Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Rich World of Bulgarian Electro

I know precious little about Bulgaria or Bulgarian culture, but that is slowly changing.

Up until recently the image I had of Bulgaria was defined by a cartoon by R. Crumb, published in the US satirical magazine Help back in the 1960s. The caption reads: “A wide variety of home appliances have been made available to the Bulgarian housewife,” while the image depicts sturdy women perusing old fashioned stoves and even a mangel! 

This sarcastic perception of Bulgaria says more about western prejudices about eastern Europe. It also conceals the fact that, during the period when the country was aligned to the USSR, Bulgaria maintained a fairly high standard of industrial production, exporting to many countries in Europe and Africa.

This trend continues under a more democratic system. The only difference being that now Bulgarian manufacturers are contracted more by western corporations than the Russian state. For example, we bought some glassware from the Swedish-owned chain IKEA once which have “Made in Bulgaria” stamped on the bottom.

Yet all I hear about this country seems to be negative.

There is, of course, much more to the country than perceptions of industrial backwardness. It has a culture of its own. Take the phenomenon of Bulgarian electro music, which spans the country's recent history as both democracy and Marxist-Leninist one party state.

According to the Continuo blog:

Simo Lazarov, real name Simon Leon Lazar (b.1948), is the most important electro-acoustic music composer in Bulgaria. In 1973, he founded the Studio for Electronic Music at Bulgarian National Radio. During the 1980s, he pioneered home-studio techniques and the use of personal computers for composers in Bulgaria. Since 1996, he has been Computer Music teacher at the New Bulgarian University, and has also been lecturing during summer courses in US universities (Ann Arbor U. and Michigan U.) … He released 9 LPs, 26 CDs and a 30 CD-set was published in 2003, spanning his entire career. His first records were released on the state label Balkanton and are said to offer a choice of more accessible tracks compared to his experimental work. His first LP, The City, came out in 1984, while Nature-Electronic Music  was released 1988, possibly his 3rd LP. It’s basically 2 side-long mixes of various electronic tracks, interwoven with environmental recordings (river, children playing, storm). The music is entirely composed on synthesizers and sequencers, and the style reminds early Bulgarian progressive rock band FSB (for Formation Studio Balkanton), particularly the all-synthesizer 1978 II LP...”

His composition ‘Unusual Rhythm’ (1976) can be heard here:

The band FSB, cited above, was formed by three musicians in Sofia in the mid-1970s as a primarily studio-based outfit. They released their debut album Non-Stop in 1978. More funk-oriented than musicians like Lazarov, they would later tour widely throughout eastern Europe, making a notable collaboration with Jose Feliciano in 1990, before disbanding in 1996 after making two more albums. Ten years later they reformed and are still performing today, an eponymous album appearing in 2010. Their music is not difficult to find online either, being available through Apple Music. Yet the perception of Bulgaria painted by the more explicitly racist sections of the British mass media tend to paint the country exclusively as a source of marauding gypsy gangs. 

So, I look forward to sharing a more detailed post about the Bulgarian arts and music scene as I find out more.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Art in El Salvador

I have to confess to a quite extensive ignorance, until very recently, of the rich artistic culture of the tiny Central American country of El Salvador. Above the main entrance of Westminster Abbey, here in London, there stands a rendition in stone of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated on March 24 1980 by a CIA-backed death squad while saying mass, in the early stages of what would become a horrific, decade-long civil war.

So my abiding impression of this tiny country was one of darkness and pain.

What a delightful surprise it was, therefore, to discover the work of an artist like Fernando Llort, a Salvadoran artist who died only this year. Llort, described by some cultural institutions in the country as El Salvador's National Artist, produced bright, colourful, joyous paintings and murals, as well as a range of handicrafts. They have been described by some as reminiscent of the playfulness of Joan Miro.

Llort originally studied architecture before moving to Europe to continue his studies in theology in France and then Belgium, before settling on art while in the USA. To escape the tense political situation in the cities and large towns of his home country, Llort and a group of other artists moved to the town of La Palma, in the mountains up in the north of El Salvador, quite close to the border with Honduras.

Here they led a simple life, getting to know the landscape and people of the town well, and where Llort began to paint in the simple, two-dimensional primary colours he would later become synonymous with, where nature blends with day-to-day rural life. They carved handicrafts out of wood and sold them from their own Semilla de Dios (Seed of God) workshop, inspiring a local handicrafts movement, with many more cooperative workshops soon opening up in the local area.

Llort maintained his connections with the local handicrafts movement around La Palma even after he was forced to return to San Salvador.

You can see the work of Fernando Llort on his official website:

Monday, 24 September 2018

I have been discovering the popular music of Kazakhstan

I have found that, thanks to the interweb, I have been able to expand my musical horizons far beyond what I used to hear on John Peel or Andy Kershaw's radio shows, as I hope this post will demonstrate.

Kazakhstan is a not-insignificant-sized country which shares a very long border with Russia, and a somewhat shorter border with China, but which is generally associated by people in the west of a certain age (my own) with a deeply cringeworthy film and television character created by a British comedian and filmed on location, not in Kazakhstan at all, where his character is supposed to come from, but from a very poor part of the eastern European country of Romania.

