History of the Bulgarian Kaval

The Kaval is an end-blown flute and it’s one of the oldest folk instruments in Europe, that’s why its exact origins are not known. It is known, though, that its predecessors are the Egyptian, Syrian and later Greek wind instruments. The word ‘kaval’ itself comes from Turkish and it means “pipe”. Different variations of the instrument exist in the Balkans, Armenia, Turkey and the Middle East. In Greece it is known as – Dzamara, in Armenia – Blul, in Romania – Caval and in Turkey and the Middle East – Ney

With the different names, of course, come certain differences. The Persian Ney has six playing holes, one of them on the back. Another very significant difference is the embouchure. The mouthpiece rests on the teeth of the player, unlike the Bulgarian kaval in the lips of the player are used to produce sound. Arabic and Turkish nays normally have seven holes, one of them, respectively in the back. They all look alike but they are quite different from one another. They are all constructed in various keys in order to make it easier for the player to transpose melodies. Microtones and some of the semitones are achieved by partial hole-covering or changes of the embouchure on all versions of the kaval.

The Bulgarian Kaval happens to be the most capable one – with eight playing holes – one in the back and seven in front. It’s almost entirely chromatic unlike all the other versions. Those capabilities allow the kaval players to perform not only simple folk melodies but also a lot more advanced and modern tunes. It also exists in different sizes but a skilled player can play pretty much anything on the D kaval and then only use the others sizes kavals just for the different sound and feel. 

Traditionally the Bulgarian kaval is made from cornelian cherry and horn/bone – for the mouthpiece and the connectors, it can also be decorated with different brass or pewter materials. Nowadays kavals are being made from pretty much anything you can think of. I, myself, have a few plastic ones and even an aluminum one. Their sound is a little different, but sometimes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for. As I mentioned above, kavals can be different in length and their name comes from the note, produced when all the finger holes are closed. The most popular one is the Kaval in D, which means that, when we close all the holes, the note that the kaval produces is D. Don’t get confused here because even if the lowest note is D the Kaval is still a concert pitch instrument. That means that if you play a middle D (D4) on the D kaval the note that you would get is a middle D (D4). Unlike some other woodwind instruments such as the clarinet, for example. The D kaval is not a transposing instrument. Learn more about the range and the registers of the Bulgarian Kaval in D – HERE.

The kaval is constructed in three parts, each is called a joint. In Bulgaria we call those joints – Ekleme. When we put them together they form a single pipe. The upper end of the kaval or the head joint is where the mouthpiece is, which means, that’s where we place our lips to produce the sound. 

The middle section of the kaval – the Body Joint or the second ekleme connects to both the head joint and foot joint. That is where the finger holes are. There are 7 holes on the front and one on the back. And last but not least, is the acoustic piece which has 4 additional holes but we do not cover them and they are not used for playing. In Bulgaria they are known as “The Devil’s holes” and In North Macedonia as “glasnitsi” (meaning – “giving voice”). There’s a really interesting folk tale about those holes here in Bulgaria. Read more about them HERE.

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