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...”

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: