Kavals (Kavali)


The kaval is a very old folk flute from the Balkans, notably Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Turkey. It is an end-blown flute with eight finger holes. An end-blown flute is one which has no windway or fipple on the end you blow into, but it is just a straight hollow tube. You can look right through the thing like a spyglass. A tone is created by blowing across the sharpened edge of the mouthpiece. This takes quite a bit of practice to get the correct embouchure, and makes the instrument very frustrating for the beginning student.

The Picture
The picture above is a Bulgarian kaval in the key of D made by the late master maker Slavi Ivanov, Kameno, Bulgaria. It is made of Cornelian Cherry, or Dryan in Bulgarian, which is a very hard, dark, and increasingly rare wood. It comes apart into three pieces at the enlarged black sockets. The mouthpiece (the left end) is made of cow horn, as are the other black reinforcements. The metal inlay is pewter, in a traditional pattern.

Sound Samples
What does a kaval sound like? Here are a few samples of kaval music. These links are in MP3 format, which can be automatically played in Internet Explorer and other browsers.

Trite Puti
Master Bulgarian kavalist Stoyan Velichkov plays sections from a dance tune. The first section of this sample is played in kaba (see Musical Range below). 

Master Stoyan Chobanov plays a tuneful Bulgarian pravo horo dance.

Ovcharska Melodiya
Stoyan Chobanov plays a slow melody showing the large tonal range and expressiveness of the kaval.

The left thumb covers a hole on the back side of the kaval, and the first three fingers cover the top three holes (leftmost in the picture), and the right four fingers cover the lower four holes, with the right thumb supporting the instrument. There are also four holes beyond the last finger hole which are never covered, but serve acoustic purposes. Unlike Western flutes where the tips of the fingers close the holes, the kavalist uses the flat middle parts of some fingers to close holes 2, 3 5, 6, and 7. This facilitates a characteristic of kaval playing style where the fingers are used to make various rapid chirping and popping sounds.
More about kaval fingering and charts

Musical Range
The instrument has a range of about two and one half octaves, with only a couple of notes missing from the full chromatic scale. For a kaval pitched in D (or Re in Bulgarian), the notes corresponding to the tones from the bottom to the top are D (D# missing) E F F# G G# A A# and B. By overblowing, the kaval will jump up a fifth to the next register, A B C C# D D# E F and F#. Further overblowing allows another register with F# G G# A A# (B missing) and C, although the notes above A are difficult to get to speak. A characteristic of the kaval is a special multiphonic mode called kaba which is the D-B register sounding an octave below. It is difficult to play in this mode, which has a reedy clarinet-like quality.

Bulgarian kavals are usually made of hardwood in three pieces, which fit together using tenon and socket joints. This allows some tuning of the instrument by pulling the top joint out a bit. Macedonian kavals are typically made of a single piece of ash wood, and are smaller in diameter, very light, and with very thin walls.

A Manual for Beginning Kaval Players  
In this manual, I have attempted to describe the very basics of playing the kaval. It is by no means a good substitute for a personal teacher, but many people ask me for tips, so here they are. This manual was originally distributed with the plastic kavals I used to sell. This text has been translated into Bulgarian by (10/13/01). Thanks, Anton!

Lyuben Dossev's book on Thracian Kaval Ornamentation
Mastering Thracian Kaval Ornamentation: A Handbook
This detailed work covers the basic elements of style for playing kaval in the Thracian style. Included topics are Vibrato, Sechene, Glissando, Accent Notes, and Short Trills. The book comes with a companion audio CD of Dr. Dossev playing all the examples in the book. Although this manual is not a substitute for personal instruction on the instrument, it is an important reference and handbook for kaval players, from beginner to advanced. Included are 221 musical examples, 4 charts, and 10 songs which are notated and played both solo and with singer Tanya Dosseva. Published by Izvor Music.

Purchasing a Kaval
Kavals are available from Bulgaria, Macedonia (FYR) and Turkey. I sell inexpensive plastic kavals, which play very well and are maintenance-free. I also can help you obtain wooden kavals from Bulgaria, from student models to professional instruments. for more information. Here is a list of dealers who have sold kavals in the past. I make no claims to the quality nor availability of their instruments.

Maintenance for kaval owners
If you own a wooden kaval, it will need some care. Here are tips on keeping your instrument in the best condition.

Other sites of interest
Alexander Eppler makes fine kavals, including a new system kaval. See the Eppler Flute Company and Alexander Eppler's Bulgarian kaval website.

Last updated July 28, 2010 (revised links)

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