Yassen Velchev: The genius pianist in the excavator

Written by on June 3, 2017 in Leisure - Comments Off on Yassen Velchev: The genius pianist in the excavator

Note: This interview was previously published on F&F Magazine, which is now part of The Sofia Globe.

Sofia’s excellent Music Academy has brought up many truly brilliant musicians, among them the country’s best Folk, Jazz, Fusion and Funk heroes. Yassen Velchev’s musical career started long before he entered that same institution. He started playing the piano at age five and received countless awards and honours, which were given to him in Bulgaria and abroad. Calling him a Jazz-Funk or Pop musician would not do him justice, even though he is a master in these areas. Yes, he did found some of the greatest Pop and Jazz-Funk acts in this country. But he also plays classical music in a fascinating way. So, the right word for his profession would be musician, under normal circumstances. Since the composer and pianist is a genius with an absolute hearing and unmatched abilities, the right word for his profession still has to be invented. By the way: Yassen Velchev does not only hit piano keys, but he also digs huge holes with his giant excavator. Seriously. Imanuel Marcus spoke to him.

The Sofia Globe (TSG): How is the digging going, these days?

Yassen Velchev: Oh, these days I am having fun with the cultivation of community gardens. This is something I love because I am directly involved in the creation of something beautiful. I am glad that, in the recent years, people pay attention to these kinds of things in Bulgaria. In fact, few people know that working with an excavator does not bring only destruction.

TSG: Seriously: Why would a musician like you dig big holes into the ground?

Yassen Velchev: Hmm, a musician like me… I have always had two hobbies: music and excavators. I was 4 years old when I first climbed on the excavator and I was 5 when I started playing the piano. Working with an excavator brings me great pleasure, and even inspires me to do music. Many of the ideas I have, come to me while working with excavators.

Yassen Velchev, without his excavator.

TSG: What were the first more complicated classical pieces you have played? Did you enjoy playing them, at an age when others played football in the park?

Yassen Velchev: I don’t remember which was the first classical piece. But I do remember that my first teacher Lyudmila Stoyanova, a niece of the big Bulgarian composer Vesselin Stoyanov, started giving me the real deal. I loved playing Mozart, learning some of his variations and won a classical contest with them. Perhaps the most difficult things that I played at that time were compositions by Liszt. I remember that, while my friends were playing football and cycling, I played the piano. But to be honest, I don’t regret it a bit.

TSG: Akaga was basically the first true Jazz-Funk band in Bulgaria. You founded and left that act after performances at the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival. But Akaga lives. Krassi and the guys are still gigging. Do you join them, at times?

Yassen Velchev: We remained very good friends with Akaga. Recently, Krassi Kourtev said in an interview, that we have never really been apart. I am often invited to various events with them. And we plan to do a jubilee concert with some of the old members. Especially for this event, one of the founders of Akaga, Kristian Alexandrov, will fly in from Canada. He is an outstanding musician. It is always a great pleasure tom make music with him.

TSG: Grupa TE, another band you founded, delivered your big hits, such as “Umoreni”. Bulgarian Pop-Funk of this kind was basically born with that band. How do you remember those times, when Lyubo was singing? What are your best memories?

Yassen Velchev: When we started Group TE, it became clear that such a group never existed until then in Bulgaria. We were compared to the legendary Bulgarian Pop-Rock band FSB and that was a great honour. It started as an instrumental project, with occasional guest singers, such as Maria Ilieva, Lyubomir Kirov and Mariana Popova. Over time, it became clear that we had a lot in common with Lyubo. We started recording songs with him, even quite a few of our instrumental pieces became songs, because of his great singing. We could afford to play almost anything on stage. And we did!

TSG: For Grupa TE, a new chapter started, when Preslava took over the lead vocals and you did funky hits such as “Mozhe Bi Sam Az”. What was it like to re-invent TE?

Yassen Velchev: When Preslava Peicheva joind TE, there were big changes in the Bulgarian music industry. At that time, all live clubs started closing, most of our fans started leaving the country for good and the media applied new policies regarding sounds they thought were important and valuable. Our first album with Preslava won an “Album of the Year Award” in 2010, at the Bulgarian Radio Awards. But, due to a lack of adequate clubs, our work largely focuses on private events. People simply had nowhere to hear and see us, except for our work in several TV shows. Nowadays, Preslava Peicheva is an independent artist and Lyubo himself is too. But, when necessary, and when we decide to do so, we play with the group.

One of the most gifted pianists in Bulgaria: Yassen Velchev at work.

TSG: For many fellow musicians, things are rather difficult in Bulgaria. Many gigs do not pay the way they should, salaries in orchestras are scandalously low. What is your opinion on the situation? What would have to happen, in order to improve things for musicians and their audience?

Yassen Velchev: I mainly think that the media are to blame. They dictate what we listen to and try to impose musical tastes on us. Also, politicians for whom culture is the last thing on their priority list, are responsible for the situation. Culture is the face of a nation. I would like to see more responsible politicians who think about the education of the upcoming generations and the cultural values of our country.

TSG: What are your next projects? What can we expect?

Yassen Velchev: There are pretty interesting things coming up, around the corner. Venko Poromaski, Ivaylo Zvezdomirov and I are soon planning to gather again in a trio, like back then, when started off, even before TE was founded. In fact, many people know that the three of us are musicians playing Yamaha instruments. So, there will be series of Yamaha events. I will also continue to make records, to perform with various artists and to compose for them. And, last but not least, I will continue having fun with my big toy, the excavator.

TSG: Thanks a lot, Yassen.

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About the Author

Imanuel Marcus is Associate Editor of The Sofia Globe. He is German and lives in Sofia. Contact: imanuelmarcus (at) gmail.com