The tension inherent to chalga and turbofolk music – is it local or foreign? – hints at the deeper paradox beneath contemporary Balkan nationalism and its ambiguous relationship to the Ottoman past.
The video begins with a storybook, opening up to reveal a man leading a camel through a busy Middle Eastern market. Men in red fez and long gallabiya robes wander the bazaar while women wearing headscarves haggle over fabric. Spice stalls and rugs fill out the scene. All of a sudden, a group of women in black burqas begin singing – before throwing them off to reveal well-coiffed blonde hair and skimpy outfits. Soon, the entire bazaar is jumping around, dancing in sync before the scene switches to women lying around a luxurious bathhouse.
These images reflect classic Western Orientalist tropes, a bazaar that resembles less any actually-existing Middle Eastern market and more the kind of “timeless” stereotype of Ali Baba and his 40 thieves. The women are veiled, the men are dressed “traditionally”, and the scene could be one from Aladdin 1,000 years ago or it could be meant to show contemporary Morocco; as far as the Orientalist imagination is concerned, these are one and the same.
But there’s one difference: this video is from Bulgaria, a land at the heart of the Ottoman Empire until it collapsed after World War I. The video draws upon Orientalist tropes; but calling it “Orientalist” is complicated by the fact that until quite recently, Bulgaria was situated firmly in “the Orient”, as was much of the Balkans. For much of the last century, Balkan nationalists have sought to erase this legacy. But the emergence of Bulgarian “chalga” pop music – its name derived from Turkish çalgı, meaning “instrument” — since the 1990s has challenged decades of top-down Europeanization of Bulgarian culture.
This challenge comes both in terms of the musical style – which mixes Arabic and Turkish pop beats with Balkan rhythms – as well as the extensive use of Orientalist imagery in chalga videos. In the world of Bulgarian chalga, the “Orient” is a positive place, a reminder of Bulgaria’s Ottoman past. While European-oriented nationalists derided the Orient as both too repressive and too sexualized, the chalga music industry embraces these stereotypes. While modernizing state builders tried to eradicate Bulgaria’s belonging in the “Orient” from memory, chalga musicians promote it. While national textbooks stress that Bulgaria always maintained a distinct European, Christian identity, chalga musicians draw upon the symbols and images of that Muslim Ottoman world to construct a playful and irreverent version of Bulgaria’s past that uses self-Orientalization to push back against a century of forced Europeanization.
As music historian Vesa Kurkela has argued, “For Bulgarians, the Orient of chalga is also a source of self-irony. It helps them to find and comprehend their identity.” And it wasn’t just Bulgaria: today, a version of “ethnopop” similar to chalga can be found in every single Balkan country, and is by far the most popular style of pop. While the contradictions of remembering the Ottoman past in the contemporary Balkans are often repressed in the public sphere, their ghosts emerge in the ethnopop music videos that have swept the region since the post-Communist cultural opening in the 1990s. Before we examine those videos, it is to history that we turn.
The Ottoman Past
Ottoman rule extended across what is today considered the Balkans for the better part of 400 years. Southeastern Europe was an integral part of a cultural zone that reached from Iraq in the East, towards Algeria in the West, and Hungary in the north. And it didn’t end there: because of Ottoman elites’ fascination and interest in Persian culture, the Ottoman zone also brought Persia to the Balkans: a fact apparent today in the celebration of the Persian spring holiday of Nowruz in parts of the region.
Connections abound, but many of them lie hidden beneath the surface. This is in large part a legacy of modern nationalism. Beginning in the late 1800s, intellectual elites in parts of the Balkans initiated movements to replace Ottoman rule with local rule. Under the influence of Western European elites, they grew determined to expunge what they deemed “Ottoman” cultural influences – a vaguely-defined and constantly-changing array of qualities they associated with being Muslim, Oriental, or backward.
Results were twofold. First, thousands of Muslims were killed and millions were forced to flee the Balkans (these refugees were called “Muhacir”) as national liberation movements succeeded in overthrowing Ottoman rule. These national movements saw not only Ottoman authorities but Muslims in general as the enemy, and so revolt after revolt was followed by ethnic cleansing. This created overwhelmingly Christian countries where previously a mosaic of religions flourished – leaving Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia as truly multi-religious regions in a sea of rising homogeneity. Second, post-independence states embarked on a campaign of cultural cleansing to “de-Ottomanize” their populations. This campaign, initiated in the early 20th century, was taken up by Communist authorities after World War II as well, as they associated Ottoman culture with feudalism and backwardness and thus sought to replace it with Western or Central European imports.
These attempts at cultural cleansing can be seen clearly in the realm of music. In the early 20th century, the “traditional” music of the Balkans shared widespread similarities with folk music throughout Anatolia. Nationalist leaders, however, urged the creation of Western classical forms of music to establish a “European” identity, importing musical forms from faraway lands in the name of creating “indigenous” culture. This process continued under Communist rule. Romani communities (previously known by the slur “Gypsy”) had historically worked as musicians in many countries, keeping alive traditional forms of music that were increasingly seen as somehow Oriental. But under Communist rule, in many countries Roma were obliged to stop performing. Increasingly, their music was replaced by Western pop music in a Communist idiom – a process which shows clearly how often Western ideologies that claim to be “universal” are anything but. This assault on local forms of folk music reached a zenith in Bulgaria in the 1980s, when anything deemed non-Bulgarian – including Romani, Pomak, and Turkish Bulgarian culture, including their music – was banned, and 300,000 people deported.
