CÎWBELL MAKING IN GÀBROVO RÅGION /ethno-organologic aspects of the handicraft/*

Manuela Boncheva

* The text was printed in: The Bell – Custom, Ritual, Myth. ÅÌÏ annual, 1999, 65-70.

Key words: ethnomusicology, organology, idiophones, cowbell, cowbell making

The man-cowbell. Probably we have to take a closer look at this collective figure unifying the man and the instrument to perceive not only the apotropaeic sound of the cowbells, but also the sweet voice of the bell by means of which the herdsman leads the heard out from the “lower earth” (Zaharieva 1987: 23-78, 96-100), the bell informing the herdsman that his herd is in the neighbourhood.

The cowbell-man is a kind of a symbiosis, whose projections can be detected not only in the male masquerade ritualism in the face of the mummer-cowbell, but also in the relation between the cowbell maker and the cowbell itself. The segmenting of this relation enables a deeply going look at the meaning of its two elements.

The present text focuses on some main activities of the cowbell making technology. The utilitarian and the ritual functioning of the bell will be discussed and some symbols of the technological code will be outlined. The realisation of the cowbell by the craftsman will be interpreted in its quality of a musical instrument, and the cowbell making will be interpreted as a kind of art. The attention will be driven to the character and the specific social positions of the craftsman, who is the main driving force of the technological process. The temporal scope addresses the contemporary state of the outlined problems and its projections of certain traditional features, as far as the field material and the literature sources allow the reconstruction of the traditional matter. The empirical basis of the study consists of the field material collected by the author in Karlovo region in 1995, and in Gabrovo region in 1998. The choice of the Gabrovo cowbell makers is due to the fact that they are the most outstanding representatives in this branch1. The methodology of the study is based on the included observation and the semi-free interview (Jonev 1996: 175, 176).

The making of the cowbells is a long and complicated process including some twenty seven operations from the moment of “designing the sheet iron” until the “bringing up a voice”. After the preparation of the metal plates three other operations follow, which were manually performed in the old handicraft. These are: 1) making of gatherings on a screw-press; 2) successive “cold” hammering-out of three models, and 3) forming the cowbell by means of “warm” hammering-out of a fourth model.

Today, the three operations are carried out simultaneously with only one draw of a special machine being a “spindle” or a “hydraulic”. As a result of this the “almost ready” cowbells are produced. Coupling the two edges of the cowbell was traditionally made by hand clinching, but now it is carried out by “punktschweiss” and spot-welding. The most essential phases of the whole technological process related to the craftsman’s making of cowbells with excellent instrumental qualities are connected with the choice of the sheet iron, the most exact preparation of the bronze solution for the cowbells, and the “bringing up a voice”.

The choice of the material depends on the availability of certain kind of sheet iron. There are several choice possibilities. The best quality possesses the “double pickled”, sheet iron, which according to the craftsmen is a modern product and was unknown to the craftsmen in the first half of the century, when most often tagger (Kachulev 1956: 249-265) and copper sheet iron (Dechev 1903) were used. Today, when sheet iron is lacking the craftsmen use materials at hand like stove-pipes and, more seldom, petrol tanks, and in the time period referred to they used petrol tanks, gas tin-plate, and spades. The material shall be soft in order to be easily processed. The hard tagger cannot be drawn well and splits when hammered or pressed on.

The pouring (bronzing) mixture for the cowbells consists of water solution, clay, bronze swarfs, and borax. Sometimes brass swarfs can be used, and quartz sand can be added. The components have to be homogeneously blended. The know-how is to observe the proportions between the separate ingredients, which often happens by chance and represents a professional secret. Probably, achieving the most efficient proportional ratio in the pouring blend after several trials is a necessary indicator of craftsmanship, because the secret is not to be handed down from a craftsman to a craftsman, even during the training.

“Bringing up a voice” of the cowbell is also a professional secret and is the most important stage of the craftsman’s work. Although there is no answer to the question: “how a good cowbell voice can be achieved”, two important details in the work on the hammered bells are to be mentioned, which are related to the clear sound of the cowbell. The first one is relevant to the qualitative pouring of the bell’s edges, where the sheet iron ends come together around the mouth. Otherwise, the cowbell remains “without a voice” (I. S.) or “rattles like a tin-can” (G. G.). The second detail concerns the thickness of the sheet iron around the mouth, where the sheet iron has to be thinnered in order to jingle.

There are certain innovations in the technological process related to the craftsman’s sense for the quality of the sheet iron and to the mechanical production of cowbells resulting in increased cowbell production and decreased wasters. In this way the useless effort in hammering the cowbell can be avoided. The traditional way or, as it is called by the craftsmen, “the old way” of making the bells is only “artificially” maintained in “Etara”, at least as far as the interior of the cowbell’s workshop is concerned, i.e. the room viewed by the visitors. But in his inside room the craftsman hides his modern improved tools. Still, the know-how is in the well-proportioned and qualitative pouring blend, and the fine thinnering of the cowbell’s mouth. Even today, those operations remain outside the scope of the mechanised process, but are subject to the creating human hands.

