Continuing our survey of the international development of Christian music, Jan Willem Vink reports from BULGARIA.

Dany and Elitza
Dany and Elitza

In our exploration of Christian music around the world, we're focussing in on Bulgaria this issue. This may seem as absurd as opening our series with Egypt. But Christian music is today an international cultural phenomenon. Because there are Christians in this small, former communist country, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to find there is Christian music being made here.

Though very small, the embryonic Bulgarian Christian music scene is very much alive. For our investigation into what's going on in Bulgaria we spoke to Piet Aalders, who is sales manager for Alliance Music Benelux. One of his tasks is to develop the Eastern European market for Alliance and supply Christian music in countries where this is very much a novelty. Piet's current involvement in the Dutch Christian music scene is very much a result of a combined passion for Christian music and the Eastern European church.

It all started when Georgian Banov, the former lead singer of the American trio Silverwind, visited Piet's home. Banov is the most well known Bulgarian-born Christian musician. During the communist era, he fled the country and went to the United States where in the '70s he became a Christian and with Silverwind part of an internationally successful CCM act.

Piet was fascinated with the story of Georgian's life and of the Church in Eastern Europe. "About two years later, on 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell," remembers Piet. "I recall watching television until deep in the night. It was something deeply moving. Something we had prayed for for a long time had become reality."

After the collapse of Germany's political divisions, more countries got rid of their communist regimes. And with Bulgaria opening its borders, Georgian Banov went on an evangelistic trip to his home country. Among the people Georgian led to the Lord was his mother! Georgian Banov invited Piet to come over to Bulgaria. Those three weeks changed Piet's life. "I was very much impacted by the hunger for the Gospel," explains Piet. "But on the other hand, there was an absolute lack of resources." Piet developed a close relationship with Plamen Tzolov, a young pastor of the Rhema Church in the country's capital, Sofia.

Some of the Bulgarians sang English praise and worship songs, but because of the language barrier many people weren't able to sing along. The only Christian music that had been able to survive under the communist regime were some orthodox priests singing Gregorian Chant! There weren't even hymnbooks! Piet: "The Lord told me very clearly that I had to do something about this situation."

The Bulgarian connection also meant that Piet got involved in GMI Music Partners on a closer level. Previously, he'd only been a consultant, but soon joined their staff as sales director and become closely involved in developing the Eastern European market.

Piet started selecting well-known songs from the 'People's Praise' series. This series of albums features both the songs and the backing tracks. He sent a compilation of 25 songs to Bulgaria and requested them to translate the songs into Bulgarian. After 10 days he got a call that the songs were translated and could be recorded! However, there was no studio available.

In 1992 the money became available to record the tape and print the artwork. The songs had been tried out and it seemed quite obvious that they had to be recorded in the Netherlands. Then a long hard period of struggle began to get visas for three Bulgarians to come over. Piet found that in order to get a visa, an invitation had to be sent to the embassy in Sofia. The visas were refused however. Piet decided to call the Dutch embassy in Sofia himself and found out that the procedure had to go through the Ministry of Justice, then had to be verified by the Dutch embassy in Sofia and then had to go to the Ministry of Social Affairs for a work permit. With only six days to go, Piet was faced with a procedure that normally took four to six weeks.

"Then I got a call from Sofia that the Bulgarian church wasn't able to finance the trip," says Piet. "We had all the permissions, but they had only $336 where we needed $900 to bring them over. We didn't know how to transfer the money, so I called Georgian Banov. He knew of a bank in New York that could do it, however after a day and a half they called us and told us it was impossible to transfer the money."

When Piet called Plamen Tzolov and told the tragic news, he was transferred to an American visitor, who accidentally happened to visit the Bulgarian pastor. The American had an American Express credit card and promised to lend the money to the Bulgarian pastor. With all the money, visas and permits arranged, it seemed everything was ready. But on the next Sunday morning Piet got a call from Plamen that all paperwork and money had been stolen from his car! Everything was gone.

"I became very angry because I sensed the Devil was trying this key project," remembers Piet. "I did not accept it. So I called two neighbouring churches and went to our own church where we prayed specifically for this concern. At eight I had another call. At 8.00 in the evening the tickets, visas and permits of the two female singers, Dany and Elitza, had been found in a garden! The next morning we decided we would bring Dany and Elitza over. In the meantime we would try to get a ticket for Toni. Even though the plane was delayed for a couple of hours, Toni, the male singer, wasn't able to make it. Dany and Elitza gave everything they had and worked long hard hours in the studio. After three weeks Toni got a new visa and work permits and came to the Netherlands to add his vocals to the tape. "Then we found that God uses everything for good," says Piet. "Because of the situation, Dany, Elitza and Toni gave everything they could when they were in Holland. If the three of them had come over in one go the quality wouldn't have been as good as it is now."

The tape made a tremendous impact in the churches in Bulgaria. It has sold thousands of copies and many letters confirm this album has been the work of the Holy Spirit. Through listening, numerous people have been blessed and given their lives to Christ. After a while a second tape was recorded.

But Bulgarian Christian music isn't only limited to the Church. The Rhema Church in Sofia is supporting the symphonic rock band Millenium as well. This band got some international recognition when they performed at the Dutch Flevo Festival last year and released a six track CD, titled 'Change Your Life', through Spark Music. The Dutch journalist Andre Verschoor spoke with lead singer Toni Grozdanov last year.


