Project Tursislava 1/8/09
Most people who know me are familiar with my enduring obsession with Bulgarian pop-folk music. Though my enthusiasm for the actual music has waned in direct proportion to the worsening of the songs over time, I am still fixated on the social and cultural implications of the music as any good ethnomusicologist would be. But I am not a good ethnomusicologist as the last sort of work I did was in the late 80s when the field was entirely different. Now I’m just a fan and a wannabe.
Three years ago I decided I was going to become a chalga (pop folk) singer despite my inability to sing, speak Bulgarian, weigh 90 lbs, or afford lip injections. This year I conceived of a documentary project which would follow my journey from ordinary (not an entirely accurate description) American woman to glamorous (not an entirely accurate description) pop-folk singer. In the process, the film would uncover the history and controversial nature of chalga in evolving Bulgarian culture and identity. In other words—it would be great! I would only have to line up a filmmaker who would be in charge of the film and I would set about finding a Bulgarian tutor, a singing teacher, and someone to advise me on the best way to go about breaking into the industry. I found a Bulgarian filmmaker who seemed great, but then disappeared in typical Bulgarian fashion without explanation.
In the meantime, I was introduced to an amazing doctoral candidate who is also researching chalga. He is living in Sofia with his Bulgarian wife (who is equally amazing in her field of Ottoman History) and their adorable child. He has been working within the pop-folk industry as a photographer for a record firm and rubbing elbows, getting to know all the stars, and hanging out at the video shoots and chalga clubs. We had been communicating by email and skype and then it occurred to me that while I was visiting Istanbul it would be easy for me to just go up to Sophia and meet him in person and maybe take in a little chalga. Woo hoo!
My friend Julie in Istanbul has heard me chatter rabidly about chalga since we met, but really didn’t grasp it’s importance socially and artistically. Now she would get her chance as she had recently made the decision to visit all of the countries bordering Turkey at least once before she moved away. (Her goal lacks a sense of urgency, as she has no plans to live elsewhere!) So she decided to accompany me to neighboring Bulgaria. We arrived to a Sofia in the midst of a blizzard. It snowed every minute we were there and it covered the town with a virginal blanket which actually rendered it beautiful. Eran, the chalga expert met us at the Central Train Station, which still has not been able to warm up enough in the two years of EU membership to stop feeling like the Gulag. It does pleasingly boast a colossal Soviet-era wall decoration resembling a montage of aluminum cookie cutters, which runs the length of the main lobby.
As I have visited Sofia numerous times, I wasn’t shocked by the cold, the stench of coal and diesel exhaust, by the only noise being that of motorized vehicles, as Bulgarians tend to be pretty taciturn in public. I would have liked to have looked out of the windows of the bus we took to Eran’s apartment in order to orient myself in space, but as it were the windows of the unheated transport were coated with a crust of smog, salt, dried slush and condensation. Along the way I recounted to Eran and Julie the story of my first visit to Bulgaria and my introduction to chalga music. I was not embarrassed to admit that after watching my first video on Fen TV, I spent the next consecutive 72 hours on the couch of my friend, Matthew (who has done a piece for the BBC about Azis,) riveted to the television and all of its chalga channels: Planeta, Fen, Kral (from Turkey), Pink (from Serbia). I couldn’t get enough of the wild juxtaposition of traditional folk arts and euro-trashy synthesizer music sung by gyrating strippers. It was too much. And over those many hours—which extended into a couple of months—Matthew told me about how although polls say 55% of Bulgarians prefer chalga to any other music, one could probably only find 4% who would admit to it. And the information sessions extended further into discussions about Bulgarian culture, national identity, history, socio-cultural problems and ethnic bigotry—all of which can be examined using chalga as a lens.
And the first thing Eran did when we got to his apartment is flip on the TV. After about 3 videos Julie confessed, “I can completely see how you could watch this for days.” It was interesting to hear from another person how when I played the music for her without the aid of visuals, she really didn’t care for it. But after watching videos full of women with the worst imaginable hair extensions, grotesque plastic enhancements, and tacky clothes singing against a backdrop of sets displaying the next generation of ‘socio-lux’ design, her fascination began to build.
After a couple of days watching videos in the family’s apartment and engaging in conversations about theory and strategy, we were ready to go see a live chalga show in a club. Since it was right after the holidays, when most people are still with their families, we didn’t have such a great selection of ‘stars’ to choose from. In fact, the only chalga singer performing while we were there was “Andrea’, of was I was not familiar. After seeing the show I’m certain she will not be entering the pantheon of stars with a long shelf-life.
When I find the words with which to describe this experience, I will try to do it justice. Until then, I will be plotting here how to best approach this documentary project given the new information I’ve gleaned from this visit. As I type this on the plane, hovering over the Atlantic, my hope is to somehow find a voice sage enough, entertaining enough, analytical enough, and penetrating enough to do justice to the subject. And to look good in a shiny metallic bikini, clear-heeled rhinestone-encrusted stilettos, and lip injections.