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Bulgaria’s Chalga Music


“Tonight you will experience Chalga,” said Vladimir Kisiev, as we walked sedately towards the centre of Smolyan.
“Chalga?” queried the ignorant Englishman.
“Oh yes, Chalga,” said Ivelina Metchkarova. “Something very special.”
“What is this Chalga?” enquired the still-mystified Briton.
“Music,” replied Georgi Shopov, with not a small degree of enthusiasm.
Miss Metchkarova and Mr. Kisiev looked at one another. “Perhaps…” they added.

Our destination that balmy August evening was Top Stars, the pulsating heart of Smolyan’s nightlife, a discotechque straight out of the Eighties with prices to match. There the local gallants and their girls donned fake Manchester United tops, jeans and short skirts and danced the night away to a strange mixture of Western pop and this aforementioned Chalga.

“It’s terrible isn’t it?” asked Ivelina, several double vodkas later. The song playing at that particular moment was a fast-moving gypsy melody with what sounded like some Greek influences. The lyrics were all in Bulgarian barring the chorus which was English and consisted of ‘Sexy! Sexy! Sexy!’ It was undoubtedly one of the cheesiest tracks that I’d ever heard in my life.

“Actually, I rather like it,” was my reply. Ivelina sighed in exasperation. So did Vladimir. Georgi Shopov however, beamed.

And so went my introduction to Chalga.

Of course, Chalga was something that even if I had never visited the palatial confines of Smolyan’s Top Stars, I was always going to encounter. No visitor to Bulgaria can escape it. Wherever one goes, it’s there, blaring from the taxi radio, deafening customers in the coffee shop, lulling early morning bus commuters into a troubled sleep, blasting out of classroom windows at break times and of course filling the disco dancefloors. No one who has been anywhere near Bulgaria is unfamiliar with this phenomenon. Whether they like it or not is another matter entirely. But the question that should first be asked of course, is what is Chalga?

The word ‘Chalga’ comes from the Turkish word ‘Çalg4’(pronounced ‘Chalguh’), which means ‘playing’ or ‘music’ and comes itself from Arabic. As the word suggests, the tradition came from the East and is not of Slavic origin. Indeed, the movement is derived from the art of the chalgazhia, a type of musician, normally a Tsigani, who could play virtually any type of music, but added his own distinctive beat or rhythm to the song. Often a chalgazhia would not be able to read music, but instead played from memory on his caval, (similar to an oboe). Playing in groups at festivals or weddings, these chalgazhia were the start of the Chalga story.

Throughout the communist years however, this genre of music was not looked upon favourably. The reasons behind this were manifold. Such simple peasant music had no real place in a go-ahead, forward-looking, modern socialist state, and when Zhivkov decided in the 1980s to steer a more nationalistic tack, such Eastern-originated traditions were of course looked down on, as inferior to those with more purely Slavic roots. What’s more Chalga also came with a provocative hip-shaking dance and at times lewd lyrics, and thus its morality as well as its origins was dubious. One also suspects that as an art form predominantly practiced and developed by the Tsigani, then a little racial discrimination also perhaps played its part.

But whilst Chalga was looked down on and discouraged in Bulgaria, in neighbouring Yugoslavia, which operated a much more flexible form of socialism, the genre flourished, and so whilst this ‘pop-folk’ was not played on Bulgarian radio stations, millions still managed to listen to it on stations broadcast from Serbia. It was not only the Yugoslavians either. In Greece, Syrtaki, a fusion of modern pop and Greek traditional dances and melodies, (who is not familiar with the strains of ‘Zorba the Greek’?), was becoming massively popular. In Turkey too, a similar situation was emerging.

And then came 1989. The regime fell, restrictions were lifted and a culture of corruption, fast money, gangsters and new freedoms took hold. A culture that provided the perfect breeding ground for Chalga. Chalga tunes, now played on all stations and available to all on cheap pirated tapes and CDs  swept the nation. A new generation of scantily-clad and sexy superstars took centre-stage, performing songs that could have landed them in gaol but a year before. Lyrics concerning gun-running, gangsterism and of course, sex were the order of the day, danced to across the nation in new folkteki, (folk discos). The Chalga Era had arrived.

Most followers consider the movement to have reached its peak around 1998-9. By then countless others had followed the ‘Mother of Chalga’, Ruse-born Gloria, onto the scene, with pop-folk legends Tsvetilina, Kamelia, (and now the men) Valdez and Kondyo all becoming household names, with several recording studios, headed by the redoubtable Payner pumping out a steady stream of tracks every week. The government, under the influence of the European Big Brother, had launched definite campaigns cracking down on CD piracy and tightening up its copyright laws of which Chalga had always been a notorious offender.  What’s more, as with everything, tastes change. New freedoms became older and less interesting and free sex less of an event. Western Pop, as well as the works of other Bulgarian musicians, both traditional and those exploring new avenues, (most notably its rap scene, headed by the Dope Reach Squad – Dobrich is their home town and they like dope, gettit?), and the ever-popular bald, middle-of-the-road TV favourite Slavi Trifonov, pushing in on Chalga’s market share. By the advent of the new millennium, the Chalga star was beginning to wane.

