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For Bulgarian-German Artist DENA, Breaking Down Borders Starts at the Flea Market

Hanna Sturm

There was something about the Turkish Market in Neukölln that reminded Denitza Todorova and Plamen Bontchev of home.

Part of it was the congregation of Turkish immigrants themselves; they reminded Todorova — better known as the recording artist DENA — of where she grew up, in Bulgaria near the border with Turkey. Neukölln, a neighborhood in the center of Berlin, is a hub of Turkish immigrants in the city.

And she and Blontchev, a filmmaker, were fascinated by all the incongruous objects at the market — tables lined with watches; stalls canopied with sparkling pink dresses; cars draped with clothes. The scene looked a little like pictures she’d seen of a market in Bulgaria, an even stranger place where they sold everything from guns to underwear. 

The duo spent two days at the market filming the video for “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools,” with its unpretentious denizens and modest wares. The video drives home the message of a buoyant dancehall-pop song — one that is, perhaps deceptively, quite humble. “Cash, one thing I ain't got in the hood / Diamond rings, I don't need them / All I want is chill with my friends by the swimming pools,” Todorova raps.

DENA - Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools
Todorova says the market reminded her of where she grew up, in Bulgaria near the Turkish border.  | miniartist

And for Todorova, filming at the market helped communicate an idea central to her work, and in particular her 2014 debut DENA album “Flash”: the idea of “home" in a fluctuating world, and how access to culture and prestige fluctuates with it.

“This flea market was the closest to home I could have gotten without money to pay for flights,” Todorova says, joining me from Berlin via Skype. “I was talking about where I’m from, and basically how I define a little bit of my immigration background, and I was trying to narrate it through the prism of Berlin."

When “Flash" came out, DENA found herself occupying a middle ground for critics between an artist like MIA, with whom she shares a similar handmade global-dance aesthetic, and an outright ironic, “hipster” parody. Her intentions — whether, for instance, she coveted or spurned the cash and the diamond rings — a bit uncertain. (The Guardian, in a 2012 feature on DENA, even posited she "emerged from the brain of a mildly satirical blogger.”) In fact, she may have had most in common with someone like Macklemore — artists whose sincerity is unquestionable even if their tone is silly.

Consider next the entangling threads of Todorova and Blontchev’s video for “Guest List,” another “Flash” track, which they shot in Bulgaria. The camera passively watches teenagers glitzed up for prom, while Todorova, in a shining silver hooded cape, dances on top of a Soviet-style housing complex and, at one point, on the back of a mule-drawn cart.

DENA - Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools
“Cash, one thing I ain't got in the hood / Diamond rings, I don't need them / All I want is chill with my friends by the swimming pools,” DENA raps. | miniartist

After making the “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools” video, Todorova and Blontchev wanted to continue to use the medium to talk about where they came from — despite being from Bulgaria, both had lived in Germany for years — and, as Todorova puts it, “why I sound this way, why I have this accent."

“We were really psyched to try to create a project working with the visuals that had influenced us before we moved to Germany,” says Todorova. “One of those was this prom night phenomenon. When you live in Bulgaria, you always know around the end of May — you can’t not experience it. There’s a lot of pressure on parents to invest in cars and dresses and just basically make the unforgettable night happen, and economically there’s a big contrast [between what people spend and what they can afford]."

It’s a kind of fantasy about having access to a world beyond your means, and in that sense, the video relates directly to the song. “I've been on the line, been standing for a long time / Airports, handcuffs, alien departments / When they see me coming they are pushing the alarm loud / Hard to give them what they want, my name on a green card,” she raps.

Because Bulgaria wasn’t in the E.U. when Todorova first moved to Germany, she says, “my first years there were me having to queue on the wrong line, basically. I definitely experienced the separation and division of how society works based on your passport. And then suddenly [in 2007, when Bulgaria gained accession to the E.U.] I experienced this switch, and the next day everything was chill and cool. The world works like that —  everything is connected to where you’re from, and what kind of passport you have, all those papers and legitimation defining us all."

DENA - Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools
The video for “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools” was shot at the Turkish Market in the Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln. | miniartist

DENA’s newer work is a bit more interior. Her 2016 EP “Trust" — a precursor to her forthcoming album — is less focused on announcing herself than on expressing herself. Unlike on “Flash," Todorova is collaborating with outside producers on her newer music, too.

“I knew [the songs on “Flash”] would sort of be about introduction, basically having me enter a room and going like, ‘Hi, my name is DENA, I’m from Bulgaria,’” she says. “English is my third language, so in the beginning I felt that in order to introduce myself it would be better to basically mention why do I sound this way, and have this accent."

The music on “Trust" is less flashy; there’s no risk her sincerity will be called into question. For instance, “Freaking Out” is a brooding, softly-grooving R&B jam. Relative to a song like “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools,” it’s emotionally straightforward. “You got me freaking out / Asking myself what love is about / Honestly I don’t know how / How you got me feeling full of doubt,” she sings on “Freaking Out." Her Bulgarian accent is no longer part of the message, just a distinctive feature.

“The album I’m finishing now is definitely way more connected to my inner world, more introverted,” says Todorova. "I think also a bit more universal."

The concerns themselves, however, haven’t totally changed. Todorova is still fascinated by the arbitrary, absurd aspects of human relations, whether they’re romantic, or between a woman and her adoptive country. It’s a fascination Todorova will no doubt continue to explore in her new work — including a forthcoming album, set to arrive later this year.

Top image: DENA, the recording project of Denitza Todorova, was initially seen as a “hipster” parody, but has evolved into something more introspective. Courtesy of Hanna Sturm.

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