Azis is a Romani Bulgarian chalga (Bulgarian folk/pop) singer, international star, LGBTQ icon, and Romani activist. Azis’s stage persona is characterized by many looks, including his trademark bleached hair and goatee, wide though athletic girth, extensive use of feminine makeup emphasizing his eyes, and outlandish campy costumes that trend toward cross-dressing. Azis performs an eclectic mix of Romani music, traditional Bulgarian and Turkish folk music, Bollywood, and Western pop. His extravagant style and fondness for controversy have helped to elevate Azis to superstardom in his native land. Embracing Trans and Bear aesthetics, he is an icon in both communities as well as the larger Gay community.
Azis was born Vasil Troyanov Boyanov on 7 March 1978 in Sliven, home to a large Roma community. At age eleven, Boyanov moved to a working class neighborhood in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, where he performed with his family ensemble and impersonated Michael Jackson. After the fall of communism in 1989-1990, the family relocated to Stuttgart, Germany before eventually returning to Bulgaria. He was called “Vasko” as a child, and adopted “Azis” as his stage name after hearing it in a Turkish film when he was eighteen.
As a teenager, Azis returned to Bulgaria to live with his grandmother. He began singing traditional Gypsy music at weddings and in bars. In an interview with Michael Palin, Azis described how he experienced racism against his people as a youth when his mother took him to film castings, only to be rejected out of hand for being Roma and having darker skin. In 1999, He got his first big break when he signed with Marathon Records and recorded his first album, Pain, completing the transformation from Vasko to his glamorous Trans persona, Azis.
Chalga, often described to as Bulgarian folk pop, is a blend of Romani, Turkish, and Bulgarian folk music set to a synthesized pop beat. Derived from the Turkish term for “musical instrument,” chalga combines a legacy of centuries of Ottoman Turkish domination of the Balkan Peninsula with a slick western pop aesthetic. Most mainstream chalga acts are fronted by a charismatic vocalist (often a scantily clad female) crooning in Bulgarian about love and other lyrical mainstays of pop music. The instrumentation is a blend of synthesizer and clarinet or saxophone. Although chalga is enormously popular in Bulgaria, it is reviled as lowbrow or even vulgar by its critics due to a reputation as more “pop” than “folk” and its association with Roma.
Chalga emerged during the waning years of communist rule in Bulgaria and was prohibited by the government until communism fell in 1989. Coming into the twenty-first century, it has grown into a large industry, and Azis is one of the few Romani vocalists to gain a presence in it. Azis infuses Romani music, Bollywood themes, and Queer showmanship, tempered by a dose of American pop aesthetic, to the formulaic chalga base. He often works in collaboration with other musicians in genres such as Bulgarian folk, techno house, and hip-hop. When headlining, the other bands generally consist of Gypsy musicians. Azis dares to sing live, a rarity in the chalga industry.
Sexual Identity and Controversy
During the height of his popularity, Azis presented a gender-blending image. The blonde beard and heavyset physique were often juxtaposed with fishnet stockings and a propensity toward eyeliner. His costumes range from sado-masochistic masculinity (leather and spikes) to demure femininity (sequins and gowns). His sexually provocative music videos feature imagery of homo- and hetero-eroticism. Azis’s stage persona is more about shock for the sake of performance than to consistently present a specific gender identity. In this sense, his image could be compared to that of David Bowie (circa his Ziggy Stardust persona), Annie Lennox (when she was with the Eurythmics), or Marilyn Manson: gender ambiguity for the sake of pop.
Azis’s rise to superstardom was closely linked to the gender identity of his public persona. About the time of his second album, Muzhete Sushto Plachet (“Men Also Cry,” 2000), Azis began to experiment with the gender identity of his stage persona, which he described in a 2007 interview with Garth Cartwright:
That’s when the visual change started in me – I would appear on stage in makeup and started bleaching my hair. I don’t know why I shouldn’t put makeup on when my female colleagues can go on stage only in bra and knickers. And for those who criticize me I only say, “Hate me, that makes me live.”
The following year, Azis released a video to the song “Hvani Me” (“Catch Me”) in which he appeared in Bollywood drag and licked milk off the chests of two strapping men. The ensuing controversy gave birth to Azis’ superstardom in the land of his birth.
Marriage and Billboards
Despite the blatantly homoerotic imagery of his stage persona, Azis was mum about his sexual orientation for many years. However, in 2006, he married his longtime boyfriend, Nikolai “Kitaetsa” Petrov Purvanov, though their union was not legally recognized in Bulgaria. The marriage was fully documented by the Bulgarian tabloids. In August of 2007, Azis became the father of Raya, his biological daughter conceived with his long-time friend, Gala. Raya has been raised by Azis and Kitaetsa, providing further fodder for the tabloids.
In November of 2007, billboards featuring an image of Azis and Kitaetsa in an erotic embrace were removed on the order of then mayor of Sofia (and future Bulgarian Prime Minister), Boyko Borisov. The billboards, which Borisov removed (citing complaints and a negative public reaction), were an advertisement for a new Bulgarian television station, TV2. Members of the media believe that controversy over the removal of the billboards – widely interpreted as reflecting a double standard and protested by LGBTQ and civil rights organizations – was an expected part of the publicity stunt.
