The international Bansko Jazz festival – a one of a kind tradition in Bulgaria

The international Jazz festival in Bansko has been held for the past two decades – this August was its 20th anniversary. It is always held in the same week – from 8th until 13th of August. There are exceptions, although rarely, and the program is announced beforehand. During this festival week Bansko becomes all jazz.

Jazz Fest in Bansko | Lucky Bansko SPA & Relax

The evening concerts start at an open-air stage in the town center from 7 p.m. and last over 5 hours After the festival evening ends, jazz continues its presence at a local piano bar. During the day you can hear jazz music around the town – at different places with chamber stages, including bug bars and restaurants.

So for these 20 years the festival has built traditions, accumulated tremendous organizational experience and international contacts and has gained a worldwide reputation.

Thousands of jazz lovers come from different countries especially for the festival; the forum is included in the offers of numerous travel agencies, in music sites and charts. It is also promoted by artists from different parts of the world. They constantly have international performances and tours, but in their reviews invariably indicate the excellent organization and their readiness for new performances in Bansko.

The comments made in this sense are numerous, but we could mention the one made by the British superstar Mungo Jerry, the Hungarian group Djabe, Yuichiro Tokuda from Japan, Shelley Berg – USA, Angela Rijthoven – The Netherlands, 8WD – Germany and many others. Over the years a big part of them has actually participated in the Jazz Festival in Bansko.

Like Ray Dorset, who commented that the open heart of the audience here inspired him. The traditional participation of almost all famous Bulgarian jazz artists speaks about their attitude towards the festival.

The main initiator, organizer, “motor” of the festival is Emil Iliev, who is a doctor by profession. Apart from being the founder, he develops it to the current format, which is one of a kind in Bulgaria. Since 2008 the main sponsor of the Bansko international jazz festival is the local municipality.

Bansko – the Balkan jazz festival center

In terms of the quality of the presented music and scale, Bansko International Jazz Festival is the most significant on the Balkan Peninsula. This is evident from the long list of jazz artists and ensembles from all the continents who have participated in the festival.

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The list is indeed huge. Among the internationally popular Bulgarian artists, almost everyone has participated – Vasil Petrov, Milcho Leviev, Yildiz Ibrahimova, Antoni Donchev, Hilda Kazasyan, Kamelia Todorova, Petar Salchev, Mihail Yosifov, Kalin Velyov, Bobi Valchev, Theodosiy Spasov and many, many others.

Names of foreign artists cannot be listed without missing someone. But we can mention the emblematic American jazz performer Solomon Burke, the Dutch artist Candy Dulfer, the German artist Axel Zwingenberger, Vicky Almazidou from Greece, Benny Gollson and Jackie Ryan from the United States, the Russian artist Oleg Kireev, Claudio Kron, a Brazilian artist who has worked for many years in Great Britain, artists from Egypt – Eftecasat, Japan – Keito Saito, Switzerland – Silvan Zingg, musicians from Belgium, Poland, Slovenia, etc.

The number of performances and the quality of the big bands that have performed at the Bansko International Jazz Festival during the two decades are also remarkable. The members of the National Radio’s orchestra who are undisputed professionals with a lot of experience, have traditionally been involved. Here, the formations of Georgi Borisov, Vili Kazasyan, Angel Zaberski; orchestras from Germany, Austria and USA have performed. Significant for the high level of the performers is the participation of musicians from the orchestra officially representing NATO. The Turkish Army Orchestra also had a joint participation with Yildiz Ibrahimova.

This immersion in the “free music” with leading performers explains the appeal of the Bansko International Jazz Festival for musicians from all over the world. Some of them even plan their holidays according to the festival, others spend some free days to enjoy the jazz days and nights in Bansko.

Comprehensiveness in the genre

The Bansko International Jazz Festival is comprehensive for the genre. The artists and groups are selected in the programs in order to represent all types of directions. Of course, the roots of jazzblues, swing, dixieland, bebop, are widely represented. At the same time, the contemporary searches in “free music” are also demonstrated.

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This attitude towards the freedom of creativity has left room in the festival and for ethnic music and improvisations, although they are of a different type. So, at the fest there were interesting, fascinating performances, for example, from Egypt, from Indonesia, etc. Stoyan and Elitsa, Bulgara, Teodosiy Spassov, Miroslav Tadic and Vlatko Stefanovski presented their projects, etc.

Of course, when talking about Bansko Jazz Festival, one cannot fail to mention its anniversary, its 20th edition. It set a record – 300 artists from 30 countries participated. One can imagine what a an explosion of improvisations and emotions hit the audience. Additionally, improvisations were not just music, many attractions happened on the stage. For example, Spaghetti Swing literally prepared some spaghetti. Maurizio Siciliano – vocalist, prepared 3 types of macaroni on a special board. Linda and Elisabetta, vocalists of the band, gave them to the audience.

Patrizia Laquidara also surprised confessing that she was inspired to become a singer by a Balkan song. She sang it in Italian, and the audience joined in at the chorus the prayer to St. George.

The pianist Axel Zwingenberger, Vlatko Stefanovski with his trio from Macedonia, the classy Kameliya Todorova, Seven from Switzerland, Hilda Kazasyan and many others also performed at the anniversary edition. The anniversary edition also featured songs by Chelentano, Mina, Pavarotti, Bongusto and Buscaglione.

In the official part, Yildiz Ibrahimova received a diploma for contribution to the festival, and all mayors who contributed to the development of the international jazz festival in Bansko were honored.

The curious story of the Bansko international jazz festival

It sounds like a fairy tail but it’s a fact; the current Bansko jazz festival which in August 2017 celebrated 20 years, was born in… a dermatological clinic. The idea emerged in the early 1990s and belonged to the current director of the Festival, Emil Iliev who is a dermatologist specializing in acupuncture in countries across continents.

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Prior to opening his clinic for treatment and healthy life in Bansko, Dr. Iliev worked in Germany; he was familiar with the international experience of providing patients with comfort to make their stay as relaxing and entertaining.

Moreover, they came from different countries in Europe, including Switzerland, Austria, Germany and had higher expectations and requirements. As a sophisticated entertainment, he included chamber jazz concerts for which he begun to invite well-known artists like Vassil Petrov, Kameliya Todorova, Vili Kazasyan, Lyudmil Georgiev, Pepi Slavov, etc.

Iliev himself has been seriously involved with music and is a jazz fan, and from his contacts with the famous artists in the genre, the idea of the Bansko jazz festival was born. Some 20 years or more years ago it sounded rather “exotic” – people in Bansko did not think about the current scale for tourism then. In the summer, people had a lot of farm work, and the thought of making a big summer festival dedicated to this particular genre in the small town was not very close to them. However, Dr. Iliev had already seen the city’s tourism potential and that Bansko could become a jazz center on an international scale. He started inviting his acquaintances from the local intelligentsia, businessmen, people from the Municipality to the concerts at the clinic. For a short time they increased significantly, which gave Emil Iliev additional confidence.

Thus, thanks to his perseverance, in 1998 the Bansko international jazz festival took place with participants from Bulgaria, USA, France, etc.