The symbolic treatment of the cowbell in the context of the traditional thinking has synthesised ancient ideas connected with its chtonic force, its apotropaeia and its functions as mediator between ”this” and “the other” world. The cowbell gains these qualities from the material it is made of, on the one hand, and through the technological operations creating it, on the other hand. In the symbolic essence of the metal obtained from the bowels of the earth the chtonic principle is laid down, as well as the connection with the other world (Marazov 1994: 39-53). Gone through the heat of fire, it gains its meaning of “mediator between two worlds” possessing the purifying power to “drive away the evil spirits” (Georgieva 1983: 67, 68). Melting the metal becomes a semantic equivalent of its symbolic death in order to be born again as a pure metal separated from the rough mineral and possessing might and immortality (Chevallier, Geerbrant 1996: 46, 47). The iron and the objects made out of it have loaded down an apotropaean symbolic value according to the Bulgarian traditional beliefs (Georgieva 1983: 65, 66). The well-known high soundconductivity of the bronze (Chevallier, Geerbrand 1996: 121, 122) contributes to producing the strong driving-away sound.

The specific relation between the material and the sound also manifests itself in the modern cowbell making technology, in the necessity of a qualitative bronzing of the hammered bell for the sake of its clear voice.

“If there is an airpocket someplace, here …well, …the compound,…has not been poured well, the bronze has not welded the two…, and the cowbell rattles mow like a tin-cane, it does not have a clear sound” (G. G.).

The modern craftsman defines the cowbell as immortal, which provokes the allusion to the traditional idea of the metals’ immortality. The hammering in the sense of a main driving force in the technological process bears the concept of the fertilising principle cumulated in the sexual connotation of the technological code, whose macro-projection is the demiurgic act. This act helps people overcome the powers of chaos and achieve the structuring of the world.

Today, the traditional meaning of hammering has lost its actuality because of the mechanised technology and the hammering activity dying out in a number of technological operations. An exception represents the moment of tuning the hammered bell, when its mouth is being corrected with a hammer.

The voice of the cowbell is the final result of chain actions creating it, and its own sound equivalent. Bearing the semantics of the metal and of the process provoking the sound achievement, the sound expresses and duplicates the above mentioned properties of the cowbell in its chtonic, aportopean and mediation functions. Such connotative connections have already been stated in the ethno- musicological literature (Zaharieva 1987: 36-107), but they have not been interpreted in terms of material and technology of the cowbell making. A close-up view on the relation: player – instrument – sound, permits integrating new meaningful elements into that relation concerning the raw material and the making of the hammered bell.

The cowbell characteristics analysed above manifest themselves mainly in the context of the mummers’ rituals, the Russalian-Kalushar rituals and the ritual song folklore. The movement of the cowbell along the axis: material – technological process – sound, finds its final realisation in the games of the mummers and the Kalushar performances and strengthens its symbolic meanings on a new action level. This happens by means of including the sound product of the bell into the sonorous complexes creating the sacral horror (Zaharieva 1981: 95-106), whose ambiguity correlates with the chtonic principle, on the one hand, and with the act of fertility as a minimised model of the demiurgic, on the other hand. The apotropaean cowbell is the miraculous helper (Propp 1995: 163-197) of the mummer or his second Ego, his protecting sound shield when crossing the border between “this” and “the other” world. The cowbell derives its sacral force, firstly, from the immortal metal and, secondly, from the act imitating the creation of the world.

In the ritual song folklore the cowbell is interpreted as a sound symbol of the heardsman – the leader, who has to lead the heard from the lower earth (Zaharieva 1987: 95-100). The realisation of the leader-animal, respectively of the cowbell in its quality of a mediator, presupposes its ability of ensuring the free crossing the border between “this” and “the other” world.

In the traditional culture the apotropean meaning of the cowbell is also reflected in the herdsman’s life, where it serves together with its purely utilitarian purpose for protecting the animals from evil powers (Zaharieva 1981: 95-106).

The sacrality of the cowbell is present even today, but in a context different from the traditional one. I refer to treating the hammered bell as a piece of art, for whose making a special gift is required, and the gift comes from God. Today, also seen as a relic, the cowbell preserves the memory of our sacralised past, which is among the markers of our contemporary identity. We can find the cowbell in a museum, in an antique shop, in the Craftsmen’s Labour Society, … but here it is “silent” and is only an exponent. Today, the hammered bell is still ringing in the mummers’ performances acquired a show-entertaining character, but only as a sound producing source, a part of the old-time mummer’s costume, free from its ritual connotations. The author observed a similar functioning of the cowbell in the “elders’ ” performances in the village of V. Levski, Karlovo region, in 1995. The old men’s group there included new characters – devils, who carry metal objects in the form of cymbals. In this way the common sound background is increased.

In cattle-breeding the cowbell functions on a utilitarian level as a means enabling the herdsman to distinguish the animals from one another and helping the animals to find their ways. Simultaneously, its sound may warn the herd in case of danger, when attacked by wolfs.

