In the 1980s, the hips of Eastern European youth began to shake to the rhythms of disco. Hailing from the West in a time of decreased censorship, the hypnotic grooves of bands from Great Britain and America raged through the discotheques of the Eastern Bloc during a strange, new time in its history. Reforms and reimaginings of communism swept through the region. Exciting and apocalyptic possibilities lurked around the corner, all of which were soundtracked by the four-on-the-floor beats of Western bands and their Eastern European proteges. (My father, who grew up in Ukraine, is among the many Eastern Europeans of that era who can bust a move to any Boney M song they come across). The 1980s were a terrifying era in Eastern Europe, but they also invigorated the youth—fresh sounds entered through the Iron Curtain and the region danced to them together, smiling and packed in close.
This is the landscape so palpably reconstructed in Kaloyan Kolev’s (PM ’23) debut album, Ramonia. Kolev, who goes by the artist name Kurt Kolev, uses samples almost exclusively from ‘80s-era Bulgarian music in an attempt to create an album that is untranslatable. “All the good musicians in Bulgaria try to make music in English, but in that way they miss out on having a core of people who are hyper-passionate about what they do,” Kolev explains. “My theory was that if you make something so hyper-local, so hyper-specific to places and experiences that people have, it would resonate more. This is what I was craving as a listener.”
The archival material from which Kolev pulls ranges from news clips to adult films to ‘80s music (particularly disco). Kolev is clearly quite charmed by the Bulgarian past. In part, this obsession seems to have come from a degree of homesickness—his interest in Bulgarian material only began when he moved to the states for college. “I didn’t care all that much before,” he tells me, “but ever since I came to Yale, I’ve been really obsessed with making stuff about my home country.” However, there is also an aspect of political and social attraction, a fascination with the socialist past from the perspective of a neoliberal present. Kolev began finding the samples for this album in April 2020 after moving back to Bulgaria mid-semester due to COVID. One can understand why someone trapped in their room during quarantine would fall in love with European disco, with all its emphasis on communality, hopefulness, and human closeness. European disco is rough around the edges, sometimes explicitly ripping melodies from American songs and changing the words. However, this provinciality, so absent in much of contemporary music, is precisely what Kolev seems drawn to.
Ramonia’s hyper-specific sonic palette acts as a base for Kolev to explore contemporary sounds—at times with knocking house beats, at times with subterranean Jungle, and at times with Oneohtrix Point Never-style ambient plunderphonics. The samples are sometimes very subtle, like the brief vocal chops on “Платен Провокатор” (Paid Instigator) or the snippets of guitar floating around the edges of “Шлагер” (Shlager). Interlaced with Kolev’s own fantastically dreamy synthesizer melodies and futuristic beats, these references build a distinct soundscape in which past and present styles stand face to face with one another. It is a confrontation between the old and the new that is simultaneously beautiful and uncomfortable, much like the cover of the album. The artwork features a gorgeous yet unsettling painting in which Kolev’s home—an old, Brutalist building from the socialist era of Bulgaria—stands opposite a newly constructed skyscraper.
Kolev lists the electronic music genre Vaporwave as one of his inspirations for the album. Much like Kolev’s music, Vaporwave pulls samples from the past and presents them as artifacts of longing, begging the question, “Were they happier back then?” Yet while Vaporwave answers with a smooth and melancholy “Yes,” Kolev positions his work in the peripheries of that question, exploring the contrast between the past and the present and finding fascinating textures at their intersection. These textures conjure a sometimes eerie and uncomfortable atmosphere—tracks like “Шлагер” and “Няма страшно, имам време” (No Worries, I Got Time) are frantically restless, with disco samples that rush to keep pace with the pulsing house beats that drive them, while songs like “Изпуснах забвението” (I Missed Out on Oblivion) and “Хорни 1989” (Horny 1989) unsettle the listener with their otherworldly slowness and distortion. Each track’s atmosphere richly layers the naivety of the past with the hyper-aware anxiety of the present. Kolev expresses this lyrically as well as sonically, seen clearly in the startlingly personal and sincere track “Слънчев Бряг” (Sunny Beach), a song about Kolev’s experience on the outskirts of parties, wanting to have fun in the moment but being unable to. The album’s dystopian view of the present is most transparent in the album’s closer, “Нашият Град” (Our Town), which samples a cheerful Bulgarian disco song about small-town love, but deconstructs it into a haunted landscape of ghostly voices and stuttering fax machines, rewriting the lyrics into a story of an abandoned town where nothing happens.
Most impressively, Рамония presents an unflinchingly contemporary approach to its material, examining the past through the musical styles and mentalities of the digital present. Perhaps the image of this album is not that of Bulgarians dancing to disco in the ’80s, but that of a YouTube video of Bulgarians dancing to disco in the ’80s, viewed late at night by a tired teenager on their phone. The role of the Internet is central here, acting both as a homogenizing force which Kolev’s music resists, and as the very tool allowing Kolev access to his samples. Kolev is actively concerned with the homogenization and Americanization of culture in the era of social media: “The Internet is very Anglo-dominated,” he explains to me. “I grew up on the Internet, on Twitter and Youtube, watching these Americans… And so my whole thesis was the fact that there’s not enough Bulgaria on the internet means—give it thirty years—everything’s gonna disappear. Things that are physical are going to get lost, and if it’s not online you don’t have access to it.” There is a defensiveness of local Bulgarian art here, a fear that Bulgarian music cannot thrive unless it appeals to Western listeners. Kolev actively attempts to combat that process of disappearance with his sampling. Yet beyond Kolev’s serious project of preserving Bulgarian culture in the Internet age, Kolev clearly had immense fun putting this album together. Listening to Ramonia, one experiences second-hand the pleasures of picking through old material and finding the hilarious obscurities and hidden gems. Kolev grapples with the anxieties of the digital present, but he also explores the wonderful pleasures it affords us—the ability to look back upon the past and find its treasures, to let the old rhythms of disco move our hips and maybe even bring us close again.