A BRIEF HISTORY OF BULGARIAN CHALGA MUSIC

by Anthony Georgieff

To understand the chalga phenomenon you must look into the troubled context of Bulgarian music under Communism and immediately after

For 45 years the Communist state kept the lid very tight on every aspect of social life, including music. When Bulgaria was invaded by the Soviets 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.

The result in those years were 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 reached such ridiculous extremes as issuing decrees to order state-run radio stations to broadcast a certain percentage of Bulgarian songs, a certain percentage of Soviet songs, and allocate 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 evening's 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 a renegade Western state by the Bulgarian political establishment and looked up to by many Bulgarians as a democratic and prosperous paradise, started to promote its own version of chalga, which it referred to as turbo folk. Lepa Brena in those years was more popular than Slobodan Milosevic.

It was not only Yugoslavia, however. In Greece, sirtaki, a fusion of gaudy pop and traditional Greek rhythms and melodies, was becoming immensely popular. In Turkey, the progenitors of Tarkan 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 a 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 mugs driving fast cars, but many "ordinary" people became so enthralled by the new freedom that they would embrace 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, chalga mirrors real life, depicts real people with all their problems and desires, the argument ran.

If you want to explore Bulgarian chalga, which may easily become one of the highlights of your stay in Bulgaria, do go to a chalga disco and do ask your friends to translate the lyrics for you.

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