Balkan Blues

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and surveying its transformations since 1989.

The Bulgarian rock band Tangra.

The Bulgarian rock band Tangra.

In my last road trip in the Balkans several years ago, I drove from Bosnia to Albania because the other methods of transportation either took too long or cost too much. I didn’t relish the idea of driving in Albania. Still, I managed to survive the reckless traffic of Tirana — only to have someone in a small town in Montenegro take a sharp right from the far left lane directly in front of my car. A Kafkaesque ordeal followed – which involved an unwanted weekend layover, a bout of food poisoning, a lengthy interview with a judge, a long argument in Russian about traffic rules in Montenegro, a late-arriving interpreter who was the son of the person who ran into me, and finally a minor fine that I would have been happy to pay at the point of impact just so that I could have avoided this two-day Montenegrin interlude. As it was, to catch my flight home from Sarajevo, I had to drive at near-reckless speed through the mountains straddling Montenegro and Bosnia, during a major storm and with my stomach still roiling from my run-in with, I think, a bad squid the night before.

Despite this experience, I decided to take another Balkan road trip this last weekend. The editor of a Bulgarian opposition newspaper from 1990 was now living in Varna, a Bulgarian city on the Black Sea. I rented a car in Sofia and set off across Bulgaria. I planned to stop over in Veliko Tarnovo, to see where the first Bulgarian parliament met in 1878 (and again in 1990 to celebrate the return of democracy). After a day in Varna, I would make my way back to Plovdiv, the country’s second largest city, and then on to Sofia for a final meeting on Sunday evening.

It’s not a road trip without music. I didn’t have any CDs, so I went back and forth across the radio spectrum in search of something palatable. It was not initially auspicious. The stations were full of bad U.S. rock and the Bulgarian version of turbofolk called chalga. Finally, I happened on a station playing choir music. A Roma choir from Plovdiv was particularly good, with the characteristic yipping sounds that anyone familiar with Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares would instantly recognize.

I arrived in Veliko Tarnovo on a musical high. The city too was a revelation – a gorgeous medieval hillside town that would have made a more picturesque and centrally located capital than Sofia. I was told that the 19th-century Bulgarian leadership revealed their nationalist aspirations with the choice of Sofia. Although not as historically interesting as Veliko Tarnovo, Sofia was located closer to the lands to the west and south that the leaders coveted as part of their dreams of a Greater Bulgaria.

The next day, outside of Varna, I stopped for gas and bought a few CDs – a three-CD set of the music of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, some more Bulgarian choir music, and a compilation of Bulgarian rock music. It was on this last CD that I finally listened to a cut by Tangra, the legendary group that started out as a heavy metal band in the late 1970s and became a New Wave group in the 1980s.

A friend of a high school friend ended up marrying the lead singer of Tangra and moving to Bulgaria in 1990. So I was very fortunate to have a chance to interview Konstantin Markov. Rock and roll in the 1980s in Bulgaria meant freedom, he told me. So Tangra was constantly at risk of arrest – for transmitting Western influences to Bulgarian youth. Informers attended the concerts to make sure that the band didn’t depart from their officially approved lyrics. Still, they were able to write ambiguous lyrics that promoted freedom of thought in allegorical ways. Eventually frustrated by the worsening repression of the mid-1980s, the band left the country for Scandinavia. Once I’ve transcribed the interview – and I will go over all the transcripts with the interviewees to correct any errors – I’ll post the whole conversation.

In Varna, I was the guest of Vihar Krastev and Yassena Yurekchieva, who were the souls of hospitality. In 1990, I interviewed Vihar when he was the editor of an opposition newspaper called Vek 21. For two hours, with classical music playing in the background, he recounted his remarkable career. Kicked out of journalism in the 1980s because of his political views, he could only find a job as a bus driver. After the changes of 1989, he made his way back into journalism only. After a stint with Radio Free Europe, he did what many Bulgarians did in the 1980s: emigrate. A million people – out of a population of roughly 9 million – left the country. Many experienced what Vihar did. In Canada, the barriers to access to journalism were simply too high. So, he ended up doing something he’d learned how to do under communism: drive a bus. He eventually rose through the ranks to manage the Toronto transportation system, but it was a stressful job. He has now retired to Varna.