You can imagine what a pleasant surprise it was therefore to discover that, not only was the real country of Kazakhstan not only home to the Soviet space program, and has facilities which still contribute to the international space program to this day, but that it is also a country that has had its own quite interesting homegrown music scene, often influenced by western pop styles, but also distinctly Kazakh.

The gateway group for me has been the progressive beat combo Dos-Mukasan.

Dos-Mukasan were a vocal and instrumental group created in 1967 by students of the Kazakh Polytechnic Institute in Alma-Ata (the former capital of Kazakhstan, in the south of the country, which is now called Almaty).

The founders of the ensemble and its first performers were Dosym Suleev, Murat Kusainov, Khamit Sanbayev, Alexander Litvinov (the name of the ensemble was due to the reduction of the names of the participants: Dos - the leader of the ensemble Dosym Suleev, Mu - Murat Kusainov, Ka - Kamit Sanbayev, "San" - Sanya (Alexander) Litvinov). Later, Dariga Tursunova, Sharip Omarov, Bakyt Dzhumadilov, Shomotov Aknay, Askar Djankushukov, Nurtas Kusainov and Kurmanay Omarova joined the ensemble.

They performed their own original works of psychedelic-tinged pop-rock in both the Kazakh and Russian languages. In an approach that was not unlike the artists of the Chilean “new song” movement, they also performed their own modern arrangements of classic Kazakh folk songs.

The first major performance of the group was in 1971, when they appeared at the All-Union Festival of Friendship of Peoples, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. They recorded several albums, in 1971, 1973, an eponymous album in 1976, 1980 and 1983, and won several awards at festivals from Minsk to Berlin.

Dos Mukasan performing an uptempo track on TV in 1972

I understand that founding member Dosym Suleev even went on to become the rector of his former college KazNTU.

Dos Mukasan appear to be such a significant part of Kazakh popular music that a bronze sculpture depicting the founding members of the group was even erected in 2008 on land owned by Pavlodar State University, Pavlodar, in north-eastern Kazakhstan.

They are far from alone, and there are many other musicians and performers from Kazakhstan, many of whom are still performing today. Notable examples include the Boomerang Jazz Ensemble (formed in 1973 in the town of Alma-Ata), electro group Medeo (known for their 1984 LP Ochotnik), and the singer Murat Ahmadiev (who sang in native dialect Uyghur).

Soul singer Roza Rymbaeva, who comes from a working class part of eastern Kazakhstan, is a graduate of the theatrical-artistic institute in Almaty, and began performing with groups like the Boomerang Jazz Ensemble and the pop band Gulder ("Flowers"), later on joining the pop band Arai, which her husband managed. She won the Gala-83 grand prize in Cuba, among many other song contests in eastern Europe. Sadly, because of the cold war, the distribution of her records was restricted to countries of the Soviet bloc during the 1970s and 80s, and it has only been since 2003 that record companies in the newly independent Kazakhstan have made her work available on CD.

Roza Rymbaeva on television in 1977, performing 
her tribute to Kazakh national hero Aliya Moldagulova, 
who died in defence of her motherland in 1944

In the period of independence there have been the younger pop groups to emerge like A'Studio, founded by Kazakh and Russian musicians in 1987 (as the USSR began to crumble), and more recently even a “boy band” called Ninety One.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Flashback Video

Here's a flashback to a video I uploaded to my YouTube channel about a year ago, when I was getting to grips with different kinds of software. The footage was shot from a moving tram as it passed through the suburbs of Melbourne using an old iPhone. I then ran the thing through iMovie, adding titles and credits, and added a musical score I had created myself using the GarageBand app, which we had installed on one of Jane's devices and felt like the right tempo. Its short and sweet gritty. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Hanworth's largest outdoor (unofficial) Street Art Gallery

An unofficial gallery of street art can be found in a derelict train yard. The site itself has been re-colonized by wilderness over the years, and recently has found itself slowly being transformed into an official Nature Reserve between Pevensey Road, Hanworth and South West Middlesex Crematorium.

Here are a few examples of the works on display by local artists. As is traditional, new works are painted over old. Presently you will find a nice mix of figurative and typographic. I'm afraid I do not know any of the artists whose work is presently on display, as I only became aware of the unofficial outdoor gallery when first attempting to walk the full Crane Valley, and I would caution anyone seeking to view the art in person to be careful as there is a lot of broken glass on the ground. Presumably some kind of interactive conceptual piece using found objects...

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Check out my NEW May Day design on Red Bubble!

If you like the Art Nouveau stylings of my May Day pencil drawing you may want to check out the higher resolution images now up on Red Bubble:

Thanks to the magic of Red Bubble you can also wear the design as a T-shirt, put it on your wall, or should you wish, get it as a greeting card to fill with messages of solidarity for your friends and family.

Monday, 30 April 2018

May Day

In many countries around the world May 1st - International Workers' Day - is a national holiday. My own country, alas, is not among them.

May Day has its roots in the rites and traditions of our pagan ancestors who celebrated the spring festival Beltane around this time of year. It became associated with the labour movement in the late nineteenth century, after the execution of labour organisers in Chicago, USA who had been fitted up by local authorities led to a wave of international solidarity, protests etc.

Today many people and unions around the world continue to use the day to remember the achievements of the labour movement over the years, of which the 8 hour day and weekends may be the most notable and frequently overlooked examples.