SOFIA (Reuters Life!) - The gilded domes of Bulgaria’s largest cathedral reflect the last rays of the setting sun as several thousand people dance to raunchy hits performed by voluptuous and provocatively clad beauties.
The free concert in Sofia marking the 20th anniversary of leading “popfolk” record label Payner stirred public outcry over the choice of the venue, a landmark of democracy where the first rallies after the fall of communism in Bulgaria were held.
Since turning into the cultural phenomenon which Bulgarians love to hate, “chalga” -- as popfolk is derogatorily called -- has attracted plenty of controversy over its influence on the young and is often blamed for a surge of populism in politics.
With its lively dance tunes, catchy lyrics, oriental and gypsy motifs, popfolk is the second most popular music style in the Balkan country, being exceeded only by western pop, a recent survey by independent Gallup International shows.
“This music degrades man to animal. I can’t put it in a softer way,” said rock-loving Dzhuni Harizanova, 39, who was taken to the Payner concert by a friend. “It can’t give anything to young people ... I‘m sorry to see so many teenagers here.”
Once banned by Bulgaria’s communist regime and seen as a revolt against the elite, popfolk has the same anti-institutional flavor which brought straight-talking Prime Minister Boiko Borisov to power.
Platinum blonde Azis, the style’s self-made star, rarely fails to shock, be it either by wearing tight dresses and high heels or marrying his boyfriend in an improvised gay ceremony.
“Popfolk is sex, let’s speak the truth,” Azis, whose real name is Vasil Boyanov, told Reuters. “We sell sex. My female colleagues ... make women dream to look like them, while men dream about such women.”
The effect of popfolk and its easy-to-swallow messages is everywhere in Bulgarian politics, where populist parties have been in charge for most of the last 10 years, said Kiril Avramov, analyst at think-tank Political Capital.
It was no surprise when Borisov’s GERB party celebrated its election victory last summer in a popfolk club. The prime minister is also the leading character in a popfolk song and defines the figure of the strong man in many more.
Popfolk night clubs, which many locals believe are frequented by organized crime, also exude opulence and are mostly visited by well-paid professionals.
For fans, popfolk means partying and it is common at weddings, proms and other events which end up with scantily dressed young girls dancing on tables surrounded by finger snapping guys.
Many Bulgarians do not admit they listen to popfolk, ashamed of the style’s negative associations.
Georgi Lozanov, a philosopher by training and currently chairman of the Council for Electronic Media, said “popfolk is the music of joy” and should be defended as part of the country’s culture, irrespective of personal attitude.
What makes it disturbing, Lozanov argues, is popfolk becoming a lifestyle which legitimizes prostitution by treating the female body as on object and presents drugs as “the simplest instrument for short-lived pleasure.”
“Only as a lifestyle, popfolk is explicitly unacceptable,” he said. “Unfortunately, popfolk beyond popfolk music causes great damage.”
Indeed, most of the girls dancing in the summer evening to songs about love, sex and hot men have the distinct popfolk look of large breasts, hair extensions, fake tan and tight tops.
The situation is similar in neighboring Serbia where turbofolk diva Svetlana Raznatovic Ceca has become a role model, her celebrity status boosted by clashes with the authorities and the dark past of her late husband Zeljko Raznatovic, a Serb paramilitary leader indicted for war crimes.
Performers and fans claim the style, as any other, has its good and bad examples. Many are convinced that it has made tangible progress since the 1990s and say criticism that lyrics are too suggestive and singers dress like prostitutes are unfounded.
Ivana, still one of the best-loved singers despite the proliferation of new stars, said the original aim of popfolk, mostly covers of Serbian and Greek hits, was to break taboos and that and lax censorship has led to obscene lyrics.
“The bad thing is that ... this retro wave of nakedness, cynicism and crudeness has appeared (again),” Ivana told Reuters.
Singers’ reportedly hefty fees of up to 6,000 levs ($3,762) suggest the popfolk craze is unlikely to subside any time soon, despite the criticism.
Lozanov believes it will be globalization which will eventually put the skids under popfolk’s influence.
“Chalga music cannot survive in a more global world ... It is camp music.”
Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade, editing by Paul Casciato