Zhivko Vasilev: The Bulgarian Kaval Flute

Zhivko Vasilev (Musician/Composer/Producer) is one of the most popular Bulgarian kaval players. He is well known for his experiments with the kaval and the constant seeking for unexplored paths in music. Thanks to his experimental spirit he is constantly driven to combine traditional kaval sound with different western styles such as jazz, funk, latin, latin jazz, pop, electronic music and many more. The result of this incredible symbiosis is an exotic and unique style that he constantly improves.


Can you tell us a little about the history of the Kaval?

Kaval is a folk flute from the Balkans, notably Bulgaria, Turkey, Serbia and Macedonia. It is an end-blown flute with eight finger holes. There is a popular belief that shepherds used the kaval to direct their flocks.

When did you first pick up a kaval?

I was 9 years old when I first picked up a kaval. Before that I played the accordion. At that time I was going to folk dance classes and we had two musicians to perform while we were dancing -accordionist and a kaval player. I was really into folk music back then and when I applied to a music school I was told that if I play the accordion it would only be with classical music. So I decided to study kaval since it was the only instrument I knew besides and accordion.

When did you decide to make the kaval your life?

When I first started playing the kaval, it was very interesting but not as exciting as playing outside with my friends. Then at the entrance exam for the high school of music, my prospective teacher told me that my playing was terrible. He also might have mentioned that everything was out of tune and I didn’t finish even one phrase properly, haha. I was just a kid and of course I started crying but then this motivated me a lot and I started practicing every day for many hours. Then at my graduation, as a reward for my progress, he gave me one of his best kavals as a present.

How about 3 pivotal moments that were essential to creating the artist that you've become?

The first is the one I mentioned above.

The second is a workshop that I ended up at when I moved to Sofia as a student. I was only playing folk music at that time but the workshop was about jazz and Latin music. The other musicians that attended were crazy good. I felt like I was just starting out with music and didn’t like that feeling. That’s how found my new passion - Jazz.

The third was at a show in Austria, performing with Juan Garcia Herreros. We were playing a Blues in Bb at a jazz gig. At the rehearsals before he told me that I won’t be playing solo in that song but later at the show he looked at me at that particular song and cued the whole band to stop playing. He left me playing solo kaval for about a minute. I was surprised and didn’t expect anything like this but I had to play something. Out of surprise and excitement a pretty great solo came out and the audience literally bursted with applause. This completely changed my life as a musician and gave me a lot more confidence.


Do you teach?  Masterclasses?  What do you like best about teaching?

I do teach occasionally but not a lot because I’m quite busy playing concerts. Conducting masterclasses is something that I do more often, though. My instrument is unusual and a lot of people are interested in it, so it’d be a shame not to help them get to know the instrument. What I like the most about teaching is that even though I’m the one who shows students different things, I get to learn a lot, especially when people start asking questions.


What do you like best about performing?

Performing is simply the best for me. I love it, regardless of the style of music I play. The way we communicate with the other musicians on stage without words is just amazing. It’s also great when you see people’s faces when something great happens. That feeling is indescribable; it has to be experienced to be understood.


CD releases?

I’ve participated in a lot of albums as a guest musician and only one (so far) as a leader. These links are for the one as a leader and the one as a guest that I’m the most proud of. I’m also working on my debut solo album which will be released later this year.

As a leader:

Outhentic - YesTodayhttps://outhentic.bandcamp.com/album/yestoday

As a guest musician with the Grammy nominated bass player Juan Garcia Herreros:

Snow Owl - The Blue Road - https://the-snow-owl.com/album/383366/the-blue-road-2016-global-music-award

What does your schedule look like for the next 6 months?  

Composing music for two albums - one solo and one with my band - Outhentic. Traveling all around Europe for different concerts and masterclasses. In the meantime I play with a lot of musicians as a sideman. It’s quite busy I would say but that’s all a musician can wish for!


What are your goals personally? Professionally?

I’ve taken it as a personal mission to show as many people worldwide as possible that the Bulgarian kaval exists and that it is capable of playing in pretty much any style. Bulgarian folk is extremely beautiful but there’s a lot more to explore than that and I am open to receive as much as possible.


What inspires you the most in life?

Traveling is definitely what gives me the most inspiration in life - meeting new people, new culture, new music. This is priceless and I’d advise everybody to travel as much as possible and, as the popular saying goes: money comes back, youth doesn’t”.


What has been your greatest challenge?

As I mentioned above my greatest challenge was when I started playing jazz. I knew nothing about it and started from scratch, all on my own. I read a lot of theory books, I watched plenty of video lessons, and I played with many jazz musicians. I’m still learning but I’ve gone far enough to feel comfortable when playing it.


Who were your music mentors?  And what did you learn from them?

Over the years I’ve had a lot of people that I learned from. It’s hard to name just a few but I cannot speak about mentors and not mention Juan Garcia Herreros. This man has the most impact on my career. He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve played with and he’s taught me so much about music that I’d be always greatful to him.


Can you give us 5 quirky, secret, fun (don't think too much about this) hobbies or passions?  

1. I love hiking.

2. I don’t like obeying rules. I’m not talking about rules like stealing or killing, but for ones like: No Trespassing” (all I see here is definitely go there, NOW” haha)

3. Last year I started skiing and it is crazy fun although I go down the slope more using my butt then actually the ski. (I’m actually joking, I’ve gotten a bit better this year, haha)

4. Sometimes I go golfing

5. I love eating. A LOT!


What 3 things would you offer as advice for a young flutist?

1. Practice wisely, not long.

2. Listen to a lot of music and listen to it carefully not while cooking or talking to somebody.

3. Be open minded. Music is everywhere and there’s a lot of interesting stuff in any music style.

YouTube Links:

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