Following the drastic political and economic changes that started in 1989, the Balkans found themselves in excessive social instability, with bickering tension between ethnic groups and surging nationalist sentiments in former Yugoslavia that led to several armed conflicts and eventually the NATO bombings of 1999.
While they were hardly any US bands to tour the Balkans in the 90’s, the first North American bands to come in the area, as far as I remember, were Born Dead Icons from Canada and North Carolina’s Catharsis.
Coming from small towns in the South in the United States, far from New York City or other epicenters of the hardcore scene, Catharsis have always made a point of traveling as far and wide as they could, not just focusing on the major scenes in the West. For them, it wasn’t just the curiosity but a conscious political decision at the time.
With their anarchist politics and DIY attitude, it’s only natural for a band like Catharsis to take the punk scene as a space of collective self-education and international communication, where people can learn about the different political situations around the world by connecting with each other directly.
Over the Walls of Nationalism and War
“It was important to us to learn more and create more lines of communication between punks in the US and the Balkans, especially following the wars in former Yugoslavia.”, says Brian D., the singer of Catharsis.
“In the course of the last tour that brought us to Europe, we went to Zagreb, Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Sofia, and Varna, among other places.” This last Catharsis tour lasted five months, and the band played in almost 100 venues, mostly squatted social centers scattered around old military barracks or abandoned factories, remnants of the highly militarized and industrialized state-communist regime.
“In Banja Luka, we played in an underground space that I believe had been a bomb shelter”, continues Brian.
“The punks we met in Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia during our visits in 1999 and 2001 were some of the most politically conscious and anti-nationalist people we met on those tours. We didn’t see nationalism in the hardcore punk scene at that time. However, the first show we played in Banja Luka, in 1999, was one of the first big shows to take place there after the war, so all sorts of different people came—not just punks, but also soldiers with their dates, etc. It was a sort of tense environment! But I always think it is good to confront people with anarchist and anti-nationalist politics, and I am glad whenever there is a chance to do this outside the usual audience.”
Varna Gig: Dance sing scream until your lungs bleed
Situated along the seaside line in the northeastern part of the country, Varna is the sea capital and the cradle of the Bulgarian DIY hardcore punk scene back in 1988. Notable bands from Varna in the 90’s include Confront, Ignore, Incase, Meanstream, Dissident, and Indignity, the last one still active to this day.
During their 2001 Balkan tour, Catharsis played two gigs in Bulgaria. The first one in Sofia—where the scene was pretty much based on the NYHC sound—and then the Varna show on November 16, 2001. The venue for this unforgettable night in Varna was “Orbita” youth center, a legendary place for the hardcore punk scene in the city at that time. The bands who shared the stage with Catharsis were Antipod, Indignity, Relief, and Another Day.
“I remember they were the first US band to ever come and play in Varna”, recalls Stanislav Nikolov, guitar player of Indignity and singer in Another Day. “The majority of kids have had no idea what to expect that night and you could clearly see it on their faces. It was a brute force… a pure and untamed hardcore punk energy that hit everyone. They were playing with Alexei Rodriguez on the drums, he used to be in many other bands… that kind of a man was completely nuts. He had surrounded himself with the drums and just smashed them. He slept at my place after the show and when I asked him how come he could play with such an intense energy, he told me that it wasn’t unusual to collapse in exhaustion or throw up sometimes, but the constant practice is the key.” The most passionate and unforgettable show ever. The people were talking about that night for a long time afterwards. Dance, sing, scream until your lungs bleed as Catharsis’ lyrics go.
Dance around the flames of a world spinning down
“Sabbat was inspired as a response to the opening of the song by Trio Bulgarka—a sort of dialogue spanning continents and musical traditions. I didn’t have any formal musical training, but I did try to educate myself about different musical traditions. It was actually Rennie, the singer of the Philadelphia hardcore band Starkweather, who sent me the recording that inspired Sabbat“, explains Brian.
“As for Bulgarian history, politics, and culture, I understood a little bit of the 20th century transitions into and out of the Eastern Bloc era, but I knew a lot more about what had happened in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Later, years after our visit, I learned a bit about the history of anarchism in Bulgaria, and the connections with early anarchism in Greece.”
November 16, 2001 @ Orbita Hall, Varna