The end of Communism in the early 90s, however, led to a cultural opening and increased fascination with the Ottoman past. Beginning with Yugoslav turbofolk, which integrated local folk music with pop, in every Balkan country music genres emerged that mixed Romani music with Western, Turkish, and Arabic pop and even beats from Indian film music. Named chalga in Bulgaria, tallava in Albania, turbofolk in former Yugoslavia, and manele in Romania, this form of “ethnopop” quickly overtook the radiowaves. To the chagrin of cultural elites in these countries – who often derided the music as kitschy, overly-sexualized, and too “Oriental” – it remains massively popular to this day. The result is that Balkan pop shares stylistic characteristics with Turkish pop – especially the “arabesk” genre, which as its name implies is itself a revival of Middle Eastern legacy in Turkey after decades of forced Westernization – as well as Arabic pop music today.
Chalga music’s “Oriental” flavor comes from the fact that it is a synthesis of Romani kuchek (brass band) music and includes extended clarinet solos (taksim) and bellydance pieces (çiftetelli). Many chalga performers are themselves Romani or from Bulgaria’s large Muslim Turkish and Pomak minorities, and they often subvert European nationalist norms by singing in Turkish alongside Bulgarian or playing duets with Turkish or Arab performers.
All of this combines to make the music feel both familiar and strange to many in the Balkans. The beats are often local, yet due to decades of cultural suppression of the Ottoman past and Romani music, they still seem somehow foreign. The tension inherent in turbofolk music – is it local or foreign? – hints at the deeper paradox beneath contemporary Balkan nationalism regarding its ambiguous relationship to Turkey and the Ottoman past.
This tension unfolds visually through the representation of “Oriental” scenes and clothing, and even through the use of Arabic or Turkish words. The representations are clearly Orientalist – in the sense that they project a Western image of what the Orient is that is only tenuously related to any reality of the existing “Orient” – but they come from a very different connection to the “Orient” than classic Western Orientalism.
In the book Balkan Popular Culture and the Ottoman Ecumene: Music, Image, and Regional Political Discourse – to which my discussion here is deeply indebted – Vesa Kurkela argues:
Bulgaria's Orientalism is not based on a Western-dominated colonialist past. On the contrary, there the colonialist past has involved subordination to Eastern empires: the Byzantine, Ottoman, and finally, Soviet. The Ottoman legacy makes the meanings of oriental popular music positive — the negative connotations typical of the Saidian idea of orientalism disappear. Chalga is a music of freedom and distinction that neither mocks nor devalues “Eastern” culture...
The orientalism of chalga helps its fan to break free from the hegemony of the cultural elite that was formed by the nation state. In the final analysis, Chalga orientalism paradoxically mirrors and emphasizes its apparent antithesis, the westernization of culture. After the sultans and fairytale figures with "Eastern" treasuries have been transformed into mafia businessmen and Western luxury goods, the target of irony is no longer the East but Western life and the dreams connected to it.
One of the biggest stars of contemporary chalga is Azis, a queer Bulgarian Romani performer and Eurovision star who freely integrates elements and symbols from both Middle Eastern and Soviet cultures in his work. In “Evala” (Ey Vallah), the opening scene depicts a Turkish mosque and then shifts to scenes of Turkish oil wrestling. At one point, he even sings in Turkish:
A duo between Bulgarian singer Cvetelina and Arab artist Rida al-Abdullah, part of an increasingly common trend in the Balkans to sing alongside Middle Eastern artists.
The word habibi, meaning “my dear” in Arabic, is ever-present in Balkan pop. In this Bulgarian song (sung in Turkish), the word flashes over and over in the background:
This Bulgarian song, meanwhile, is sung completely in Turkish:
Orhan Murad’s song Matahari depicts one of the most common cliches of chalga music: women in bellydance costumes:
One trend is to sing songs about Dubai in particular, which likely due to the increase in Eastern European tourism to the UAE, comes to stand in as an Arabian fantasy destination. This is present in these two Romanian manele videos, a genre related to chalga, where the references to Dubai allow the videos to be framed around bellydancing (the second one less successfully):
These last two videos depict contemporary Romani wedding scenes. The first is a performance of Kuchek, a style of Balkan music rooted in the 19th century and commonly played by Romani brass bands. The forms of dance should be familiar to many in the Middle East:
Silverman, Carol. Bulgarian wedding music between folk and chalga.
Silverman, Carol. Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora.
Statelova, Rosemary. The Seven Sins of Chalga. Toward an Anthropology of Ethnopop Music.
Cover photo: Cvetlina YouTube still