In 2009, Azis would once again provoke a billboard controversy with advertisements featuring himself and Bulgarian hip-hop artist, Vanko1. The billboard, this time, was a political ad for the Novoto Vreme (“New Time”) party featuring the slogan “I am ready to change, are you? I am ready for change with Emil Koshlukov.” Azis is an active member of Euroroma, a Bulgarian socially liberal political party interested in protecting the interests of Roma in Bulgaria. Though not as patriotic as his LGBTQ Turkish predecessors (cross-dressing male singer Zeki Muren and transwoman Bulent Ersoy), Azis has become active in the Roma rights movement, using his transnational superstardom to draw attention to political needs of the Roma minority.
Azis in Other Media
Beyond music and billboards, Azis has a considerable media presence in Bulgaria. He was the host of Azis’ Late Night Show, a talk show on the Bulgarian PRO.BG network. In 2007, Azis and Kitaetsa were contestants on Big Brother VIP Bulgaria 2. For the English-speaking world, Azis was seen in the BBC travel documentary, Michael Palin’s New Europe.
Azis’ girth and fondness for full-figured muscle men has brought him acclaim from the Bear community. His video for “No Kazvam Ti Stiga” (“But I’m Telling You, Enough”) was praised on the website Bearotic: Entertainment for Bears and the Furry at Heart. Featuring Azis in business masculine and exotically feminine personas, and homoerotic moments between sweaty and scantily-dressed muscle Bears, it is described as “one of his most provocative and bearotic videos.” A review for Bearotic by NetBear in January 2008 outlines the plot:
Manly businessman Azis smokes a cigar as he talks to a room full of studly young men. They get sent off to change into their Daisy Dukes and hardhats. That’s where some locker room action starts to sizzle. The trio then heads off to a construction site to jackhammer while a transmogrified Sistah Azis sings her heart out… one of the construction workers shows his admiration for butch boss Azis. If you remember where this music video was filmed and televised, you have to admire Azis for blowing open the closet door so well.
Azis and Bollywood
Scholarship on the Roma has shown that their ancestors were originally from Northwest India and migrated westward in approximately 1200 CE. Among the names the Roma were given in Europe was “Gypsy,” based on the incorrect assumption they came from Egypt. The Roma connection to India is performative as well as historical. Contemporary Romani musicians are aware that they are descended from India, and more of them are exploring Indian artistic themes.
In the Cartwright interview, Azis described a strong Romani attraction to Indian music and dance:
A friend of my father gave me a cassette of Indian music and it impressed me very much, I listened to it day and night. My father saw my voice was not too different from Indian voices. The women of India impressed me very much and whenever they showed Bollywood movies at the cinema hundreds of Gypsies would be waiting and when the movie started we would all begin to cry.
Garth Cartwright on Azis: October 2003 Concert in Sophia
[I]n October 2003 he attracted 15,000 fans to Sofia’s National Stadium for an epic performance. Fronting a hot Gypsy band and flanked by a female bodybuilder and a local Playboy model wearing little more than body paint, Azis sang duets with several comely chalga stars, was groped by leather boys, surrounded by belly and fire dancers and even introduced his mother – a beautiful woman who grabbed the mic’ and gives thanks to God for her son.
Beyond spectacle, Azis possesses the brightest smile in town and sings in a voice charged with eerie, erotic beauty, quite unlike all I’ve heard before. The arrangements are strong, the band – led by Boril Iliev – cook up the chalga and the audience, dancing and holding lighters aloft, gets Thracian. It’s Stadium Gypsy, good, unclean fun and I’d lay down lev to see him again.
Beekman, Rene. “Popfolk Star Azis Enters Politics.” The Sofia Echo. 27 June 2009. www.sofiaecho.com/2009/06/27/745212_popfolk-star-azis-enters-politics, accessed July 2010.
Beekman, Rene. “’Scandalous’ Azis Billboards Taken Down in Sofia.” The Sofia Echo. 21 Nov 2007. www.sofiaecho.com/2007/11/21/657593_scandalous-azis-billboards-taken-down-in-sofia, accessed July 2010.
“Bulgaria’s Gay Icon Becomes Father.” Noinvite.com – Sofia News Agency. 5 August 2007. www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=83861, accessed July 2010.
Cartright, Garth. “Azis: The Brightest Smile in Town.” Garthcartright.com n. d. 5 August 2007. www.garthcartwright.com/3Azis.htm, accessed 2010.
www.palinstravels.co.uk/, accessed July 2010.
Silverman, Carol. Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora. Oxford: Oxford University, 2011.
Azis—No Kazvam ti stiga (High Quality). www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBeLVoWgraQ&NR=1, accessed 2010.
Michael Palin in Bulgaria: Interview with Azis. www.youtube.com/watch?v=whi99J4B_2Q, accessed July 2010.