by Anthony Georgieff

Your brief introduction to Bulgaria's all-pervasive pop folk

Azis (left) tops the pops of Bulgarian chalga

At some stage during your stay in Bulgaria you are bound to have a close encounter with what over the past 16 years has come to be regarded as Bulgaria's most popular art form: chalga. Your first experience of chalga may come as early as your cab ride from the airport to downtown Sofia. Soon you will find out that chalga is everywhere. Cabbies love it, it deafens customers in many an eatery, it blares out of school windows during breaks and, of course, it fills disco dance floors.

If you thought that Bulgarian music was mainly Le mystere des voix bulgares and Trio Bulgarka, you will be astonished by how wrong you were. Chalga bears no resemblance to the deep-throat sound associated with mystic rites in these ancient lands. It deals with much more down-toearth aspects of post-Communist reality. It propagates the virtues of miniskirts ("Sexy! Sexy! Sexy! Sexy!") and of large expensive Western cars, notably Audis. It tells kids sporting Tottenham Hotspur tops and tight blue jeans as well as nouveau riche entrepreneurs and their thick-set retinues that the greatest virtue in life is to make as many dollars as possible with as little effort as possible. It is sung by stunningly beautiful and scantily-clad fake blondes, dancing provocatively in front of bands dressed in "traditional" Bulgarian costumes. Yes, chalga Anno 2007 is an industry, one of Bulgaria's most vibrant.

But chalga is not just music, it is a major social phenomenon that divides the nation into believers and non-believers to a greater extent than politics. Many people, especially in the pre-fabricated housing estates on the outskirts of the large cities and in smallertowns throughout the country would swear by their favourite chalga, or pop folk, performers. Many others, usually those who consider they have a higher level of education or who are trying to espouse Western values, would scorn it as being vulgar and redneck. During your stay in Bulgaria you will probably meet both. Avoid taking issue with them as the debate will likely become more heated than the next general election. Like it or not, chalga is part and parcel of Bulgaria's modern culture, and if you don't like it, try to understand it.

To do that, you must look into the troubled history of Bulgarian music in Communist times and immediately after. For 45 years, Communism kept a tight lid on every aspect of social life, including music. When Bulgaria was invaded by the Soviet Army in 1944, the local Communist apparatchiks were quick to denounce any Western influence Bulgaria had enjoyed, jazz being but one example, and to promote its own folklore, often imbued with nationalist or "New Life" undertones.

This resulted in those years in such gems as Mladata Traktoristka, or Young Girl Tractor Driver, and "folk" songs extolling the virtues of collectivised farming. The situation did change after Stalin's death, but to say that it improved would be an exaggeration. Coca-Cola drinking Elvis Presley was considered evil, and Beatles songs, notably "Back in the USSR", were banned. There were instances of young people getting sacked from their jobs or even being sent to labour camps for reportedly listening to Western radio stations broadcasting "decadent" music.

As late as the 1980s, the Communist Party's omniscience led to such ridiculous extremes as issuing decrees ordering state-owned radios to broadcast a certain percentage of Bulgarian songs and a certain percentage of Soviet songs, allocating the remaining 20 percent to "songs of other nations." Similar regulations were in force in restaurants, where bands played Soviet music as part of the dinner entertainment to demonstrate the "eternal friendship" between the Bulgarian and the Soviet peoples.

To the musicians of those times, the party straitjacket meant one thing: conform, or quit.

In the mid-1980s, however, things started to change. At that time, neighbouring Yugoslavia, considered by the Bulgarian political establishment to be a renegade Western state, but looked up to by many Bulgarians as a democratic and prosperous paradise, started to promote its own version of chalga, which it called turbo folk. Lepa Brena in those years was more popular than Slobodan Milosevic. It was not only Yugoslavia, however. In Greece, syrtaki, a fusion of gaudy pop and traditional Greek rhythms and melodies, was becoming immensely popular. In Turkey the progenitors of Arkan were emerging. Bulgarian state radio, of course, did not broadcast any of these, but millions of Bulgarians managed to listen to the new wave music on pirated tapes.

The current form of Bulgarian chalga emerged in the wake of the 1989 collapse of Communism. At first, it was seen as liberation by the masses, who suddenly realised there was no one to tell them not to listen to Serbian or Greek music. Soon, the home-grown type of pop folk emerged, and before too long it would develop into a million-dollar entertainment industry. Many intellectuals would cry out that it propagated nothing more than the new "culture" of corruption, easy money, indiscriminate sex, and mutri driving fast cars, but many "ordinary" people became so enthralled by the new freedom that they embraced chalga as their alternative to officialdom. In the past, music was didactic and prescriptive: it reflected some imaginary reality where love and virtue were the mainstays. In contrast, it is argued, chalga mirrors real life, depicting real people with their problems and aspirations.

If you want to explore the dimensions of the Bulgarian chalga phenomenon, an effort that may easily become one of the highlights of your stay here, do ask your Bulgarian friends to take you to a chalga disco. And do ask them to translate the lyrics for you! Call me old-fashioned, but my favourite is the one about Honduras. "I arrive at Burgas Quay, here come my goods from Honduras. Bravo to the customs! Bravo to the police! The heat, the heat in Sofia!"


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