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Top of the (Neighbors’) Pops

An interesting communist-era, TV-watching trend in the Balkans has its repercussions – even today. 

by Boyko Vassilev 6 October 2017

It was not surprising that his death last month struck a chord from Maribor, Slovenia to Mavrovo, Macedonia: Serb actor Ljubisa Samardzic was one of the greatest stars of former Yugoslavia. Everybody knew Surda, his hero from the 1980 series “Vruc vetar” (“Hot Wind”). You can still ask any musician performing in a restaurant in Belgrade, Skopje, or Zagreb to sing the theme song, the nostalgic sirtaki (a popular dance of Greek origin) called “A Sad Adio” (“And Now, Adieu). Folks just loved him.

 

No, all of this was not astonishing. The only surprise was that the Yugo star’s passing made headlines also in Bulgaria, which was not part of Yugoslavia. And yet, Bulgarians loved Ljubisa, and not only him.

 

Here, people from the elder generations know by heart the popular culture of their former neighbor. They have watched Yugoslav films, starring Ljubisa Samardzic and Velimir “Bata” Zivojinovic. They were able to recognize not just TV personalities, but radio ones as well, like Milovan “Minimaks” Ilic. They have listened to Yugoslav rock; Zeljko Bebek from “Bijelo Dugme” once told me that it was in Bulgaria where the group members realized they were stars.

 

But most of all, Bulgarians enjoyed Yugo – folk, later dubbed “turbo folk.” Folk singers Lepa Brena and Miroslav Ilic filled stadiums in this country. I remember whole villages that learned Serbian in order to enjoy more fully their favorite songs about wine, love, and parting. That was no easy task for native Bulgarian speakers, given that Bulgarian, unlike Serbian, does not have noun cases.

 

The reverse was not true. Serbs, Croats, and Macedonians knew far less about the popular culture of communist Bulgaria. Language similarities did not help; their common origin did not make things easier.

 

Yet Bulgarian TV and pop music had another, unexpected fan abroad – the audience of fellow communist neighbor Romania. People from Bucharest and Constanta, on the Romanian Black Sea coast, watched Bulgarian television in prodigious numbers. I still meet Romanians who remember Bulgarian hits (sung by female singers who wore more revealing clothes than their Romanian counterparts, they say); know by heart the jingles of Studio X, a Bulgarian TV slot for crime movies; and can even recall primetime news programs. Tellingly, Romanian (a Latin language) is a lot more different than Bulgarian compared to Serbian, let alone Macedonian (the latter three are Slavonic). But, linguistic differences aside, content was what really mattered.

 

Under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s economy was a disaster – leading to rigid, boring, and severely censored entertainment. The situation in Bulgaria was not much better. However, under its leader Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Union in 1948 and, although it remained communist and autocratic, imported some “Western” traits, among them relative freedom of expression in the entertainment sector, and few travel restrictions for most Yugoslavs. Hence the freer and shinier pop industry.

 

In other words, TV watching in communist Southeastern Europe followed an east-to-west trend. Romanians watched Bulgarian TV, Bulgarians watched Yugoslav TV, Yugoslavs watched Italian TV. This required technical adjustments. My classmates devised elaborated TV antennas “to catch the Serbs” – meaning their channels. The price of weekend villas around Sofia increased if they could provide better access to TV Belgrade. People liked not only the U.S. movies broadcast on the station (much rarer in Bulgaria at that time) but also that Yugoslavs allowed many things that were scarce on Bulgarian TV screens – cursing, criticizing, making love.

 

Ljubisa Samardzic’s “Hot Wind” was an absolute hit, which also aired on Bulgarian TV in the 1980s. The 24 hours daily newspaper has claimed that even party leader Todor Zhivkov interrupted meetings to watch it. Samardzic once visited Bulgaria to participate in a New Year’s show – and the nation was thrilled. He befriended his Bulgarian colleagues and created pals for life. Naturally enough, many were sad to hear that the 81-year-old, tall and smiley actor is not there anymore to make them laugh or cry.

 

Memories are not the sole remains of those days. Bulgarians still have more respect toward the Serbs than vice versa, and look down on Romanians. As a rule, Balkan people still think the grass is greener next door. However, they rush to compete for the biggest prize ever – to beat their neighbors at whatever they can – and prove that maybe that isn’t quite true.

 

Popular culture still marks the way we see the world. Fine details and profound thoughts are shunned, and what is left is pain and pleasure. 

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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