Bright spots bounce off the crowd, searchlights tracking down individual faces amid a 2,000-strong mass. A few fleeting seconds of exposure and those caught in the beams disappear back into the darkness of this sports centre-turned-makeshift club in the suburbs of Sofia. Bleachers running the circumference of the floor provide tiered homes for the most enthusiastic and bedraggled alike. Some dance on cushioned benches, fists punching for the domed ceiling; others take a breather, sitting with heads in hands. It’s well below freezing outside, but the punters here are sticking it out inside for more than the warmth. Events like this don’t happen here every day.
Founded in 2015 by Metodi Hristov and Gallya, the Set About crew are nothing if not shrewd operators. Tonight the Sofia-based imprint is putting on a rare showcase on home turf, and has understandably gone all-in on production. Two giant white elephants – the label’s logo – are canvasses for texture-mapped visuals, while huge line arrays amplify the beats being dropped by the bosses and close allies like Peppou, Matt Sassari and Maksim Dark. It’s a family affair, the stage brimming with friends.
The soundtrack, too, is anything but stripped down. Cuts such as Adana Twins’ remix of Patrice Baumel’s ‘Roar’ and Hristov’s own take on Gaston Zani’s ‘It’s Time’ epitomise the style: statement breakdowns, unapologetic stomps: big, techy business befitting the size of the room.
“In Bulgaria you never know what is going to happen,” Hristov says of Sofia’s underground party scene. Advance ticket sales are rare and funds are always tight, making promotion a particularly anxious experience. “It’s not like making a party in London or Amsterdam.”
“Two days ago we were pretty nervous about whether people were going to buy tickets or not; today we felt pretty confident,” Gallya adds. “You need to know the people, for sure.”
While the idea of a close-knit clubbing community is hardly particular to Sofia, other things about the city are unique. A city of contrasts, where ornate neo-Byzantine architecture juts up against brutalist communist-era concrete, understanding Sofia’s scene needs an appreciation of its history.
With the fall of communism in 1990, forms of culture previously outlawed arrived here like an avalanche. A gritty rave scene did emerge, but many young people opted for bottle service and conspicuous consumption rather than the raw, unpolished spaces (ironically the very aesthetics so often coveted in the West) that Sofia has in spades.
Then the 2007 financial crisis decimated the national economy, doing its best to finish off what underground remained. That the impact of that period continues to be discussed speaks volumes about how bad the situation got.
“People stopped going out for financial reasons,” Hristov says. “We are one of the poorest [states] in the EU, and a lot of young people left the country because of politics and financial [problems].”
“But now a lot of people are coming back – young people,” Gallya interjects. “All my family, my brother, my sister, everyone was outside the country and now they are back living here. What they said was, ‘Over there is better with the money and everything, but here when you are home, if you are smart enough you can do a lot of great things’.”
Based on the sights and scenes at Set About’s midwinter throwdown the crew are making good on those sentiments. And they’re not the only ones representing in town. Elsewhere, on the same evening, Bulgarian hero KiNK is on with Helena Hauff at NDK, in the National Palace of Culture. Another party by Elegantly Wasted keeps Studio EW jumping until well after 8AM. This is before we mention the famous Yalta, or recently opening Exe.
Despite that, says Hristov, “Things can be very commercial. Most clubs are luxury clubs, trying to attract rich people.”
But the history of underground clubbing here is longer than many might realise. DJ Steven, AKA Stefan Kratchanov, recalls working in Orbilux, a club which peaked as communism gave way to capitalism and closed for good in 1997: “Run by an Italian guy, it was the first in Sofia to have turntables, a real soundsystem; people were diving into the smoke machine because they had never seen a smoke machine before.”
Shuttering the doors at Orbilux coincided with another tough economic era, when inflation was wildly out of control – but that wasn’t the main reason for its demise. A change of ownership put less favourable faces in charge, with little interest in music and vibe. Regulars simply stopped showing up. “Some gangsters took it over and it went totally down – nobody coming in,” Kratchanov continues. “I had tears in my eyes because it had the best DJ booth I’ve ever seen.”
Introduced to Mixmag as the godfather of Sofia’s techno community, today Kratchanov runs Metropolis, a firm responsible for the biggest legal raves in this corner of the continent. The firm is partnering with Set About tonight, and he’s the one delivering direct techno to finish the session off.
And he’s quick to point out that organised crime hasn’t much involvement in venues and parties these days. Criminals, he says, are uninterested in an investment that offers low potential returns compared to other enterprises. “Which is good for us,” he says, “a big promotions company, because in the dangerous years when we had big gangsters they never looked at us as something to make money on. You have to work hard to make a small amount [here], then on the next night maybe you lose it. They want to make money today.”
Unfortunately the local government, which does little to support or encourage businesses associated with electronic music culture, apparently feels the same: “I think they totally neglect the nightlife economy,” Kratchanov says.
Given the passion and resilience of those, like the Set About crew, who are involved in rebuilding Sofia’s underground scene once again, that’s a mistake.
Martin Guttridge-Hewitt is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Mixmag, follow him on Twitter
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