KAI RYSSDAL: The United States is sometimes accused of cultural imperialism. American movies or music that become popular overseas, often squeezing out the local talent. And sure, the hot new pop icon sometimes comes from here. But with open airwaves and Internet pipelines, the next new thing could come from anywhere.
Our series, “Working,” takes us into the lives of individual people in a constantly changing global economy. Today, almost 20 years into its venture into free-market capitalism, we go to Bulgaria and its booming pop music scene.
Sandy Tolan’s in Sofia with this story of a young woman somewhat reluctantly capitalizing on music’s economic opportunity.
SANDY TOLAN: If Dayana Ivanova Dimova could live her dream, she’d be singing this, all day long:
[SOUND: Dayana singing traditional Bulgarian music]
The brilliant old stuff, sung as stories. As news by her great, great-great grandmoms, to their neighbors across harvests of roses and grapes.
But a few years ago, when the poor girl from the countryside arrived in the capital, she quickly learned you can’t make a living in traditional music.
Dayana stands before a microphone in a glassed-in booth, listening to her producer bark out orders. Her traditional training means little here. The pretty, bright-eyed 24-year-old has been tapped to be a new pop diva. She’s marketed simply as “Dayana.”
Stoyan Dentchev, chain-smoking producer of a small record label called Sunny Music, listens to his talent belt it out on the other side of the glass.
[SOUND: Dayana singing, Stoyan barking out commands]
Stoyan tells Dayana that even for background vocals, that doesn’t cut it.
But Stoyan is not too hard on his precious talent. The producer pygmalion and the Sunny Music marketers are trying to remake her into the newest star of “Chalga” in Bulgaria — the most popular music here and across the Balkans.
Stoyan produced Dayana’s first CD and now, like his many counterparts around the world pushing low-budget, pulsating music, Sunny Music is marketing Dayana like crazy. They’re booking her in clubs and resorts. They’ve got her pitching spaghetti in magazines and brochures. And they’ve got plan for radio and tv pitches.
A sign they’re making progress: Bulgarian gossip magazines are starting to dig into Dayana’s private life. One claimed it caught her lying topless on the beach.
For the traditional singer gone pop, it’s all a bit of a blur. But there’s not much time for reflection.
Dayana rides the arthritic elevator to the 11th floor of her old soviet-bloc, concrete apartment building.
[SOUND: Elevator door opening]
Here, it’s a meal of pork and potatoes before she gets ready for another night at the club.
[SOUND: Dayana singing while washing potatoes]
Standing at the sink washing the spuds, Dayana’s not singing Chalga. It’s just hours before her club gig, but she prefers to hum the songs her grandmother taught her.
DAYANA (voice of translator): There is a feeling in this music that I can’t express in words. The feeling makes me just close my eyes, start dreaming, and immerse myself in the music.
In the lobby of the Chalga club called “Die Die”— Bulgarian for “Come on, come on”— Dayana’s air-brushed face peers out through fake blue eyes from the poster of her debut CD. Dayana could be any pop star from any country in the world.
Dayana says when she looks at the poster, she tells herself, “Next time, I’m not going to let them do that. My brown eyes are fine.” She prefers jeans to skirts with slits up to her hip, and her own body to the breast implants many Chalga singers have given into.
Inside the club, Dayana, in a knee-length white skirt and boots, rocks back and forth on a faux marble dias. Banks of blue lights blink feverishly. Increasingly across the Balkans, if you want to make your living as a singer, this is the work you do.
DAYANA: It’s the same thing over and over again. I got used to it already.
A little proof that she’s not a star yet: On this gig, Dayana is guaranteed only 10 bucks for the night, plus tips. But she worries about the pull of money. For some better-paid Chalga stars, the performance is barely-disguised soft porn. Some singers wear nothing on their breasts but pasted-on stars.
[SOUND: Sliven music]
A few hours away, at this club in a mountain town, young men encircle a big-time Chalga star, following her like a slow-moving oil slick around the club floor. She gyrates back and forth, as the men in the front reach out to brush their fingertips along her bare midriff.
[SOUND: A piano tuning up]
Dayana stands inside a small recital room at Sofia University, her musical refuge. Here, the young singer and two classmates take instruction from their mentor — one of the masters of the traditional music.
Dayana’s teacher, Svetla Karadjova.
SVETLA KARADJOVA (voice of translator): It is the powerful voices that give Bulgarian folk music its mystery. They call this new Chalga music “pop folk,” but that’s not right. I don’t know who invented that term. Yes, it’s captivating to watch on the TV screen, but the songs aren’t folk songs, they’re just dance songs.
The teacher rails on about the low-brow Chalga music, oblivious as Dayana, sitting over on the couch, furtively pulls out her new Chalga CD and excitedly shows it to her classmates.
Their teacher keeps up the tirade against the Chalga sleaze until finally, Dayana looks up, grim-faced.
DAYANA: Look, I will do whatever it takes to preserve the old music. We won’t let it die. I can’t imagine anyone letting themselves go without money. How can I do that? I wouldn’t survive.
Now, she stands up and shows her teacher her new CD. The teacher allows herself a smile. She plants a silent kiss on her pupil’s cheek.
Dayana blushes, and with that, she slips the CD into a computer. Everyone grows quiet. There, four classically-trained musicians stand frozen, listening to Dayana belt out a new Chalga tune through the tinny speakers of a laptop.
In Sofia, Bulgaria, I’m Sandy Tolan for Marketplace.
RYSSDAL: Our story was produced with Lygia Navarro and Vessilin Dimitrov.
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.