3. Every folk channel
Summer of 2008, I ended up at a barbecue in a stranger’s backyard. I made friends with the only guy there my age, partially because that’s basic social self-preservation and mostly because the majority of the party’s milieu was possessed of an uncanny foreign mien. In front of two goats roasting on spits, we sipped margaritas and chatted up girls while everyone else spoke to each other in Slavic-sounding languages of unknown origin.
The vibe got progressively more Wicker Man as homemade instruments materialized and the backyard was filled with weird, discordant folk songs. As a man near me blew into a ten-gallon goat-stomach bagpipe, we got swept into a plodding circle-dance, and I did my best to mimic the kicks, steps, steps, kicks and steps.
I was at a Bulgarian house party, and only years later did I realize that I had faked my way through my first horo.
That was my introduction to the strange world of Bulgarian folk music and dancing, but today I can enjoy not one nor two but five folk music channels. Each of these five channels plays videos like the one above all day, every day. The videos all have the same basic visual elements. They are filmed in a “traditional” Bulgarian location: either a scenic outdoor locale or in front of an old building like a hizha or mehana. There is an all-male band, playing a cacophony of horns, woodwinds, and animal-guts instruments. Finally, there is a singer, male or female, usually in traditional Bulgarian dress, who dances by swaying gently from side to side and waving their arms.
As you can surmise from the staggering number of folk music videos that play ’round-the-clock, there’s a ton of Bulgarian folk, and it all sounds and looks very similar. Actually, not only does it sound alike, but I need to confess something here that’ll forever make me an outsider in this country (don’t tell the babas). People here crap a lot on Bulgaria’s domestic pop music genre, Chalga, but I’d probably rather listen to an hour of chalga than an entire folk song.
Not being a music “person,” I can’t explain what’s so off-putting about all these songs: the instruments involved, the time signatures, the sheer relentless repetition, and some demonic x-factor combine to make this genre uniquely madness-inducing for me. If I have to compare what these tunes sound like to anything else, it wouldn’t be another music genre. Instead, the effect reminds me of what I’d hear when I’d watch South Park episodes online, accidentally open a window twice, and have to hear Primus’s demented theme song doubled-up.
2. English for Peacekeepers
In 2004, Bulgaria joined NATO. For a tiny country that lost two world wars, it doesn’t seem useful to get entangled into a military alliance. First, Bulgaria had to buy its Navy a bunch of submarines to comport with NATO standards. Since Bulgaria’s greatest maritime threat is counterfeit cigarette smugglers, they purchased 4 nuclear submarines, acceded to NATO, and promptly decommissioned them. Then, there’s the indignity of having to do a ton of extra work. Not only do Bulgaria’s armed forces have to impress some bigshot American generals, but some poor airmen who probably just want to drink Nescafe and smoke have to fly sorties around the Black Sea every time a Russian MiG pops up.
On the other hand there’s like, prestige, and the fact that Albania definitely can’t push us around any more!
Some of the extra NATO-mandated work is learning “English for Peacekeepers.” The “show” is a half-hour program where narrators with thick accents teach viewers military-oriented English. The lessons seem be aimed at Bulgarians in the armed forces, who will have to communicate in English with their north atlantic counterparts.
As you can see from the clip above, in addition to being stilted and bizarre, the show is also really boring for a military-themed programming block. Granted, if your jet is on fire, the word for ejector rack will probably seem really important. But instead of teaching cool war things, every installment of English for Peacekeepers is more like “I had the opportunity to learn mine-clearing techniques,” or “There’s a possibility we will attend the defense summit in November.”
1. Agro TV’s Techno-tools block
Life in Europe is governed by one simple maxim: anything that can be set to a throbbing techno beat will be set to a throbbing techno beat.
As the son of a European, I’ve known this since I was a kid. In the mid-90s, when the Space Jam soundtrack ruled the Earth and American parents still listened to, I don’t know, Rush or Hall & Oates, my dad was playing the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy. More recently I’ve been told this sounds cool–but at the time, dad’s beloved machine-gun synth beats and downtempo basslines were just another one of those things that makes the child of an immigrant feel perpetually out-of-place.
Now that I live here, I can attest that the stereotypes about this continent moving to an electronic beat is pretty true. I’ve heard pumping techno songs piped into my bank as I stand in line, and been served coffee by a woman cheerily singing along to that Romanian “Numa Numa” song that went viral some years ago. So I was barely surprised that Agro TV, the agricultural channel, features half an hour of farm equipment action-footage set to techno.
Most of Agro TV’s programming is news relevant to the daily operation of running a farm: weather, weekly temperatures, commodities prices, boring stuff. But for half an hour, farmer Ivan ditches the milking pail for the EDGE OF HIS SEAT, as Agro TV brings Ibiza to rural Bulgaria. This show is half an hour of German-made farm machinery, threshers and combines tilling fields and baling hay to thumping electronica. It’s like a real-life version of the Upright Citizens Brigade‘s “Crane Wars” sketch, where a breathless hype man sells footage of construction with the language of a monster truck rally: Crane Wars Crane Wars CRANE WARS! Watch inclined planes PUNISH Earth’s gravitational pull!