THE BLOG

Rock the Regime

In Bratislava, as the Velvet Revolution unfolded in November 1989, musicians played a key role in the Czechoslovak opposition movement. Yes, they participated in the demonstrations and spoke out against the communist authorities. But their main contribution was more prosaic: amps. The dissident community, which had been silenced for decades, needed to get their voices heard by the hundreds of thousands of people crowding the public squares. And the musicians provided that amplification.

In Bulgaria, during the 1970s, oppositional voices were even rarer. The country never experienced a "socialism with a human face" experiment, as Czechoslovakia did in 1968 under Alexander Dubcek. There was no student movement. There wasn't a lot of samizdat.

But there was rock 'n roll.

Konstantin Markov was a leading figure in the Bulgarian rock scene in the 1970s and 1980s with the band Tangra. Bulgaria was no Yugoslavia. It wasn't easy to form a band and tour the country, especially if you were playing Western-style heavy metal and New Wave. But youth culture was irrepressible.

"All these institutions -- management, cultural institutions, media (at that time we had only one TV program and two radio channels, state-owned)--they had very strict regulations," he told me in Sofia back in October.

They tried to keep all these kinds of music out of their programs. But at the same time there was a huge demand. People really liked this music, and it was a symbol of freedom to them. It was very difficult to completely suppress it. We were quite clever in going around the institutions and all these obstacles.

Tangra circled the country, doing gigs even when the audiences were miniscule. They gradually built up their reputation until they were doing two concerts a day. There was censorship and harassment from the secret police. But they managed to get their message across.

"There was no way to get on stage and say that all this is bullshit, that this system is nothing," Konstantin Markov continued.

Unless you wanted to commit suicide! But actually our biggest success came when we started singing in Bulgarian. At the beginning it was Deep Purple, hard rock stuff. But then, we started singing in Bulgarian and we had a very strong message. It wasn't completely clear at the beginning, but if you read the text several times and if you thought about it, then you could figure out what we wanted to say. And that was our biggest reward.

Tangra left Bulgaria before the changes in 1989, but Konstantin Markov returned to Sofia in time to see the regime change. He created a radio station called Tangra and continues to be involved in the music scene. And he remains upbeat.

"I haven't lost my hope -- which is very important," he concluded. "I wish that most people could keep their hope for the future in the same way they had it 20 years ago. When you see pictures of rallies of that time, it was absolutely unbelievable."

The Interview

You started out as a musician?

I've been a musician for many years. Actually, I'm an engineer, but I've never worked as an engineer. I used to be a musician in a very popular band here, a rock band, a touring band. I was the founder of the band. The name was Tangra, the old Bulgarian god of the Sun. The band was very popular and we used to tour a lot in the country and outside the country.

When was the band put together?

The late 1970s.

How would you describe the music?

At the beginning it was typical heavy metal. Then we started playing a kind of pop rock. Actually, this was the second period of the band. And then we changed to post-punk -- new rock alternative, New Wave, new romantic -- and this was the most successful. It was vey risky because people used to know us as kind of pop rock band. Suddenly we changed everything: look, style, stage performance, everything. But it was worth it.

And you founded the band when you were in school or...?

I'd just finished high school and I was quite lucky because I started playing with probably the most successful singer at the time in Bulgaria. I went to this audition and they liked me, so I started playing with their band. Emil Dimitrov. He was like Johnny Halliday in France. It was incredibly popular here in Bulgaria. At that time there was Emil Dimitrov and a very popular lady singer Lili Ivanova -- she's still performing. And I started playing with her band, and this was for probably 5 or 6 years. And then I started my own band. It was 1976.

What was it like to have a rock band here in Bulgaria? Did you get a sense pretty early on that it was an entirely different experience having a rock band in Bulgaria compared to, say, France?

Yes, because I think there are two things that really affected that generation in Bulgaria. Number one is western music, and number two is jeans. For this generation, you can't imagine what it used to look like to have a pair of jeans. It might sound funny, but it's true.

Were there any obstacles to creating a hard rock band in Bulgaria?

Yes, lots. You know I could write a book about that.

You should write a book!

I don't have time, to be honest. But it was really difficult, because officially you were not allowed to create a band. At the same time, all these institutions -- management, cultural institutions, media (at that time we had only one TV program and two radio channels, state-owned) -- they had very strict regulations. They tried to keep all these kinds of music out of their programs. But at the same time there was a huge demand. People really liked this music, and it was a symbol of freedom to them. It was very difficult to completely suppress it. We were quite clever in going around the institutions and all these obstacles.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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