I left Varna in the early evening, with fruit and delicious homemade muffins courtesy of Yassena and Vihar. The drive from Varna to Yambol – about halfway to Plovdiv – was a harrowing experience that brought back memories of my Montenegrin odyssey. Navigating the mountains near the Black Sea coast at night was quite a challenge. There are few streetlights on the two-lane highway, of course. If you’re stuck behind a truck, you either creep along or muster the courage to pass. Meanwhile, drivers going up to the 140 km-per-hour speed limit are whizzing by you, sometimes around blind curves. At one point, an otherwise straight stretch suddenly banked to the left, and my headlights picked up the arrows only at the last minute. I simultaneously turned the wheel and braked, nearly spinning out of control and overturning the car. If there had been a car coming in the other direction, I would have had a head-on collision. Even without a collision, stuck with an upside-down car and a non-functioning cell phone would have made my Montenegrin experience seem like a holiday on the sea.

Once I turned away from the coastal highway and toward the interior, the road became much straighter, and the traffic thinned considerably. But one peculiar feature of the first section of this highway, before it became a brand-new expressway outside of Yambol, was the speed bumps. These are located in the small towns that the highway passes through. Perhaps during the day, these are easily anticipated. But at night, I’d be cruising along at 60 km per hour, having slowed down to pass through the town, and suddenly I’d be practically airborne as I flew over the hump in the road. It’s hard not to think of these speed bumps as a metaphor for Bulgaria’s development.

I had hoped to turn south from this road and venture into the Rhodope Mountains to track down an elusive Bulgarian poet and activist. Boris Hristev’s political career began in 1968 when he called up a Bulgarian radio station and asked why there were no reports about the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The producers at the station asked who he was: he gave his name. The next day the police came to his house and thus began twenty years of arrests and harassment.

While we were talking, Boris suddenly interrupted himself and asked me if I knew about the Balkan blues. I asked him what he meant. The color blue, he said, could be glimpsed in the architecture of Hungary, but as you travelled further south into the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, the blues became more and more significant. And it wasn’t just architecture, he said. It was also the music. He insisted that I couldn’t understand Bulgaria until I’d listened to the Balkan blues.

Later, I ran into Boris on the street. He pushed a cassette tape into my hands. “The Balkan blues,” he whispered into my ear.

“Whether or not listening to the music truly provides me with additional insights into Bulgarian culture, the music is certainly excellent,” I wrote at the time. There was panpipe music from Romania’s Gheorghe Zamfir, the flute playing of Bulgaria’s Theodosii Spassov, blues music from Albania and Greece, and much more crammed onto the cassette. I made copies for all my friends as a holiday present. It was one of my favorite stories from my travels in 1990.

Then, shortly before leaving for Bulgaria this time around, I was reading the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic’s collection of essays, The Culture of Lies. In one section, she writes of meeting a Bulgarian poet, Boris H. In the middle of their conversation, he suddenly mentions the Balkan blues and then…

Oh no, I thought. My wonderful story, which I always thought of as uniquely my own, was not unique at all. Boris Hristev was promiscuous with his musical affections! The mix tape, immortalized in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as a supreme expression of idiosyncrasy and affection, turned out in this case to be a more general means of communication. Next year, I will try to interview Dubravka Ugresic to dig out more details about her own Balkan blues experience.

The mysterious Boris H., meanwhile, is holed up like a hermit in a mountain village and isn’t scheduling interviews at the moment. I’ll continue my entreaties. I’ll continue to listen to the Balkan blues. And I’ll keep hoping for another road trip, this time to the Rhodope Mountains to discover what the Bulgarian poet is listening to these days. Next time, though, maybe I’ll take the bus…