In the 19th century the border between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire snaked the Rozhen Peak of the magical Rhodopes Mountain, the homeland of the mythical singer Orpheus. In 1898, the Bulgarian inhabitants of three artificially divided villages of Progled in Bulgaria and Momchilovtsi and Sokolovtsi in Turkey, started a tradition of gathering on the Rozhen Peak to keep alive the community spirit between them. To strengthen neighbourhood solidarity and traditions, the peoples of the three villages would come together each year to pay homage to their saints, sing folk songs, perform dances and grill traditional whole lambs on an open fire.
After the Balkan States defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1912, the map of the Balkan Peninsular was completely reshaped, at which time the Rhodopes Mountain ceased being part of the Ottoman state and the surrounding villages came within the Bulgarian border. As a consequence the Rozhen gathering lost its community unifying meaning, but the traditional gathering of the people from the middle Rhodope lived on to become the origin of the Rozhen National Folklore Festival. The festival has endured and despite several breaks and transformations, it has now returned after nine years to be put on between the 17th to the 19th of July.
Bulgarians flocked from all corners of the country to attend the festival and continue the tradition of Rozhen peak. They came to admire the performance of the singers and traditional instruments whilst taking in the array of national costumes and traditional crafts and artisanal skills on display. Over the years the Rozhen Festival has become the most prominent folklore festival in Bulgaria, a nationwide event that gives the audience a truly memorable time.
The opening of the festival was impressive. The three-day intense programme included more than 7,000 participants from folk groups across the country. The incredible sound of 400 bagpipes coming from the joint performance of the Rhodopa Ensemble, the distinctive 100 Kaba Bagpipes Orchestra and the 101 Bagpipes Orchestra added to the uniqueness of the event. The thrilling voices of the famous folk choir Cosmic Voices from Bulgaria and Valya Balkanska enchanted the meadows around Rozhen with the performance of the Rhodopes' hymn – “Бела съм, бела юначе” (I'm Fair Girl, You, Hero).
Having first performed at the festival in 1961, the 100 Kaba Bagpipes Orchestra is considered the wonder of Rozhen. In 2010, the orchestra was enlisted in the UNESCO Living Human Treasures due to its contribution to heritage music and the uniqueness of the low-pitched bagpipes, which are a symbolic and predominant instrument in the Rhodopes.
Music history will remember Valya Balkanska and her performance of another folklore pearl „Излел е Дельо хайдутин“ (Delyo the Hayduk Has Gone Outside). In 1977 the song, which originated from Rozhen, set off on board the NASA space probe Voyager 1, along with the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart as part of the Voyager Golden Records project.
Despite the sweltering heat and the excessive traffic jams to access the festival, this year’s event was attended by around 350,000 people. The Rozhen festival continues to attract large audiences to its vibrant artistic displays of hundreds of performers of Bulgarian folklore that are helping to keep traditions alive and unite people.