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.