Nonetheless, even today, Chalga lives on, probably as Bulgaria’s most listened to form of music, and the mainstay of many a party and disco. And the signs are that that is not likely to change for a long time to come.

But that’s just the outline to it al. I wish to tell you about my personal Journey with Chalga. After that initial encounter in Top Stars, I became an addict, acquiring new CDs and tapes with every visit to Bulgaria, and pestering the Bulgarians abroad to keep me up-to-date with events in the Chalga Scene.

That I, foreign and educated, enjoyed Chalga, became a source of amusement and not a small degree of puzzlement to my Bulgarian friends. Their attitudes at first perplexed me also. “But how can you like Chalga?” asked Miss Metchkarova. Virtually any Bulgarian educated past eighteen echoed her comments. Only the village yokels seemed to share my enthusiasm. Well, to answer their questions, I liked Chalga because it is happy, lively and brilliant to dance to. What’s more, it does not take itself too seriously, or indeed, is it remotely serious at all. Not that I mind serious and thought-provoking tunes from time to time. Quite the contrary in fact, as my CD collection will attest, but some people do take their music far too seriously. And there are times when a little light-hearted fun must take precedence. After all, walk into a wedding disco and one does not want to hear Leonard Cohen or Radiohead.

However, it was not Chalga’s light-heartedness that captured me back on that steamy eve in Top Stars, but something else entirely. And that something was its Bulgarianess. For once here was a country not shunning its own distinct musical traditions for a bland imitation of Western Pop, (or Rock, Reggae, R ‘n’ B, Rap…). For once here was something different, unique and entirely homegrown. That more than anything else earned my admiration.

Now of course, even before I wrote that last paragraph down, I knew well the response that it would elicit. Chalga – Bulgarian! A development of our own distinctive musical traditions?! Why no, Mr. Pointon, you are mistaken! Very much so! Yes, we have our own folk music, and very good it is too, (Did you know that we had a folk song sent into space? ). But this folk music is not Chalga! Chalga is not Bulgarian! It is Eastern, Serbian, it is Oriental and (worst of all, horror of horrors), it is Gypsy!

Well yes my learned friends, (and the ones who come out with such comments are always learned), you are entirely correct. Or at least you are entirely correct if you classify Bulgarian culture as being entirely Slavic. Chalga is no natural progression of ‘Iovano, Iovanche’ or even ‘Kalinka’. It has Slavic elements perhaps, but purely Slavic it is definitely not. But there again, has Bulgarian ever been purely Slavic? Look at Bulgaria solely as a land of the Slavs and then yes, you are right, Chalga is alien. However, if you view her instead as a land where Gypsy, Slav and Turk have intermingled for centuries, and as a country that has repeatedly borrowed the folk melodies and dances of its Balkan neighbours, (as well as exported them, it must also be noted), since time began, and then a different picture is revealed. As a movement that involves members of all of Bulgaria’s races, (over half of Chalga stars are Slavic), and works in conjunction with similar traditions in all of the countries that border her, (though most notably Greece and Serbia), then I’m sorry, but in my mind, Chalga is very much Bulgarian, if not the essence of Bulgarianess.

‘But Mr. Pointon, no offence, but you’re just an ignorant foreigner. If you just understood the lyrics of the songs then you’d realise how bad Chalga is. They’re so dumb!’ Well, yes, at times they are. Some are in fact monumentally dumb as well as being monumentally cheesy. They are stupid and they are often lewd. Just read the English transcript at the end of this essay of ‘Tez cherveni domati’ (‘Those Red Tomatoes’), and you’ll see that they have a point. However, most of the songs are not that bad. 2002’s big hits were ‘Obicham te’ (‘I love you’), and ‘Pogledni me vuf ochite’ (‘Gaze into my eyes’), neither earth-shatteringly stupid, nor particularly different from most of the pop songs out there. And besides, since when have folk songs been deep and meaningful. Examining the British and Irish tradition, I find more lyrics dedicated to sex, romance and drinking than aught else. Ireland’s most famous track, ‘The Wild Rover’ concerns a man who returns home after years of playing the field, and ‘Maggie May’, Liverpool’s most famous folk song, concerns an encounter with a prostitute in that fair city and is lyrically much more comparable with Chalga than Wordsworth.

No, instead I find the lyrics of Chalga fascinating. They are tales of village life, (‘The village bath, ahhh! Great feeling!’), peasant love, (‘Come to the glade, just like this, the two of us. Come on, take off your clothes, let’s wade into the river.’), fast money, (‘Money, money, money, life is money, and cool women.’), and gangsters, (‘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!’).  They tell of insecurity, fleeting happiness, formerly forbidden pleasures, smuggling and a criminal lifestyle. In other words, they could only come from Bulgaria, and they could only belong to this fascinating and fast-changing period in Bulgaria’s history. I suspect that in years to come, the country’s anthropologists will collect and treasure them.

