Punk rock in Bulgaria 1979-2008 (Maciej Zurowski)
From Unearthing The Music
Punk rock didn’t have it easy in socialist Bulgaria, a country in which all aggressive rock music was frowned upon. That didn’t keep Novi Cvetya (“New Flowers”) from performing punk rock as early as 1979. Based in Kyustendi, a town close to the Serbian border, the lads benefited from the possibility of listening to punk rock on Yugoslav radio. Maybe that’s why their sound was closer to late 70s Yugo-punk bands such as Paraf and Pankrti than to anything British or American. Novi Cvetya’s songs are simple, bolshy, and have a typically Balkanese tongue-in-cheek feel and sense of the absurd to them.
While Yugoslavia, an unaligned socialist country far more culturally liberal than Bulgaria, allowed homegrown punk talent to release records on the state-owned Yugoton label, there was no such option for Novi Cvetya. Even tape recorders were prohibitively expensive, but eventually, the band managed to cut a demo tape, of which 10-15 copies went into circulation. These songs and all of their later recordings resurfaced on a fantastic 2004 CD entitled Radiacija 1979-1995 in a limited edition of 1000, now a collector’s item in its own right.
Formed in 1981 in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, DDT played amateurish and tinny Oi! punk influenced by UK 82 combos such as The Exploited, as well as the obligatory Yugo-punk groups. Never the most likely band to be granted a release on the state-owned Balkanton label, a retrospective called Best compiled the bulk of their 1982-1992 material posthumously. Some songs can be heard on a myspace tribute page. File under ‘of historical interest’.
In February 1984, the Vice President of the State Council, Georgi Dzhagarov, declared that “the whole country has been disquieted by the muddy stream of musical trends sweeping away all the true values of music”. Bulgarian cultural officials launched a campaign to eliminate rock culture, especially punk culture: anyone sporting punk or heavy metal fashions in public was likely to be stopped and have their subcultural signifiers removed by the police.
However, due to the government’s incompetent execution of cultural policy and the punk rockers’ indifference towards official decrees, punk continued to exist throughout the country. In January 1986, punks scandalized an official New Year’s Eve celebration in central Sofia by appearing en masse with spiked hair, mohicans, and torn clothes. The Bulgarian press finally admitted their existence while bemoaning “serious aesthetic aberrations” on the music scene.
1987 saw a tactical liberalization when Communist Party intellectuals began to realize that suppressed youth subcultures might develop into political opposition. Party newspapers such as Narodna Kultura and Rabotnichesko Delo published articles calling for official acceptance and controlled support of Bulgaria’s punk rock and heavy metal scenes.
In the wake of these changes, Balkanton offered a selected few ‘punk’ bands releases on the state-owned label. The best of them were Reviu, a Sofia band fronted by the flamboyant and highly talented Milena Slavova, often referred to as the ‘Bulgarian Nina Hagen’. Punk rock this was not: Reviu’s music was more akin to new wave played by seasoned musos. But that shall not detract from the qualities of the band, whose self-titled 1989 debut album makes for recommended listening.
The youtube clip below features a 1989 performance of their song Ala Bala.
In 1987, the First Sofia Rock Festival featured Reviu and other new wave/cold wave bands such as Kontrol and New Generation, both of which secured album deals with Balkanton. Bulgaria’s first rock movie, Direktor na vodopad (1989), focused on Reviu, their fans, and the general public’s reactions to the new phenomenon (click here to watch the full movie in Bulgarian language). Today, the eccentric Milena is an eccentric auntie who still lives in central Sofia and continues to be involved in various musical projects.
Perhaps encouraged by these liberalizations, or perhaps in opposition to the officially sanctioned ‘punk’ groups, a hardcore punk underground also began to grow in the late 80s. Kokosha Glava from Kurdziali, a small town near the Turkish border, played fast and rough Oi!/hardcore from 1988 onwards. Song titles such as Kill Kill Police ensured they would not be mistaken for a state-approved Balkanton band. A retrospective entitled Punk, Anarchy, Nihilism 1989-95 contains all their early tapes but is now out of print. Other bands from this period include U.Z.Z.U. from Gabrovo, a female fronted band who foolishly lost their only master tapes forever when passing them on to John Peel; Abort from Varna, another Exploited type Oi! troupe; and Taran, also from Varna, who liked their punk rock with a more ’77 flavour.
Then it was all over. In February 1990, the Communist Party surrendered its power and a new era began. After two years of ‘smooth transition’ provided by the moderate Bulgarian Socialist Party, a new government led by the right-wing Union of Democratic Forces left no stone unturned when it came to privatizing the country. Bulgaria soon encountered the blessings of predatory ‘free market’ capitalism: uncompetitive industries went bust, unemployment figures skyrocketed, wages reached an all-time low. Bulgaria was thrown into a huge crisis, some symptoms of which included empty shops, a high crime rate, and the sight of abandoned children in the streets. Another cancer sore of capitalism followed suit: vast amounts of Nazi skinheads began to terrorize Bulgarian streets, kickstarting a problem of fascist violence that persists to the present day.
Many veteran punk rockers drifted into heroin addiction, others had bigger worries than keeping the music scene alive. Balkanton went bankrupt, which effectively meant the death of the Bulgarian record industry. The few punk bands of the 90s either played new school hardcore, or alternatively succumbed to the corporate US punk influence of the Green Day and Offspring variety. None of them produced anything of interest or lasting value.