With its influences from East and West and local interpretations of global musical trends, Bulgarian music offers a great insight into Bulgarian culture and even daily life. Indeed, it may be possible to illustrate much of Bulgaria’s recent history through individual songs, which is a feat even classic Bulgarian films may struggle with!
From a Bulgarian song that’s travelling in outer space right now to the embarrassingly nonsensical Balkan madness of chalga, kashkaval tourist and Ivan Tabakov present 8 iconic songs that defined Bulgarian music!
1. Todor Kolev – Cherno More (Black Sea)
An actor, singer and comedian, Todor Kolev was a leading figure in Bulgarian entertainment for decades. His personal attitude and quirky vocal interjections contributed to him building a trademark style that nobody has been able to replicate after his death. Truth be told, few artists have managed to enchant the masses the same way he used to do.
One of Shumen-born Todor Kolev’s classic hits has to be Black Sea, the merry tale of a transport worker who goes for holiday on the seaside. Enjoying the sun and sea, the character wishes his wife thought he had drowned so that he can enjoy his holiday time forever!
2. Valya Balkanska – Izlel e Delyo haydutin (Delyu the Outlaw has Gone Out)
A folk song from the mystical Rhodope region, Delyu the Outlaw has Gone Out does a great job of revealing the often incredible vocal properties of traditional Bulgarian singing. Dedicated to a semi-legendary freedom fighter against the Ottomans, this folk song sung to the accompaniment of bagpipes rose to international prominence in 1977.
At the time, a version performed by folk singer Valya Balkanska was sent into deep space as part of the Golden Record on board the two Voyager spacecraft. To this day, Bulgarians like to imagine aliens enjoying this piece of Bulgarian folk music and getting inspired to invade our dear planet Earth.
3. Wickeda – Bobby
A ska punk band with considerable Balkan influences, Wickeda’s claim to fame was the mid-90s cult song Bobby. A satirical look at the disheartening and futureless state of Bulgarian youth at the time, the song is devoted to unemployment and miserable pay, the everyday problems of the Bulgarian 90s.
In Wickeda’s trademark style, however, one can find comfort in the little things: “the sky, the stars and a cup of coffee”. Though “full throttle and off to Hawaii” wouldn’t be a bad solution, either! Throughout the 90s and 2000s, Wickeda would go on to produce a whole lot of other hit songs, including Ivan, Marianna, Memories and their very own medley of Hey Jude.
4. Poduene Blues Band – Nyama bira (There’s No Beer)
Formed in 1989, the year when Bulgaria did away with communism, the Poduene Blues Band was one of the most eminent acts in the rough transitional period to democracy. Headlined by the colourful figure of Vasko The Patch (Vasko Krapkata), this blues rock band was a regular feature on the mass demonstrations that seemed to accompany all major events happening in the country.
The Poduene Blues Band’s 90s blues hits like Let There Be Light and Communism is Going Away are among the anthems of Bulgaria’s recent history. The seemingly more light-hearted There’s No Beer points to where the masses would seek solace during these hard times. And what happens when “there’s no beer”? As Vasko would say: “My heart literally stops!”
5. Hipodil – Bate Goyko (Big Brother Gojko)
Founded in 1988 and named after nothing else but an imaginary cross between a hippo and a crocodile, Hipodil were perhaps the quintessential Bulgarian punk rock band. Their ex-singer, Svetlyo Vitkov, is a cult figure in the Bulgarian alternative scene… and beyond. He won 1.6% of the votes in Bulgaria’s last presidential election in 2011!
One of Hipodil’s most famous songs has to be Big Brother Gojko, inspired by unforgettable Serbian actor Gojko Mitić’s countless roles in 60s East German Westerns (or rather, Easterns!). In most of these films based on Karl May’s novels Mitić plays the lead role of the good Indian, like Winnetou or Osceola, giving him the image of a Rambo-like tough guy in Bulgarian culture.
6. FSB – Sled deset godini (Ten Years Later)
Formation Studio Balkanton (FSB): that’s the name of one of the most representative and indeed experimental Bulgarian progressive rock bands. Founded as early as 1975, FSB began as a cover band, and few fans realize that their 1977 hit song Ten Years Later is a cover of a piece by Italian act Le Orme. Indeed, FSB only began composing their original songs from 1979 on, with anthems like Obicham te dotuk (I Love You Until This Point) from 1987 and Visoko (High) from 1989.
It may be a cover, but Ten Years Later has defined Bulgarian culture in that it’s the classic song to be played at prom nights all over the country, with graduating high schoolers promising each other that “we’ll meet again in ten years”.
7. Upsurt – Kolega (Colleague)
Undoubtedly one of Bulgaria’s favourite hip-hop acts, Upsurt were formed back in 1996 by a group of childhood friends from Sofia. As such, the band likes to rap in Sofia’s characteristic dialect of Bulgarian, often making fun of the dialect employed by rival artists like Misho Shamara of Bulgaria’s East Side.
Upsurt’s lyrics are usually a critique of the deep-rooted problems in Bulgarian society, including corruption, the class divide and the absurdity of chalga-dominated popular culture. Their 2005 single Colleague ranks perhaps among their most famous songs and its biting lyrics expose the dark sides of life in Bulgaria.
8. Milko Kalaydzhiev – Kade si, batko? (Where Are You, Big Daddy?)
A huge retro pop folk (chalga) hit from the 90s, Where Are You, Big Daddy? exemplifies the massive wave of Balkan rhythms and ridiculous lyrics that seemed to dominate Bulgarian popular music at the time. And while we may not be proud of it, chalga, with its catchy melodies and sexual references remains the preferred choice of the Bulgarian lower classes.
Now, Roma chalga icon Milko Kalaydzhiev may be a Nikola Tesla lookalike, but his lyrics are far away from the genius of the Serbian inventor. Yet his humorous style and moustached playboy appearance have earned him a place in Bulgaria’s pop folk music pantheon… which is a place I truly hope doesn’t exist!