And the videos too! Oh, one has to mention the videos! With Chalga the song is but half the story. The first Chalga video that I ever experienced was ‘Sto Metsedesa’ (‘A Hundred Mercedes’) by Tsvetilina. It was a masterpiece of low budget production. The beautiful Tsveta, (clad in the standard Chalga uniform of a very short skirt and very high heels), sings of how she wishes to own a hundred Mercedes Benzes against a computer-generated backdrop of unparalleled awfulness and cheapness; a sea of vivid colours that would not have looked out of place at a mid-nineties rave with Mercedes Benz symbols rolling past. Then our heroine gets to drive a Mercedes herself, whilst winking and showing a bit of leg to the camera. Except that they obviously couldn’t afford to hire one of those fine German automobiles even for a day, and so instead our smiling Chalga Diva goes to a Mercedes garage and climbs in and out of the cars in the showroom, (an activity which the cameraman utilises to maximum short skirt advantage), before finally selecting one and driving off… into the garage forecourt.

And A Hundred Mercedes is not a one off. Chalga videos are a dreamland of awful outfits, hairstyles and gesturing that only Eastern Europe could produce.  Witness Valentin Valdez and his shoot-out in ‘Zhega Zhega’, (using toy guns), or the almost unbelievably eighties spectacle of ‘Tak, Tiki, Tak’, a song so Eurovision Song Contest-esque that no comedian could have parodied it better, and you’ll see what I mean. No please, heed my advice. I you visit Bulgaria only once in your life, and if on that trip you buy but one souvenir, then please, please, make it a Chalga video collection.  You will not be disappointed!

No, the world of Chalga is one that should be explored. Take yourself off to a folkteka and learn to dance kyuchek, (Turkish belly-dancing). I visited one with Martin Marinov, a self-proclaimed King of Chalga, and undoubtedly a mine of information on the genre. The secret apparently, is to move every part of your body at the same time, including of course, the stomach, (thus being probably the only form of dance where it helps to have a beer gut), perhaps holding one’s arms out in front of oneself, clicking your fingers in time to the music.

I managed to sample folkteki in Vidin, Blagoevgrad and Stara Zagora, but my favourite was of course Bulgari, Varna’s premier folk-pop venue. Now the term folkteka is usually translated into English as ‘Chalga disco’, but that label is not entirely accurate for it is more a cross between a disco and a mekhana, (taverna). Our visits to Bulgari always started sat with friends around a large table consuming a glorious salad and downing copious quantities of rakiya or beer, whilst listening to a Chalga beat, (often provided by a live band), and watching sexy kyuchek dancers. As the night progresses one starts to tap one’s feet and click one’s fingers before getting up and dancing stood on the chairs and tables. Finally, we move to the dance floor for a kyuchek boogie which acts as a fitting conclusion to the night’s entertainments.

My most memorable evening in Bulgaria however, came in the Spring of 2003 when Plamen Atanasov, Kate Matthams and I visited to watch a performance by Azis, one of the biggest names in Chalga at the time. For a long time I had wanted to watch a real Chalga star live, but alas my regular drinking companions, Messers Marinov and Petkov, were firmly in the Anti-Chalga camp and I didn’t fancy going alone. However, when I heard that Azis was playing, I knew that this was not an opportunity to miss. Now Azis is far from being my favourite Chalga star, but I knew that his live show would be worth the effort. Azis is a Muslim Tsigani who shot to fame with as a bisexual, cross-dressing and outlandish stage personality. In a country that still has serious attitude problems when it comes to homosexuality, (before 1989 it was illegal), let alone towards the Tsigani, I considered his rise remarkable and a strong indicator of just how far Bulgaria has come since the regime change. Azis, with his died blonde hair and beard, cat’s eyes contact lenses, flamboyant costumes and enormous flabby figure was a showman of the first degree.

Not that we noticed much. By the time that he appeared we were all four sheets to the wind and in no state to appreciate even a bad performer, let alone the country’s finest. But we danced kyuchek, enjoyed our salad, enjoyed the alcohol even more, and at the end of the night got a photo with the man/woman him/herself in the background. And in my reckoning, life doesn’t get much better than that.

So that’s it. Listen not to the intelligent and educated Bulgarians who deride this peasant/Tsigani/stupid form of entertainment. Instead gather some friends, a fine carafe of rakiya, a mouth-watering salad and turn up the CD player. Get up on your table, click your fingers, move every part of your body, feel proud of that beer belly and then kiss the person next to you, be it a scantily-clad, bad perm-sporting young maiden, or an overweight, transvestite Gypsy. It’s a pleasure that’s divine and one that can only be had in Bulgaria.

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