You’ll be more familiar with the sound of MEHMET’s voice than you expect, even if you don’t recognise the name; for the past three years he has been performing from his regular spot on Bold Street, teasing heartfelt songs out of his guitar, accompanied by rich, baleful laments. His repertoire of Balkan folk and Macedonian standards and warm, mischievous smile have become part of the fabric of Bold Street, marking him as one of the city’s cast of colourful characters. Despite the fact that very few of us can understand what the Bulgarian troubadour is singing about, there is still something about his music and singing that speaks to us on a fundamental level.
Yet, the fact that Mehmet is a regular fixture is somewhat troubling itself: how many of us have passed by while he’s been performing, smiled and nodded, but not stopped to think about him. Why is he out there performing in the cold? Does he have any other source of income? Does he have somewhere safe and warm to go back to when he packs his guitar away? I’ll admit that I’d not thought about any of this until recently, when Mehmet’s predicament was brought to our attention by one of his friends.
He’d got behind on the rent on his flat in the weeks running up to Christmas and was facing eviction, as well as having some dental problems. Fortunately, one of his friends (record producer Joe Wills) was so taken by the timbre of his voice that he recorded some demos of Mehmet performing in his home studio. The music was uploaded to Bandcamp and the message was sent out, with a show at Bold Street Coffee arranged at short notice. Within a week, hundreds of people had downloaded the music, raising enough money to enable Mehmet to catch up on his rent arrears and get back on an even keel. The songs he’s recorded have now been pressed to CD, which will enable him to keep up a more consistent stream of income from his street performing. Mehmet has complete agency over the money earned from sales, and with it he’s been able to pay for some dental work, send money home to his family, and earn back a bit of family pride. He’s also planning on making a short trip back to Bulgaria soon to visit his pregnant granddaughter and the newest member of his family.
Photograph by Amin Musa, at La Parrilla restuarant, Bold Street
The songs that captured the attention of Wills – and that so often soundtrack our walks down Bold Street – are rich and vibrant, hinting at a depth of emotion that we can only guess at. But I was fed up of guessing – I wanted to know exactly what Mehmet was conveying when singing these songs. So, I sat down with this warm, likeable character with a voice like treacle to listen to his story, in his own words.
Are the songs you sing traditional songs or your own work?
Traditional songs from Bulgaria – old hits, Macedonian songs – this is my repertoire. It’s Bulgarian folk music. I don’t have my own songs.
What do you like singing about?
These songs are about love, separation… songs about life. For example, in the song Побелях и остарявам (I’m Turning Grey And Getting Older), the singer remembers separating from his wife or lover, and so then: ‘I’m turning grey and getting older, but I hold you in my heart’. There are no jokey songs. They are all romantic songs.
I’ve been singing these songs ever since I was a kid. When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, it was the summer holiday, and there was a competition for young performers. Our school principal sent for me, she knew that I [could] sing and play very well. And then for the first time I got an award, first place, [winning] a vinyl record by Lili Ivanova.
I’ve been playing since I was 13 or 14 years old. It was actually my mother’s ‘fault’ that I became a musician. She bought me a guitar for my birthday. People were having parties in the districts at that time, and I was visiting them so I can learn from the musicians. I was watching and listening to them playing, then I went back home and tried to copy them.
And little by little, I learnt to play. After serving in the army, I started playing in establishments. While I was serving in the army, I was in the orchestra of my division. After I left the army I worked in the shipyard. In the evening I would go and play. I was very happy.
Tell me about your life back home, before you came to England.
Up until 1984, my name was Mehmet. In 1984, after the renaming process began, I had to change my name to Miroslav. During Communism I was working two jobs: during the day I was a founder in a shipyard and during the night I worked as a musician. I was very satisfied back then but after democracy came, I had no job, no nothing. Under Communism, I was doing very well. My family wasn’t deprived of anything.
I am a widow for seven years now. My wife was a very pleasant woman. We lived together for 25 years but she got cancer. I had a flat which I sold, but I couldn’t help her. Even if you have millions, cancer is unforgiving.
Now that I am in England, I’ve been looking for a job for two-three years, but when they see me, an old man… they need young people and I can’t find a job. I am forced to play on the street to make enough money to pay for my accommodation, because I am 60 years old. I have never slept on the street and don’t plan to.
In your experience, do people in Bulgaria show more respect to musicians than people in England?
Not for street musicians. There was great respect for me when I played in Varna. From colleagues, from the director of ОД Музика [OD Music]… I don’t know, maybe it was my voice. With my friends from the ensemble in Varna, we played together in restaurants, we played together in a band at weddings. They have all graduated from a conservatoire, I’m the only one without music education.
I played in restaurants for 25 years. There was a time when I played in this inn, there were so many people that you had to wait for a table to free up. One day, the manager of the inn came and said to me, ‘Do you know how many years I’ve been here? I’ve never had such high turnover.’ I played there for four years. So that’s why he wouldn’t let me go anywhere else. But eventually we moved to another place, by the coastline, and all the people came with us too!
Do you enjoy playing on Bold Street?
Look, this is the first time I’m playing on the street. I first came here in 2015, my son was already here with his family. I was in the city centre and I saw musicians playing and earning money. I didn’t have a job, I couldn’t help my son who has five children, so I said to him, ‘Why not get me a guitar? Seriously, get me a guitar so I can earn something… as if I’m going to rely on you to get me a pack of cigarettes each day.’ We went and bought a guitar for £25. However, that first guitar broke. On the upper side of Bold Street, where I play, a boy saw that my guitar was broken and brought me another one. I’ve been playing with it since then.
It’s through [my friends in England] that I have achieved a lot, I can now help my children in Bulgaria. Before I was only earning enough for myself, £10-15 a day, whereas now I can set aside some money to help my daughter. She is alone with three children so she’s pleased. I am also helping my other son.
I am waiting now to become a great-grandfather. On 22nd of February my granddaughter is due to give birth. I plan to go to Bulgaria to see my great-granddaughter. I have a return ticket thanks to my friends. Then I will then return to Liverpool.
I have many friends here who have helped me so I can be a musician, and not a homeless guy. I am very satisfied and thankful to them. Those friends who have helped me, I cannot forget them. I am very happy and simply want to thank all the people who have helped me.
You can buy Mehmet’s music digitally on Bandcamp, or purchase a CD from him when he performs on Bold Street.
Special thanks to Yoanna Karcheva for translating the interview, and to all of Mehmet’s friends who made this possible.