When talking about the cowbell and the cowbell making I have also to mention the figure of the cowbell maker in his capacity as a subject to the technological process producing the cowbell.

In the context of the traditional culture the symbolic characteristics of the cowbell maker coincide with the above outlined qualities of the hammered bell along the line of identity.

Identifying the cowbell as a musical instrument lies in the priorities not only of the ethno-organologic science, but can be also found in the mental attitudes of the modern cowbell maker. Even as a non-musician, in the specific aesthetic ideas of the cowbell maker there is a central place for the correlation: cowbell – musical instrument, which can be tuned, and the art of cowbell making. These ideas reflect not only the craftsman’s views, but also those of the modern society as seen through the eyes of the cowbell maker. The concept of the cowbell as a musical instrument is directly connected with the possibility of a professional musician choosing the bells using adequate instruments for tuning them up. G.G. describes such a case, as follows: “ We can make them sound in tones: C, D, E, F, G … . There was a musician we made the whole series from number one to number sixteen for, and he tuned them up thrumming on his guitar … . the cowbell can be tuned up exactly like a musical instrument.”

Perceiving the cowbell making not as a common job to live on, but as art, is one of the main criteria of the craftsmanship. Craftsman Grosio (G. G.) describes his handicraft and the attitude of others towards it, as follows: “Common people do not understand … They say: “ Oh, this is just a simple job …” But how can we make the bell sound … tune it up … They do not understand that there is some piece of art in the cowbell, too.”

The way the cowbell and the cowbell maker are perceived by the modern society indicates the cowbell maker’s place in the social structure. The two crises in the cattle-breeding, the one at the foundation of the co-operative farms back in the 50-ies, and the other at their abandonment in the 90-ies, when a great number of cattle had been slaughtered, caused a collapse in the cowbell production. The dying out of this handicraft, which is being “artificially maintained” today is the result of the decreased demand for the cowbell product. This leads to an inevitable economic insolvency, which is the main, if not the only reason for the low social status of the cowbell maker and for transforming his reputable handicraft into the opposite.

Before the co-operative farms’ era the cowbell makers were compared with the goldsmiths, in terms of people earning well and enjoying respect in the community. G. G. says about them: “… they earned like the goldsmiths … They earned a lot … People with good reputation were people with a lot of money.”

Very prestigious in the first half of the century the cowbell handicraft has lost its dominating positions since the 50-ies being defined as a “Gypsy handicraft” and thus associated with the marginality of the ethnic Romany group.

Standing out from the common background the cowbell makers in their capacity as belonging to an autonomous social group represent a specific sub-universe of meanings, whose cognitive essence are of esoteric origin (Burgur, Lukman 1996: 99-112). According to I. S.: “ A craftsman can make something other people cannot.” But in order to achieve proficiency, it is necessary to master the most important phases of the technological process. They can be, or are, a professional secret, whose degree of mastering and preserving is a sign of the different craftsmanship’s level.

The personality of the craftsman becomes a cross point of the tradition and the modernity of the present day. The projections of this “cross point” are the modern cowbell making technology and the current training model. The transition from thoroughly manual cowbell making to semi-mechanical one is a specific metamorphosis imposed by the technical progress realised through the active presence of the craftsman.

The specificity of the cowbell handicraft requiring several years of training to get the know-how, which cannot be learned from books, makes the cowbell maker irreplaceable in contrast to the module man. Contrary to the module education the craftsman’s training is non-universal, non-standard, individual and specialised (Zaharieva 1998: 48-78), remaining close to the traditional methods of handing down the handicraft from generation to generation. It is of vital importance when taking over the handicraft to get the professional secret hidden carefully by the acting craftsman and aspired by the future one. The idea of the sacral theft lies in this fight for superiority, whose realisation “is a sign of the thief’s power, a sign of fight and victory” (Yordanova 1995: 51-63).

Even today the craftsmen say “Craftsmanship cannot be given, it can only be stolen”2, whose logical equivalent is the saying “ If the apprentice is quick to learn, nobody can bind his hands” (I. S.).

Furthermore, the craftsman trying to find his adequate place in our society, being flexible enough and possessing a conformist frame of mind, has obligatory acquired another profession except for the cowbell making, too. Such a professional mobility is very important for the existence of the modern man (Gelner 1996: 95-100).

The cowbell making in Gabrovo represents a temporal stability, because it has survived up to the present day despite the past crises. The mere fact that the craftsmen continue to exercise this handicraft regardless of the ups and downs of our being is significant for the vitality of the cowbell making in our dynamic everyday.


1 For the purposes of the present study empirical information has been analysed from interviews with two Gabrovo cowbell makers, Grozjo Donkov Grozev, b. 1922, and Ivan Dimitrov Stanev, b. 1944 ã. both are native residents. Their further quotations will be marked respectively (G.G.) and (I.S.).

2 Info Tsvyatko Tsvetkov, from Gabrovo, bagpiper and maker of wind instruments, b. 1970.


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