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Understanding Chalga: The Music That Divides Bulgaria

Understanding chalga music from Bulgaria
Understanding chalga music from Bulgaria | © Andrej Nihil / Unsplash
There are certain things you notice when you first visit a country, and chalga music is one such thing when you come to Bulgaria. It just can’t go unnoticed – drivers blast it in their cars, cafés play it loudly, and there are discos that play only chalga and no other musical genre. As peculiar and often scandalous it may seem to an outsider, chalga music is much more than an ‘oriental’ rhythm and semi-naked performers. Here’s our guide to better understanding it as a part of Bulgarian culture.

A hodgepodge of Balkan, oriental, and contemporary dance music

Using the oriental rhythm of the music usually performed for belly dancing as a base and combining it with traditional Bulgarian folk elements (that’s why the genre is also called pop folk) and modern styles like dance or even rock music, chalga can sound very different from song to song. The songs are usually lively and rhythmic with a beat reminiscent of reggaeton. Dancing to them means engaging all the plasticity you have in your waist and hips. Learning a few movements of belly dancing will definitely help if you want to blend in at a chalga dance club.

If you ask around, you will quickly notice that Bulgarians either love chalga or wholeheartedly despise it. What divides the nation when it comes to it are mainly the lyrics of the songs, which praise a life with money, deceit, and parties as its core values. Most of the lyrics also have strong sexually implied meanings. On the other hand, chalga songs tackle topics such as the emotional pain of a separation or the joys of falling in love, which is one of the reasons why this music resonates with so many people in the country.

Chalga as a lifestyle

Chalga is not only a genre of music, it has created a subculture with its own clothing, vacationing, leisure, and communicating lifestyle. If a woman is dressed in a super-mini skirt, a low-cut dress, high heels, shiny colors and wears heavy make-up, she has almost certainly been influenced by the chalga lifestyle. Chalga women also often have breast and lip implants. Men, on the other hand, spend hours working out to have their biceps pumped.

Foreigners are often perplexed when they visit a chalga dance club and see people ordering packs of napkins and then throwing them in the air. This part of the nightly entertainment is said to imitate the throwing of money in the air. Since a pack of napkins at a disco often costs ten times more than its real price, it is in a way a real throwing of money.

Chalga performers

The beginning of chalga in Bulgaria is usually associated with a singer named Hisarskia Pop and the Orchestra Kristal – both being at the top of their fame at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. In the first years of the genre, many of the songs were in fact famous Serbian, Greek, or Turkish hits with their lyrics translated into Bulgarian. In recent years, this practice has been abandoned.

If there is a face of chalga in Bulgaria known even abroad, this would be Azis. The male artist made a career performing dressed as a drag queen, thus turning into the most controversial figure in chalga culture. His latest hits focus on his voice and lyrics, however, and he has swapped his scandalous image for a more moderate one.

Other prominent performers of the genre are the female singers Preslava, Anelia, Manuela, Desi Slava, and Andrea. Suzanita, the daughter of the pop folk singer Orhan Murad, saw her stardom rise because of her provocative songs and videos at the age of 15. Milko Kalaydzhiev, Fiki, and Krum are among the male stars of the genre worth checking if you want to get an idea of this kind of music.