From 15 to 31 March 2000, Sofia was host to a vast musical scene that set youth life in the Bulgarian capital virtually on fire. With guest bands and DJs from Macedonia, Poland, Great Britain, France, Columbia and Venezuela, the festival was one of the rare events in Bulgaria which brought together "popular" music performers from different genres. Music lovers thronged to a number of Sofia night clubs and the Palace of Culture.
For ten days, the club scene in Sofia saw a bricolage of the most famous Bulgarian "yellow bands" such as Weekeda, Animacionerite, Blueba Loo and other well-established bands including Signal, Akaga and BTR. There were also guest bands and performers from abroad such as Infinity Bobby's Band (Poland), Transglobal Underground (UK), DJ Nelson Dilation (UK), VJ Sheikh AD Helik (UK) and Galaspace (UK).
A joint performance by Java French House Diego Drum 'n' Voice was also held in All Saints Club, where musicians from Bulgaria, France, Columbia and Venezuela came up with a well-prepared trans-national musical programme which definitely fascinated the clubbers with original generic combinations and stylistic creativity.
Perhaps the most interesting and revealing aspect of the festival was a live performance by Anastasia and Isihia in the Palace of Culture, which was a good example of a recent trend in the popular tastes of Bulgarian youth. This trend may be called "Balkan conservatism," or in terms of musical preferences, as having "high cultural" allegiances, the latter view being confirmed by Steve Vai's concert in Sofia shortly after the festival ended.
The originality of their music comes perhaps from the utilization of indigenous acoustic traditional and regional instruments such as kavali (modified flutes), gaidi (Balkan bagpipes), tapani (drum-like instruments), as well as high-tech computers, samplers and synthesizers - certainly an interesting blend of Balkan heritage and Western technological progress.
Indeed, the expectations of those who went to Anastasia's concert on 18 March at the Palace of Culture were very much in accordance with what they have heard in Pred doždot - quality Macedonian (if not Balkan) folk music with Christian Orthodox and other ethnic overtones, perfected by the use of "new technologies."
However, with this performance, few audience expectations were met. Since 1995, Anastasia seems to have changed radically. Despite the visual presence of Balkan instruments, Anastasia's music at this concert was virtually all electronically produced and completely lacking in regional folk music virtuosity.
The original production of cross-musical and stylistic experimentation seemed to have given way to a single techno-dominated orientation which surprised, if not shocked, the majority of the approximately four thousand young people who attended the concert. Some of the audience, themselves techno fans, were not convinced of the necessity of a regional group trying to reproduce the Western techno-based styles with which the Bulgarian clubs, as well as other East European club scenes, are practically flooded.
To be fair, however, the group made it very clear that they would not perform traditional music. In an interview with 24 Hours' Nadezhda Nenova a couple of days before the concernt, Goran Trajkovski was asked about the band's typical audience. He replied:
They cannot be classified in a definite group. There are a lot of young people who come to our concerts out of curiosity. Others come led by the desire to learn something new. Yet others are not in their youth but come to enjoy the music. However, we are not a typical Macedonian group, and if people in Bulgaria expect to hear from us typical Macedonian folklore, they will be disappointed.
Indeed, it seems that the audience were disappointed, not because they did not hear traditional folklore, but because they did not hear folklore at all. The use of tapani, kavali and mandolini alongside the computer-generated rhythms did not enthuse the majority of the audience who were already transported to "another world" by the Bulgarian warm-up group that played before Anastasia.
This group, the eight member ensemble Isihia, also combines the "modern" sound with canonical Christian-Slavic singing, but without computer generated modifications. Their music can be said to be a mixture of Bulgarian folk motifs with the Isihistic sound of Christian church song. The result is perhaps what many have called "the mysticism of the Balkan spirit." Just like Anastasia, Isihia has borrowed its name from the Greek language, the two names deriving from the words "resurrection" and "wordlessness" (muteness) respectively.
In an interview after the concert, founding group member and vocalist Evgeni Nikolov explained to 24 Hours that
With Isihia we make an allusion to the eighteenth century, when Isihasm was the most wide-spread religious movement in Bulgaria and Byzantium. Our aim is to recreate the atmosphere of the purest form of Christianity, that is Isihasm, when the Balkans were under Ottoman threat. The only things that mattered then were internal peace, the richness of the spirit and the preservation of everything non-material... It is this that the Bulgarians need at the moment to keep our faith. Our inspiration comes from the historical baggage Bulgarians carry with themselves. The making of our music in this very moment is not only interesting but necessary.
Bringing the past back
Although it is difficult to make any comparison between the old Ottoman-enslaved and the present-day Bulgaria in terms of potential "foreign threat," the reference Isihia makes to the country's historical-cultural baggage in their message to the young musical audience of Bulgaria is indicative of how important the regional and national past is to the creation and recreation of musical tastes and preferences.
Contrary to some expectations that Bulgarian folk music is "the music of our great-grandparents," it seems that both young musicians and young music fans look on it as a meaningful resource for youthful life. It also has a value that is perhaps even higher than the latest musical innovations coming from Western trends and high-tech developments in sound production.
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Indeed, the club scene in Sofia can be seen as a barometer, albeit only one, of general popular tastes among the young in Bulgaria. Although the musical diversity is in itself rich, it seems that the scene is also quite selective, favouring high quality performances. It is not surprising then, that Anastasia, although going beyond "conservative" folk and techno music genres, met such a strong wave of resistance among Bulgarian youth.
It seems that youth tastes are far ahead of "chaotic" generic music and style experimentation, and young people can also adopt a critical position when someone transgresses the boundaries of established Balkan "classics," as well as the high-tech productions that are completely different in style and message.
Music from another world
This tendency of aspiring towards high-quality "style" and musical productions was further reinforced by a solo guitar performance by American rock star Steve Vai that took place on 17 April, shortly after the end of the Music and Film Festival. Vai's concert in the Palace of Culture attracted far more young people from Bulgaria and its neighbouring countries than the concert hall could hold.
Being at the concert and mixing with the audiences afterward, one could see the exhilaration of everyone there. The superlatives heard from the concert goers ranged from "the best rock musician" to comments about his music being "unearthly" and "coming from Space."
The experiences of Anastasia, Isihia and Steve Vai thus explore the argument that Bulgarian youth are currently characterized by what I have called "Balkan conservatism" in musical preferences and tend to prioritise in their tastes what has been proven to be of "high quality" in world music. These two tendencies, although seemingly contradictory, coexist well together and are perhaps a reflection of a wider tendency among world youth to either be half-open to globalising trends in music while staying highly selective towards recognized quality, or to come up with cultural resistance mediated through faithfulness to local folk or foreign-but-reworked musical developments.
Apostol Apostolov, 29 May 2000
The author is grateful to Miroslav Gadgovski for invaluable media information on SMFF and Steve Vai's concert.
Also of interest:
- Miroslav Gadgovski's review of film at the 4th Sofia Film and Music Fest
- May it Fill Your Soul: Sue Bagust talks to ethnomusicologist and author Timothy Rice about Bulgarian folk music
- The Sofia Music and Film Fest website
- Sofia Music Enterprises (The Fest's organisers)
- CER's archived articles on Bulgaria