Smilyana Zaharieva knew she had a gift when she saw her audience tremble or cry during her performances.
Now an official Guinness world record confirms that the Bulgarian singer has one of the most powerful voices on the planet, which can stay pitch perfect despite being as loud as a rock concert.
Zaharieva says she burst into tears when she received the official Guinness world record certificate last month, confirming she had achieved the loudest mezzo-soprano vocal note.
“When I saw the monitor reading 113.8 decibels, it surprised me,” the 48-year-old said of her record-setting attempt last September.
Irish teacher Annalisa Flanagan holds the world’s loudest shouting record with 121 decibels (dB), but there was no previous singing record.
The lively Bulgarian from the southern city of Plovdiv faced a series of tough requirements.
Zaharieva had to sing in a quiet studio and go over 110 dB, the average human discomfort threshold, with the sound meter placed 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) away from her while also holding the note for a minimum of five seconds.
According to popular noise level charts Zaharieva’s achievement of 113.8 dB roughly amounts to the same loudness you would hear at a rock concert, a symphony orchestra or an emergency vehicle siren.
“The Bulgarian folklore voice is characterised by its power,” says Dora Hristova, the longtime choir master of the world-famous The Mystery Of The Bulgarian Voices.
“Folk singers are born with this physiology, with this natural voice.”
As a child, Zaharieva studied folk singing in the National School of Folklore Art in the Rhodope mountains in southern Bulgaria before pursuing a degree from the Plovdiv Conservatory of Music.
For several years she was part of another women’s choir, The Great Voices of Bulgaria, touring the world.
“When I sang people would tremble or cry,” she said. But in 1996 she put an end to her career.
“One day when I returned home, my little daughter didn’t recognise me. That broke my heart,” she said.
Opening a tour agency with her husband, she only sang for her family and close friends. “But I felt a void. My voice pushed to resurface,” she recalls.
In 2015, she set herself the challenge of singing with 101 traditional Rhodope bagpipes, the “kaba gaida” — and her voice held its own.
Svetla Stanilova, head of the Plovdiv Conservatory of Music, recognised Zaharieva’s “amazing vocal abilities” and “exceptional register”.
“The loudness of the voice is an individual quality but it is not the most important one... beauty depends on the voice’s timbre,” explains Stanilova, one of several experts present at the Guinness World Records attempt.
“From all the 26 classes that I’ve taught, I haven’t heard another folklore voice with a similar range.”
Sofia opera director Plamen Kartaloff was more sceptical on the record: “What a funny idea to measure one’s voice!” he said, adding several opera singers known for their voices — perhaps more powerful than Zaharieva’s — never had theirs measured.
Madonna as collaborator?
Keen on yoga and interested in Eastern meditation techniques, Zaharieva wants to explore the curative effects of sound and is seeking to collaborate with other artists. She has already asked American pop-star Madonna.
“This voice that has been given to me, I want to use it to help people and find a message to convey,” said the mother-of-two and recent grandmother of twins.
Zaharieva uses the crystal lyre instrument, known for its soothing, relaxing and meditative effects, and a chain of large bells — “chanove” — from the Rhodope mountains in sessions she both participates in and organises.
“Each sound corresponds to an energy centre in the body and to an organ,” the singer explains, adding various combinations of sound can cure illnesses. — AFP