On a sweltering summer day in 1999, a crowd of 15,000 flamboyantly-dressed youngsters congregated outside Kravay, a cafe which had been a hot-bed of underground cultures through the 1980s. From there on, they raved their way towards the square overlooked by The Monument of the Soviet Army where the march turned into a full-blown open-air party.
It was common for touring international DJs to play in Bulgaria between gigs in the UK, Germany and the US.
That 1999 “Street Parade” was a true celebration of freedom — a natural culmination of a seismic decade of change. The event took place 10 years after (and as a homage to) The Love Festival, a rally for peace and unity which took place in 1989, five months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The next day, the Wall’s demise reverberated 1,300 kilometres south-east of Germany, triggering Bulgaria’s own “palace revolution” and ending the long reign of communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. This event in Sofia was regarded as the start of the Bulgarian transition to democracy — and as in Berlin, 10 years prior, techno music provided the soundtrack to that change.
“Everything was new and everything was happening for the first time. People could finally express themselves without the fear of being surveilled — techno offered them that space,” says Vladislav Iliev, referring to thе 1990s. An expert in Sofia’s party scene, Iliev is the founder of Bulgarian Rave Archive (BRA), an ongoing project preserving and digitising photographs, videos, interviews and printed matter from the late 1990s rave scene in Bulgaria. Beyond tracing a history of Sofia’s nightlife, he believes the archive tells an important story about the country’s shaky transition to democracy.
The archive focuses primarily on the period between 1999 and 2001, which is regarded as the peak of the electronic music scene in Bulgaria. The grounds for this renaissance were laid down by clubs such as Spartacus, Chervilo, Yalta, Blaze, and Fader, but above all Indigo, which attracted crowds from across the Balkans in a scale that is impressive even to this day. Each week would be punctuated by the arrival and departure of eccentrically dressed partygoers travelling to party in Sofia. “There were crowds of people in front of the club all desperately trying to get in,” recalls Agnes, who worked at Spartacus, one of the first clubs to introduce face control in Bulgaria. “I remember an incident where I had to turn down several clubbers for not dressing properly. Instead, they took all their clothes off and asked to go in.”
But the scene was not restricted to the capital or cities for that matter, with parties popping up in stadiums, beaches, squares, basements, attics and garages across the country. Plazma in Plovdiv and Comix in Varna were two pivotal clubs in the history of electronic music in Bulgaria; DJ Balthazar, who rose to fame in this period, said that the energy at Comix was “incomparable” to venues in the capital. The grounds were laid by small clubs and local DJs who were given weekday slots in commercial clubs to organise electronic music parties. But the most influential promoter was Metropolis, an offshoot of Atomwerk, and their sister brands, Forklift and Uplift, who organised parties all across Bulgaria.
The first foreign DJ to play in Sofia was German-Greek DJ Marusha, who was invited in March 1998 by Metropolis. DJ Steven, Metropolis’ renowned resident, says the party marked a turning point for the rave scene and even pushed local talent to go global, with Marusha returning to her show on Berlin’s Radio Fritz with fresh Bulgarian mixes. In the background of this rave, Bulgaria was still suffering the effects of economic instability and years of hyperinflation. While it took a full year for the Metropolis crew to organise their next party after DJ Marusha’s visit, they took active part in the national strikes and were even invited to DJ in the main square during Sofia’s protests. (Rumor has it that the newly elected president Petar Stoyanov, who was in opposition to the government of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, supplied the party at the protest with electricity from the building of the presidency.)
To know where the parties were, all you had to do was follow the crowd of sci-fi-looking partygoers. In this new post-communist reality, style was everything: it helped you both to identify with and stand out from the crowd. People really did go the extra mile to dress up, brandishing mohawks, spiky hair, chains, bantu knots, glitter paint, body piercings, and colourful make-up. Since getting ready was just as important a ritual as the party itself, a slew of shops had opened up catering to ravers’ outfit needs; among these, the most recognised was Streetmania, which had locations in Sofia and Varna. But apart from those shops, performer and DJ Yasen Zgurovski shared how he borrowed clothes from his female friends and designers or invented wild outfits by sewing his own clothes.
Between 1999 and 2001, the Bulgarian rave scene exploded. It was common for touring international DJs to play in Bulgaria between gigs in the UK, Germany and the US. What was most remarkable was the turnout in Bulgaria, which was huge especially compared with Sofia’s nightlife today. Some clubs catered for crowds of a few-thousand partygoers, and the series of Street Parade throughout 1999-2001 gathered 20,000 people. When German DJ Sven Väth arrived in Sofia to play at Metropolis in 2000, the club was so packed for a Wednesday night that he assumed it was a public holiday. The BRA includes clips and interviews with other DJs also remarking on the special energy of the Bulgarian crowds during that time. “It’s a hundred times better than I ever thought it was going to be,” said says Luke Slater in one of the videos, referring to a party he played at in 2000 in Sozopol. “I mean this is…how it should be. This is why some places are forgotten but some places are remembered. These people here are the real hardcore.”
To grasp just how much the rave scene infiltrated everyday culture, all you have to do is look at recordings of Techno, a programme which aired on the Bulgarian National Television between 1999 and 2005. Even with the internet and online forums, a TV crew would regularly report from the clubs, as overly excited partygoers showed their outlandish outfits and erratic dance moves to the cameras. Many of the visual materials that make up BRA come from Techno, while others were provided by party promoter Metropolis. A majority of photographs and videos were also sourced from personal archives.
But even before Techno aired its final episode, the enthusiasm had started fading away. After three glorious years marked by peace, love, and freedom, at the very end of 2001, a tragic incident shook the club scene: when seven teenagers were killed in a stampede at Indigo, the party mecca of the rave revolution. Though it is acknowledged as a national tragedy, no arrests were made but a police crackdown on parties had followed. From then on, the rave scene was never the same. Not only did the tragedy have knock-on effects on people’s spirit, the generation involved in the scene was also soon growing up.
Post-2001 there was less of a feeling of unity as the scene became much more heterogenous musically and culturally. Partygoers switched to the increasingly popular drum and bass nights and clubs became more commercial, as did Metropolis, the promoters who catalysed the events at the turn of the century.
“We have a tendency to forget our past. [BRA] is focused on refreshing the memory and making a connection between the generations,” says Iliev, who put together a multidisciplinary exhibition of the archive’s materials in September 2021. The immaculate production of the exhibition and the immersive experience which it gave visitors made up for an unequivocal public approval. But its main value is the continuity it establishes between the then and the now.
The BRA features interviews with punters and DJs who were the driving forces in the scene in the current day. Laylla Dane, a regular raver back then, is now a recongised DJ and the curator of Wake Up Stran-Jah, one of the most exciting music festivals in Bulgaria. Yassen Zgurovski who shape shifts into Julieta Intergalactica, a nightlife superhero, is an accomplished DJ, performer and programme curator at Tell Me Bar in Sofia — one of the most active clubs in the scene right now. Strahil Velchev aka KiNK who appears as a young DJ in one of the videos from the archive is perhaps the most internationally renowned Bulgarian music producer and live performer. And the crew behind Metropolis are still standing strong organising huge parties every few months.
Covid-19 may have halted the growth of the otherwise burgeoning underground party scene in Bulgaria. Perhaps for it to return in strength, what is helpful is to look to its techno past.