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The Englishman Who Sings Bulgaria

24/02/2016 14:00 | Updated 23 February 2017

His deep, raspy voice has been compared to Don Mclean, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen. His music can be classified as acoustic folk. When Warwick-born Jonathan Taylor starts to sing, his lyrics, consistent in theme, give voice to those without, but at the same time transport listeners to faraway places and to one place in particular. Bulgaria. How did a 'profound' dyslexic who can't read sheet music or speak the language end up living in a small village in north-central Bulgaria singing songs representative of that country?


I want rakia.
I need rakia.
I love rakia - early in the morning!

"What is rakia?" I ask Taylor.

"Americans have moonshine and we have rakia," Taylor replies. "While a Bourbon whisky is made from wheat and distilled once, rakia is made from fruit (usually pear or grapes but anything else goes). Good rakia is distilled at least twice, but in reality, here in the villages, it will be just once. Quantity always outweighs quality! The joke is 'The Irish wait fifteen years for their whiskey; Bulgarians can't wait fifteen minutes.' The fruit is mashed over time into wine and then distilled in a copper cylinder. Often it exceeds 60% proof."

Taylor tells me that he grew on livestock farms in South Wales and later lived in Calderdale, Yorkshire. He finished formal education at the age of 13 and was diagnosed as 'educationally and emotionally disturbed.' He voluntarily returned to education during his late twenties to pursue his passion for music. Despite initial failures, Taylor eventually completed his Masters level studies and today teaches English as a foreign language. He also became songwriter for the English Club online, a company that teaches English through songs.

So, how did he end up in Bulgaria?

Taylor says that after custody battles with his ex-wife he found himself "in a job I hated, an environment of nonstop abuse that made me increasingly unwell, and all this to pay a life time of debt, a mortgage on a house I didn't want to live in." Determining that it was cheaper to live abroad, Taylor and his partner - Nicola, a photographer - first viewed property in the Slovak Republic. "I simply did not have enough money available to fulfil the new dream." But Bulgaria, just entering the European Union in 2005, was very affordable.

"And as many other Brits found out, at the time you could get a village house here for as little as three thousand GDP. "This is home and I would never desire to leave it."

Although considering himself an immigrant, rather than an ex-pat, Taylor finds himself incapable of learning Bulgarian. Instead he merges the little Bulgarian he knows with his music.

Taylor's lyrics refer repeatedly to his new homeland. Rakia, Pirin Mountains, the streets of Sofia, Baba Marta. I asked him if English listeners understand what he's singing. More importantly, I asked, would Bulgarian listeners understand? Do they consider Taylor's music Bulgarian?

"I think it spans all cultures," Taylor says. "After all, English is English and as a world language has few barriers. So, for an English speaker, it is music about something perhaps they are unfamiliar with but I hope curiosity and the fact that I am the first to do this will create an interest in this wonderful place so rich in history and culture. For Bulgarians, most understand it, but they don't get the complex story behind it or implied meanings, the nuances included. Bulgaria is such a small market, a population of just 7 million, and the greatest interest comes from English-speaking Bulgarians now living abroad and particularly in the USA. They get it and they love it!"

Back to "The Rakia Song", in which there is a line in the chorus repeated over and over. 'What shall we do with the drunken sailor?'. Taylor explains to me that the line is actually 'What shall we do with the drunken 'celo'", as 'celo' is the Bulgarian word for 'village'.

"Whilst it's a good fun, sing-along-song', it is actually very political," Taylor tells me. "It was written at a time of mass protest against rising prices, particularly the 100% increase in electricity costs. People could not feed or warm themselves and the government of the time was forced to resign. The song is about the poor living in the villages where they have no future and no hope. What else do they have? They drink rakia to excess as a means of coping with the misery of everyday life."

Although singing in the language of his birthplace, this English immigrant sounds very much as if he has become the protest voice of his adopted Bulgaria.