Their preparations for their Dutch visit were almost as troublesome as the preparations for the praise tape, which Toni sang on as well. Shortly before the festival they heard the airline had gone bankrupt and their tickets were of no value any more.

The band told Andre they believe in the power of prayer. "Three years ago, they began praying for an open door to the West and now have been invited to the Flevo Festival. The Gospel has no borders and so we believe we are here to bless and encourage people."

Toni became a Christian when a friend was to have had a leg amputated. 'This person shared his faith in the Lord. A miracle happened and his leg was saved. When I heard this I wanted to know and serve this God. God taught us to put our trust in him. I prayed for an acoustic guitar for over a year and for an electric guitar for a year as well. We pray for everything. We have learnt to be patient. When the answer to prayer comes, you are very thankful, although it is not easy not having the money and go to the store to buy the guitar."

The Rhema Church was founded in Toni's home. "Years ago we started in our home with only 10 people. Except the Orthodox Church, there was no other church to go to, no place for praise and worship and where you could start a relationship with the living God. Within six months there were 70 people and right now we have about 400 members."

During the communist regime it was hard to build a church. Some people ended up in jail. When Toni tried to flee the country, he too ended up in prison. "I got there with no trial and I have never seen any charges," remembers Toni. "When they brought me into prison I had no future, no hope and no possessions. But God told me to trust in him. But that is very hard, if you feel just like Paul. At a certain point I was released. For no reason, without any papers or reasoning. That was a miracle. It made me realise I am nothing without Jesus."

Toni says that the communist regime is gaining power again in Bulgaria. "They're trying to close the churches again. They try to disturb any evangelism by not allowing any permits. But in all we trust the Lord. The emphasis of our life is our witness and that we want to tell about what God has done in our lives. He gives us joy when we seek him and we are in trouble. Then we get on our knees and trust in him. Time and time again I see I become stronger and my faith in the Lord has only become bigger. I can only do my work because God is blessing us. Of course that could be because we are not very rich. But I am a blessed man, I do have a guitar and I do have a new shirt and it is God who liberated me from prison. I want to testify about that God, in whom I have put all my trust."

One of the members of Millenium is currently recording an instrumental jazz rock album. But such talent is still scarce in Bulgaria. Although there are a lot of good musicians in Bulgaria they have been trained in classical music rather than pop music.

When Millenium released their first English album, they presented it with Piet Aalders on Radio Express Bulgaria, the main national secular rock station. There is no Christian radio in Bulgaria. There are a couple of small companies that distribute CCM and praise and worship in Bulgaria. One of them is called Ama, meaning 'Unity', owned by Elitza and Dani, the two girls who sang on the first praise tape. Another company, Studio 865, is owned by a man named Stoyko Petkov. He recently started distributing the product of Alliance Music in this country.

"Bands like Stryper, Petra, White Cross and White Heart are very popular in Bulgaria," says Piet. "But also Silverwind is quite popular. The Silverwind 'Gold' album is produced in Bulgaria as well. A lot of praise and worship albums sell between 250 and 500 copies."

It's not easy for the Bulgarian Christian music scene. "There are hardly any chances to perform," comments Piet. "There is clear persecution in Bulgaria. Buildings are confiscated and the evangelical Christians are labelled as sectarian in the Bulgarian press. Parents of evangelical children are told their children have become prostitutes or drug addicts. It's hard to get a job as a Christian. There is still a lot of fear, even after 40 years of communist regime.

Yet things have changed in Bulgaria. Piet remembers one moment they were evangelising on the streets in Atophol. An old man was listening with lots of attention. After their presentation was over, he gripped both Piets' hands, but couldn't say a whole lot because he was crying. Piet: "40 years ago he'd become a Christian and had spent 36 years in prison. He'd been tortured. At one point they put him in a case which they pierced with nails. This man had only four fingers left and his legs were broken at different places. The next evening he was there again, while several policemen were listening carefully as well. This brother couldn't believe what was happening.

"When I visited this city a year later, this man had gone to be with the Lord. But he tasted the free proclamation of the Gospel in Bulgaria. That freedom is now under threat. So keep praying for these people!"

I ask Piet what we can do for the Christians in Bulgaria. Piet's advice is simple. "Pray on a daily basis for the Bulgarian Christians. Pray for protection, that they can continue to witness. That even though the persecution is there, the churches will continue to grow. If people want to get in touch with the Rhema Church for instance, they can contact me through this magazine."

Fact File
Geographic location: Balkan state adjoining Turkey, Greece, Macedonia Serbia and Romania.
Population: 9,036,000 Density: 81 people per sq km
Capital city: Sofia
Peoples: Slavic 84%, Turkic 11% (officially 9%), Gypsy 4.6%, Other 0.4%
Official languages: Bulgarian, and locally, Turkish
Economy: One of Europe's poorest countries. Communism left a legacy of inefficient, polluting heavy industry. Since 1990 some progress in liberalising the economy and adapting to market forces.
Religion: Orthodoxy the state religion until 1945. Communist oppression and ruthless control of denominational leadership until 1989. The new democratic constitution proclaims freedom for all. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.