The Kaval is an end-blown flute that belongs to the family of woodwind instruments. It’s one of Europe’s oldest folk instruments. Prototypes of Kaval have existed since 3000 years B.C. The instrument is deemed to have come to Europe from Egypt, Syria, and probably later, Greece. Probably, shepherds invented it while using some natural-born pipes to reproduce a sound and help gather the flock of sheep. Because of the Kaval’s mild sound and moving folk melodies, Bulgarians often call it “honey kaval”. It has been one of the favorite Bulgarian folk instruments for ages. The Kaval art has primarily developed in a few specific areas in Bulgaria. These are Trakia, in southern Bulgaria, and Dobrudja and Ludogorie, towards the north-east.

The word ‘kaval’ comes from Turkish, and means “pipe”. Different variations of the instrument exist in the Balkans, Armenia, Turkey, and the Middle East. The Kaval, unlike the transverse flute, is entirely open at both ends and plays by blowing on the sharpened edge of one end.

Construction and execution

The instrument has eight playing holes, seven in the front and one in the back for the thumb. Additionally, it has four unfingered intonation holes at the bottom. These holes don’t aid in playing the instrument, but rather determine the pitch and timbre of the lowest tone, as well as enhance tone and intonation. They are known as “devil’s holes” in Bulgaria, after a folk tale in which the devil attempts to outplay a shepherd in a musical duel. The devil pounded holes in the shepherd’s Kaval while he was asleep. However, instead of ruining the Kaval, this only helped improve the shepherd’s game, ultimately defeating the devil.

These holes also appear under the name “glasnici” (лаcнии) in North Macedonia. This means “giving voice to/of.” When played, performers hold the Kaval with both hands at an angle of approximately 45° from the body, with the four fingers of one hand covering the lower holes. The other hand covers the upper three holes and the thumbhole. The mouth covers approximately three-quarters of the end. A change of the breath air pressure also changes the pitch.

The Bulgarian Kaval happens to be the most capable one – with eight playing holes – one in the back and seven in front. It’s entirely chromatic, unlike all the other versions. Those capabilities allow Kaval players to perform not only simple folk melodies but also advanced and modern tunes. An experienced performer could easily play diatonic and chromatic passages, staccato, arpeggio, vibrato thrills, etc.

One noteworthy characteristic of the Kaval is the “Kaba” register. It’s kind of a mixture of two octaves yielding a polyphonic-like sound. Master performers can play in this register gracefully giving the impression that they mix tones from various octaves.

Materials of the Kaval

Kavals are commonly made of wood, cornel cherry, apricot, peach, boxwood, mountain ash, and so on, but they may also be made of water buffalo horn, metal, or plastic. A Kaval with no joints is normally fixed on a wooden holder to prevent warping and keep the inner walls oiled.

The instrument can tune to the high C or C#, the middle D or H, or the low register F and F#. That depends on the key. In the chromatic design, the Kaval spans two octaves and an additional fifth.