As you hold this book in your hands, a Bulgarian song travels in outer space. The song in question is "Izlel e Delyu Haidutin," a traditional Rhodope tune sung by Valya Balkanska. It was put on the Golden Record of Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts by Carl Sagan, in 1977, in his attempt to acquaint extraterrestrial civilisations with the Earth's culture. Bulgaria's folk music is incredibly varied and, with its compound metres and irregular times, may sound unusual to Western ears. Some of it, like Valya Balkanska's master opus, is slow and heavy. Other times it is joyous and lively, and can be danced in a variety of group dances. Traditional instruments include drums, bagpipes, flutes and a kind of primitive violin called Gadulka, but clarinets, accordions and even double bass are also used.
Several episodes in Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian feature folk music. In Chapter 58, Professor Stoichev's guests go along on an improvised song and a dance. In Chapter 69, a sinister – and entirely fictitious – folk song brings Paul and Helen to Dracula's den. During the celebrations on St Petko's Day, a fictional church saint, the villagers dance and sing.
Folk singers in the village of Gela, in the Rhodope Mountains
In spite of the multitude of folk music on TV channels and radio stations, ordinary Bulgarians would rarely listen to traditional folk music. Both they and their foreign visitors are usually exposed to heavily modernised and commercialised versions, usually at folksy restaurants. Bulgarian pupils do get taught the basic Horo dance steps at school, which is useful in the long run as dancing the Horo is de rigueur later in life at graduation ceremonies, weddings, political events and so on. One of the first things Bulgarians do on New Year's is go into step for the Danube Horo, a catchy brass band tune (which is not a folk song in the original sense as it was composed by a known author, Diko Iliev).
In contrast to the touristy restaurants, folk festivals are a good way to discover some genuine Bulgarian music. One of them is the festival at Koprivshtitsa, which is held every five years. Another is the Rozhen fest in the Rhodope Mountains, near Smolyan. The bagpipers' competition in Gela, also in the Rhodope, gets increasingly frequented by… Irish and Scottish bagpipers who perform their craft and wonder how Bulgarians can use sheepskin rather than goatskin pipes. Even Sir Pelham Greenville Wodehouse wrote about the Bulgarian bagpipes in his Thank You, Jeeves (1934) as if he had emerged straight out of a bagpipers' do at Gela: "Be Bulgarian, Jeeves!" – referring to a certain Elia Gospodinof who apparently played the bagpipes for 24 hours without a stop. Jeeves responded: "No, sir. I fear I cannot recede from my position."
Bagpipes in the village of Gela, in the Rhodope Mountains
The first time Bulgarian folk music reached Western audiences in earnest was in 1975 when a Swiss producer, Marcel Cellier, released the album Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. It became an instant hit in what at the time was the inchoate ethnic music fad. Canadian film director Denys Arcand would later use bits of the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices in his film Jesus of Montreal (1989).
More recently a group of elderly women from the village of Bistritsa have made a name for themselves as the Bistritsa Grandmas Band. In contrast to Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, the Bistritsa Grandmas's tunes are unrefined and even uncouth: absolutely mesmerising.
Chalga performers leave little to the imagination
You may not hear much of Bistritsa Grandmas, at least not unless you specifically seek to, but you will likely be bombarded with Chalga, a relatively new cultural phenomenon that has its roots in Balkan folk music but that propagates tunes, visions and values entirely at loggerheads with the 19th and early-20th century tradition.
Chalga emerged in Bulgaria in the sunset days of Communism, usually on pirated music cassettes of Serbian pop folk music, or Turbofolk as it is known west of the border. It became an instant hit, probably because it was unabashedly sexy and vulgar, in sharp contrast to the demure folk and pop the Communist government sponsored.
To understand how this happened 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 such gems as "Mladata traktoristka", or "Young Girl Tractor Driver," and "folk" songs extolling the virtues of collectivised farming. 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 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, already had its own Turbofolk. Lepa Brena in those years was more popular, as far as the Bulgarians were concerned, than Slobodan Milošević. It was not only Yugoslavia, however. In Greece, Skyladiko, 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 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, or local thugs, driving fast cars. However 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.
One example of lyrics from the 1990s comes from a piece called "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!"
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 in this country, do ask your Bulgarian friends to take you to a chalga disco. And do ask them to translate the lyrics for you!
By the 2010s Chalga had evolved from a musical genre to a fully fledges system of thought and attitude to life. You will hear many Bulgarians referring to Chalgalisation: Chalga girls, Chalga books, Chalga historians, Chalga archaeologists and, yes, Chalga politics.
One of the current superstars of Bulgarian Chalga is Azis, again illustrating the schizophrenia of post-Communism as he embodies the three big no-no's for most Bulgarians: he is rich, he is a Gypsy and he is gay.