Bulgaria Travel Report

Three days into my charter tourist life I had to escape. By contrast, the mid-size port city of Burgas seemed a small heaven.

To be fair, the corresponding hell wasn't our resort of Novi Nessebar, but the amoebic mass encroaching on it from the north. Sunny Beach, Bulgaria's biggest tourist destination, is a particularly awful result of the post-communist era, combining tumorous growth and rotting decay in one package of commercial monstrosity. The frequent comparisons to some kind of ghetto aren't too far off, and it's far from being a counterghetto - a portion of the working class of another country is shipped off to an almost hermetically sealed area, where they're ruthlessly exploited by the locals. The tourists hate their hosts, and the hosts hate the tourists.

So at first I thought my compulsion to escape to the city was a class issue - I've grown up doing city trips with my parents - but I'm thinking maybe it's mostly a rural vs urban thing. As a big-city boy, a lot of my street-smartness (hipness, if you will) is built on being able to read my environment, being able to tell by semiotic signs where to go, where to shop and where to eat. Bereft of choice, like in the tourist zone, I feel awful. By contrast the rural people I travelled with had no qualms about eating at the one, expensive restaurant and shopping at the first store they come across - that's what their village life is like, too. (Their wisdom, of course, lies elsewhere.)

Once I'd gone and come back, I actually ended up finding the cool places in Nessebar, too - they were just disguised as tourist traps, or hidden far from the beach. In general, I ended up enjoying myself a lot, the food was great, the sea was beautiful and Bulgaria an interesting country.

There was one thing that really shocked me though, and that was the role of the Roma. In both Sweden and Hungary, they're grossly discriminated against and treated extremely badly, but Bulgaria with Europe's largest romani population takes it to a whole other level. The segregation is utterly complete, with the Roma forming an untouchable caste doing only the most menial jobs - street sweeping, unskilled manual labour, begging - and eating at separate restaurants, living in separate areas, never interacting with the rest of the population. In the entire time I didn't meet a single shop keeper of romani origin.

Which makes it all the more interesting that the roma have so big a part in Bulgarian music. In what seems to be yet another perverse countercultural marginalisation thing, the bulgarians have completely adopted (a mainstream version of) romani pop music as their favoured musical style.

This "new" kind of Roma-influenced "pop folk", which dominates the airwaves, stands in abject image contrast to the often equally pop-oriented "traditional folk" which has an almost equal presence in the media as far as I could tell. It's totally a projection of whores versus madonnas, with the two contrasting styles often presented side-by-side to similar audiences but with very different ideals.

This article makes a valiant (and fact-filled!) attempt at understanding what makes pop folk tick, but I'm not sure the ideas of Said really apply here. Instead, I think the Turkish influence felt in much of the music is a result of the strong pull of Istanbul as the major music capital of the region, that all eyes turn towards. Rather than dominating over an ancient, depleted giant by exotifying it, pop folk producers are simply copying the most commercially successful sounds in the region - after all, Burgas is a lot closer to Istanbul than to Sofiya!

And let's not forget the enormous presence of yet another big ethnic group in the complex puzzle of Bulgarian demographics, the Turks. In particular, the genre of Kyuchek discussed extensively in the article was described to me by a man at the Turkish market in Varna as "Turkish music", and a lot of the gypsy and Turkish cultural ideals seems to overlap, as in the music of romani superstar Erik. Kyuchek, by the way, is a very interesting genre and my favourite discovery of the trip, I'll definitely be returning to it.

And then, of course, there's the hip hop, which on one edge cuts into the pop folk and on the other forms a totally vibrant genre on its own, very present not least in Varna, where the "R&B" empire of Misho Shamara has both stores, night clubs and record labels. But plenty more about that soon, when I post a mixtape of some of the music I bought.

PS. Can someone better versed in central European politics decipher this peculiar grafitti I spotted? Who except the Hungarians (who would write Vajdaság) would want a free Vojvodina, who crossed it out, why, and what does the symbol with the four Cs mean?

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