes. “Once you get into it, it’s just a different kind of groove,” says Francesconi.

Players looking to infuse their playing with a hint of Balkan mojo can go straight to the recordings of the masters—tambura greats Valeri Dimchev and Rumen Sirakov or clarinet virtuoso Ivo Papasov are good places to start. The Hijaz scale (sometimes called the Phrygian dominant mode) can also provide a little bit of the flavor. Spelled E, F, G#, A, B, C, D, the scale contains the same notes as an A harmonic minor scale starting at the fifth note. “It’s the ornaments that define the style more than the notes,” Francesconi is quick to point out. “It’s the same as with jazz, baroque, and the blues. What you do with the notes plays a significant role in defining those styles as well.”