Your brief introduction to Bulgaria's all-pervasive pop folk
Issue 6, March 2007
by Anthony Georgieff
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.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers