Chalga - Bulgaria's New Face Abroad

Novinite Insider » EDITORIAL | Author: Milena Hristova |June 30, 2010, Wednesday // 11:27| Views: | Comments: 39
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Bulgaria: Chalga - Bulgaria's New Face Abroad

Provocative hip-shaking, scanty clothing, lewd lyrics, oriental motifs, fake eyelashes and tons of make-up. The ingredients of Bulgaria’s popfolk music or chalga - as it is derogatorily called - recently made a furore on the pages of foreign media, cementing its status as nothing short of a social phenomenon and a stereotype for Bulgaria.

Did this come that natural?

Days before Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union on January 1, 2007, a high-ranking official at a EU member state embassy in Sofia sarcastically told me that "chalga is what you will bring into the EU". Four years later Bulgarians have proved him wrong, but the cliché about the country persists mostly thanks to the articles that appear in the foreign press.

Only this month two of the most respected media outlets in the world – Reuters and New York Times – picked platinum blond Azis, the openly gay King of Bulgaria’s popfolk, as the most exotic, interesting and important person in the country, drawing parallels to its political life and Bulgarians’ lifestyle. Azis seems to have replaced the weightlifters, the cheese and the yogurt as the new stereotype about Bulgaria.

Ironically Azis’s only aim – not only on the stage, but in his real life as well – is to break stereotypes, to provoke. He relies on being different. The same holds true about his female colleagues, who impose the image of the woman as a sexually insatiable monster, who is ready to ignore all ethical rules in the name of her immediate interests and short-lived pleasure.

The foreign TV crews or stringers in Bulgaria work with a small for the standards of their countries budget and their aim is to sell what they have produced to as many newspapers and TV channels as possible. It is the rule rather than the exception that they pick exotic for the Western audience topics, such as Roma weddings, dancing bears and long-legged mistresses of the so-called mutri or crime bosses.

Chalga, a fallout of the flourishing mass media, with dubious morality and origins, seems to be the latest addition to this must-have-it list.

Believe it or not, chalga is no new phenomenon in Bulgaria. Back in the 30s, "The Eternal and Sacred" collection of poems by Elisaveta Bagryana turned into a blockbuster and was republished in several thousand copies. She however lost the battle for fame to a world infamous street organ-grinder, whose collection of songs sold... 70,000 copies.

The problem is that after years of austerity during the communist regime, the long-overdue opulence and anti-institutional flavor that this music brings has turned into a lifestyle and is considered prestigious. Small surprise then that Azis ingenious notions are eagerly embraced and spin off into something way bigger than he has ever imagined!

But Bulgaria is not just Azis, just as Germany can not be identified with Oktoberfest or England – with its growing intolerance to immigrants.

I do understand that topics featuring chalga music, which – to cut a long story short – just sells sex, may be the shortest route to the hearts of readers of articles about a country, which rarely quickens their pulse.

What the foreign journalists obviously got right is that the messages they and chalga singers send will be much alike – easy-to-digest, melodramatic and endlessly repetitive.

What they forgot is that chalga appeals only to people, who are too thick and shallow to grasp and appreciate any other style. It is no flattering tribute to them if they believe their readers to be like this.

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» To the forumComments (39)
#39
NellieotAmerica - 18 Jul 2010 // 17:53:44

"Setting up a choir is no bad thing even if done by communists, especially if it promote folkmusic"

For those of us who grew up in Bulgaria folk music was the most boring, revolting and undesirable music on the radio, Bulgarian voices not withstanding. (No TV in those days.) We in Sofia hated folk music, because it was so heavily subsidized and promoted by the communist pigs. We hated anything to do with the provinces or the villages or the working class because they were so exalted by the communists. In short, anything the communists liked, promoted, or subsidized was anathema to us, the anti-communists. We were rebels and liked American music and western culture and art, because it was "forbidden" by the communists.

#38
bwjnmt - 17 Jul 2010 // 17:43:51

As an American who lived in Bulgaria for two years, I hardly consider myself an expert on Bulgarian culture. With that said, I must say that Chalga was extremely popular in the little town that I lived in. I don't think that it reflected the values of the people in my community but chalga's cynical views of money and sex appealed to people's sense of humor. Both money and sex are topics of satire in many countries around the world. Let's face it sex sells around the world. Banitza is definitely Bulgarian btw. Never seen it anywhere in Greece in any of my trips there.

#37
NellieotAmerica - 17 Jul 2010 // 16:10:33

"The top echelons of the Communist cadres were often quite well educated, at least from 1960s onwards. They studied in Moscow or Leningrad, later on they sent their kids to Paris, Vienna, USA to buy Western education at the finest academies (stolen) money can buy. You can meet these people in Sofia or in the West, they are often involved in the arts or business."

Well, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig. As for the spawn of the old communists--show me one politician or diplomat in a position of power preferably living outside of Bulgaria who is not the spawn of some old communist pig. Starting with Irena Bokova, Sergey Stanishev and their ilk and ending with the Bai Tosho's grandchildren living in undeserved luxury on the stolen money of their parents and grandfather the communist pigs.

#36
DP - 17 Jul 2010 // 09:47:26

CJB,
Never mind. Found the comments you were addressing buried in a heap of spam...

#35
DP - 17 Jul 2010 // 09:32:39

CJB,

Are you talking to yourself or was a post-- or two-- deleted? Trying to follow the conversation on this topic.

Oh, well...Censorship seems to be alive and kicking around...:(

#34
CJB - 16 Jul 2010 // 21:55:20

"I think I should know the difference, thanks. The "sportists", while moneyed gained hardly any power outside of the power of intimidation."

Some of them gained a lot of power. For example, the TIM crew are very powerful businessmen controlling some key aspects of the Bulgarian economy. And what about Bate Boyko, the new Prime Minister, karate chopping bodyguard cop with dubious history during the transition...

"The Commies are the ones who control everything, even "mutrite". The "old guard" education sounds impressive in quantity but is laughable in quality. Their spawn, the ones who went to Ivy League schools with stolen money are definitely better educated and I have no clue about what they like and dislike."

It is impossible to avoid their kids in certain circles in Sofia. Many have taken on the attributes, and attitudes of the Western elites they were educated with. But the friends of their parents still know they are "one of us".

"It's dissident offspring like me who are completely embittered about the trash heap of Bulgarian culture."

This is entirely understandable. The situation is in no way fair or just, but it is the reality.

#33
CJB - 16 Jul 2010 // 21:40:40

"Huh? I beg your pardon? Now even the Mystery of Bulgarian Voices is a communist thing."

Are you trying to be deliberately naive or something? What planet were you on these past years?

"LOL Modern version? What's new in Mystery of Bulgarian Voices that is not present in "traditional" Bg folkmusic?"

Oh, maybe the huge organised choirs, the orchestration, the special compositions subsidised by the State, the national competitions, the world tours.....that kind of thing.

#32
DP - 16 Jul 2010 // 20:09:22

........continuation

“I never mentioned class, I just talked about education. ...... Chalga, or rather its prototype versions, existed underground and was suppressed exactly because it was "decadent", "lewd", "oriental", "gypsy", "low brow", "vulgar", insufficiently "Bulgarian": all the same critiques that "cultured and educated" Bulgarians use today!”

You never mentioned classes and this is the problem. In Communists Bulgaria under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat everything had to do with classes. Lewd, oriental, low brow, insufficiently Bulgarian did not mean much at the time. The meaning of any of those words did not translate into decadence. The only thing that mattered was the ideology. Decadence was applied only to describe Western culture (mainly the American). There was no emphasis on nationalism but on Internationalism. Lewd, vulgar are words related to morality. But in an atheistic society those terms used to have an arbitrary meaning. It was “immoral to dance rock and roll, but it was not immoral to kill an “enemy of the people”. And when speaking of cultured and educated people in Bulgaria one has to be very much aware of the mentality of the privileged communist offspring with purchased diploma and the offspring of the contemporary parvenu (the new rich). Cultured and well educated people in Bulgaria have lost its meaning long ago.

“I was not denying the beauty of traditional Bulgarian folklore, even its Communist inspired "operatic" modern version (eg. Mystery of Bulgarian Voices) is quite astonishingly wonderful. In fact it is some of the best "official art" that the Communist system produced, and Western musicians recognised it some time ago as excellent.”
Agreed.

#31
DP - 16 Jul 2010 // 20:05:32

CJB,

“The only difference between what Bulgarians call "banitsa" and what they call "byurek" is a few eggs. Really, this is splitting hairs! It is all variations on Turkish burek, whether you coil it in a spiral, bake it flat in squares or circles, cover it with sesame seeds, add some green leaves or meat, it really makes little difference. It is burek, sorry if this offends some leftover of 19th century Balkan nationalism which seekd to deny any Ottoman heritage.”

It is not splitting hairs when the difference is a few eggs, sesame seeds (totality missing in Bulgarian banitsa) green leaves and no meat. There is a thing called Zelnik prepared with mixture of cabbage, spinach and green onions. The banitsa you are mentioning is called “vita” but there is a banitsa made in layers and it has no meat in it. Only cheese (feta or the poor version is with “izvara”). As far as the origin being Ottoman I have no problem with it at all. I do not harbour any anti turkish feelings. You are barking at the wrong tree. However I am not sure about whose influences were in play: the Ottoman or if the Middle Eastern via Byzantine which culture was rather cosmopolitan or Greek.

“Again, this is just one viewpoint. There is also chalga which takes Greek, Macedonian, even Turkish rhythms and motifs. It is all a big mish-mash really.”

I was not arguing this point at all. I said the most prominent is the Gypsy’s but also includes other ethnic musical elements.

“Not really. The top echelons of the Communist cadres were often quite well educated, at least from 1960s onwards. They studied in Moscow or Leningrad, later on they sent their kids to Paris, Vienna, USA to buy Western education at the finest academies (stolen) money can buy. You can meet these people in Sofia or in the West; they are often involved in the arts or business.”

Mention one top echelons well educated personality. Moscow and Leningrad were not the centers of superior world class education. Too many of the sciences were pseudo and ridiculous, many rejected later. The only good scientists were in the specialties that had application in the space and arms race. No foreign students benefited by that. They had excellent spy schools though for training moles and international spies. That is another thing nobody can deny.
The Western Universities like Vienna and the Italian ones were already selling diplomas to Eastern Europeans before e 1944. I had a couple of those teaching me at MEI. The arts were stale and business didn’t really exist since everything was owned by the government. The case with Georgi Markov should remind you of the state of the art (WITHOUT FREEDOM THERE IS NO TRUE ART) and the only business was done in the foreign embassies by the spy- infested trade missions.

cont.....

#30
WickedWitch - 16 Jul 2010 // 15:06:23

"It's important to distinguish between former "sportists" who became gangsters and gained power during the transition, and the former Communist nomenklatura, some of whom have significant, if mysteriously obtained, wealth and are often well educated. Of course some of them lost out and are just useless relics with little money and no influence."

I think I should know the difference, thanks. The "sportists", while moneyed gained hardly any power outside of the power of intimidation. The Commies are the ones who control everything, even "mutrite". The "old guard" education sounds impressive in quantity but is laughable in quality. Their spawn, the ones who went to Ivy League schools with stolen money are definitely better educated and I have no clue about what they like and dislike.

It's dissident offspring like me who are completely embittered about the trash heap of Bulgarian culture.

#29
CJB - 16 Jul 2010 // 14:07:10

"Also, I am neither a communist nor the offspring of one. In fact, Commie spawn are the fat, track-suit clad faces you see tossing a gyubek in chalga clubs. So there you go."

It's important to distinguish between former "sportists" who became gangsters and gained power during the transition, and the former Communist nomenklatura, some of whom have significant, if mysteriously obtained, wealth and are often well educated. Of course some of them lost out and are just useless relics with little money and no influence.

Many of these former "elite" are the "cultured and educated" Bulgarians who despise chalga...

#28
CJB - 16 Jul 2010 // 13:52:48

"CJB,
Here you sound completely out of your depth."

I think not, maybe I did not explain the position sufficiently and you misinterpreted.

"Burek is not banitsa."

The only difference between what Bulgarians call "banitsa" and what they call "byurek" is a few eggs. Really, this is splitting hairs! It is all variations on Turkish burek, whether you coil it in a spiral, bake it flat in squares or circles, cover it with sesame seeds, add some green leaves or meat, it really makes little difference. It is burek, sorry if this offends some leftover of 19th century Balkan nationalism which seekd to deny any Ottoman heritage.

"Chalga didn't exist before and during communism"

This is debatable. There were musics very similar to Serbian turbo-folk in Bulgaria, which can be regarded as "proto-Chalga" and these were suppressed.

"there was no such an "orientalistic" chalga music that was suppressed during his time. Chalga is more closely related to the Gipsy's music and as such it existed for as long as gypsies were in Europe. ... But as far as Bulgarian music goes they were strictly ethnic and completely outside the mainstream of Bulgarian popular music. The chalga incorporates some of the Bulgarian ethnic music elements and is uniquely Bulgarian and new. Like it or not."

Again, this is just one viewpoint. There is also chalga which takes Greek, Macedonian, even Turkish rhythms and motifs. It is all a big mish-mash really.

"Another point: Educated and cultured communists and their offspring is an oxymoron."

Not really. The top echelons of the Communist cadres were often quite well educated, at least from 1960s onwards. They studied in Moscow or Leningrad, later on they sent their kids to Paris, Vienna, USA to buy Western education at the finest academies (stolen) money can buy. You can meet these people in Sofia or in the West, they are often involved in the arts or business.

"Where did you get this ridiculous idea that peasants and proletariat were disdainful upper class--cultured and educated?"

I never mentioned class, I just talked about education.

"Village people had their regional songs and dance music that has a beauty well appreciated all over the world by professional musicians. And it was promoted by the Communist's Government. Nobody can deny that."

I was not denying the beauty of traditional Bulgarian folklore, even its Communist inspired "operatic" modern version (eg. Mystery of Bulgarian Voices) is quite astonishingly wonderful. In fact it is some of the best "official art" that the Communist system produced, and Western musicians recognised it some time ago as excellent.

Chalga, or rather its prototype versions, existed underground and was suppressed exactly because it was "decadent", "lewd", "oriental", "gypsy", "low brow", "vulgar", insufficiently "Bulgarian": all the same critiques that "cultured and educated" Bulgarians use today!

#27
WickedWitch - 16 Jul 2010 // 13:39:00

Also, I am neither a communist nor the offspring of one. In fact, Commie spawn are the fat, track-suit clad faces you see tossing a gyubek in chalga clubs. So there you go.

#26
WickedWitch - 16 Jul 2010 // 13:36:58

"hence maybe why the "educated and cultured" (ie. Communists or their offspring) regard it with disdain!"

Nope. I can appreciate a wide variety of music in a wide variety of genre but not chalga.

The reason is because it rarely has any artistic value at all. Instead, it mainly serves to promote vapidity, superficial consumerism and a culture which rewards those without any merit or effort.

At the same time, as an entertainment form (however crude), it is simple, hedonistic and repetitive enough to allow people to give themselves to uncomplicated, reptilian-brain emotions with abandon. A need which I can understand, given the social conditions in Bulgaria. So I don't begrudge them their little pleasures.

But good chalga ain't. At its best, it's just campy - self-aware kitsch.

#25
DP - 16 Jul 2010 // 12:04:42

"It's the same with chalga, there are similiar musics across the Baslkans, this is just the BG variant. Oh, and it was suppressed by Bai Tosho as "orientalist", around the same time he was forcing Bulgarian Turks to change their names, hence maybe why the "educated and cultured" (ie. Communists or their offspring) regard it with disdain!"

CJB,
Here you sound completely out of your depth.

As far as your example about banitsa goes: Burek is not banitsa. It is more like tutmanik. There are different names for similar foods/dishes all over the Balkans that are regional and not national.

Chalga didn't exist before and during communism, and even though you are right that Bai Tosho was a hypocrite, there was no such an "orientalistic" chalga music that was suppressed during his time. Chalga is more closely related to the Gipsy's music and as such it existed for as long as gypsies were in Europe. They have influence on Russian music and very heavy influence on the Hungarian music. But as far as Bulgarian music goes they were strictly ethnic and completely outside the mainstream of Bulgarian popular music. The chalga incorporates some of the Bulgarian ethnic music elements and is uniquely Bulgarian and new. Like it or not.

Another point: Educated and cultured communists and their offspring is an oxymoron. Privileged peasants and proletarians is the word. Bie ti Tosho ruled a nation under the system of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Where did you get this ridiculous idea that peasants and proletariat were disdainful upper class--cultured and educated? Village people had their regional songs and dance music that has a beauty well appreciated all over the world by professional musicians. And it was promoted by the Communist's Government. Nobody can deny that.

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