Friday, July 04, 2014

The Hungarian Parliament: Of Power and Pastry.

Demo at Parliament in better times.
The Hungarian Parliament building is Europe's largest, an imposing and elaborate structure that dominated Budapest's Danube profile. Designed at the end of the 19th century to accommodate the growing number of representatives expected from Hungary's growing stature in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was inaugurated in 1896 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Hungary (which actually happened in 895 AD, but the architect for the 1895 millennial celebrations died before the Budapest World Exposition at Hősök tér could be completed, so the history books were amended to the more convenient millennial date that could accommodate the celebration in 1896.) but only completed in 1904, because, according the a Wikipedia article, the architect went blind (perhaps from looking at it?) No sooner had it opened than a riot broke out among quarreling political factions in 1904, a pattern in Hungarian politics that would carry over well into the 21st century.
Remember Armenian axe murder victim Gurgen MargayanWe do.
Natives of Budapest, always a snarky lot, often refer to the Parliament as the "Great Circus" or as the "Wedding Cake" in reference to its imposing, imposing, very imposing architecture. Less than 10% of the building is actually in use. The first world war put an end to Hungary's dreams of packing the building full of half-assimilated Bosnians and Ruthenians arguing about tax abatement in broken Hungarian, and the Wedding Cake became a symbol of Imperial dreams worthy of Icarus as well as a pretty nifty place to park tourist buses. With the electoral victory of the FIDESZ party in 2010, party leader Viktor Orban felt the need for a more imperial... imposing... or perhaps, defensible... look to the square, and reconstruction of the entire area around Kossuth square was begun. First parks full of unsightly trees were cut down, and soon statues of obscure and historically doubtful politicians were removed. The statue of Attila József - perhaps Hungary's greatest poet and the first person ever to be kicked out of the communist party - was found to be offensive to the Prime Minister's line of site, but protests saved the statue which was moved to a less prominent site nearby. For a year or so the entire area was a construction site, complete with an unexpected green slime lake when the Danube seeped into one of the excavations for an underground parking lot.

Mmm... cement!
But today it is complete... a massive expanse of cement, perfect for massive party rallies extolling Our Great Leader as he makes yet another speech to the Adoring Masses. And what goes better with a new Parliament prone to rioting representatives than... a new parliamentary guard with the power to remove MPs who cross the Speaker of the House! Yes, these flesh and blood tinker toy soldiers are an official branch of the Hungarian defense services. Yes, large amounts of tax money is spent on tailored uniforms and choreographers. Could these guys stop an invading horde of beer-crazed Slovak football fans? I doubt it.



But enough of this political foolishness. We have loads of that in this part of the world, although, speaking as a Hungarian nationalist chauvinist I will loudly assert that our political ass-clowns are the biggest and best ass-clowns in the world. That said, if you are in the neighborhood of the Parliament and Kossuth square you can visit something that can actually make a claim on being the best in its field, and that excludes parliamentary democracy. Just north around the corner from the Parliament at Balassi Balint utca is the Szalay Cukraszda, an old family-owned pastry shop that has been in this location since 1917.


Legend has it that it escaped being taken over by the state during communist times because the party functionaries (the Party offices were just across the street in the "White House" at Jaszai Mari square) wanted a place that actually cared about its baking and coffee. I hadn't visited in years - I don't ramble around the Parliament much unless the Prime Minister hands over Azeri axe murderers to be released and rewarded by the Azeri government. (Jeez, doncha just miss Ferenc Kumin?) Or when there is something interesting at the Museum of Folklore located across the street from the Parliament, but soon to be removed to some cement structure in the soon-to-become-a-treeless-memory City Park.

Elegance in miniature.
In those cases a side trip to the Szalay shop is a given. The place is tiny, as a good coffee shop should be, and spotless despite its age. Most of the baked goods are made in house, and my special assigned pastry taster Fumie took special note (buying an extra for breakfast) of the svájci kifli "Swiss croissant".

How pastry porn is made.
As always, I get a "long coffee" with no sugar. The days have been extremely pleasant in Budapest this summer: so far none of the heat waves that have scorched us in times past have arrived. While biking up Falk Miksa utca near the parliament we passed the Google Mapmobile taking snaps. I have already checked: I have not yet been immortalized in Google maps but I may be soon!
Say CHEESE!

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Final Death of the Four Tigers.

Photo: 444.hu

We all knew it was coming. We were warned. For years the Four Tigers Chinese Market has faced being shut down by Hungarian politicians, especially the creepy FIDESZ mayor of the Eighth District in which it is located  (previously made famous for criminalizing homelessness in Budapest.) The word had gone out months ago, and the stall owners and retailers of cheap Chinese underwear and bad fishing equipment begin their sorry exodus across the road to the newer market area across the street. Branded in the Hungarian press as a hotbed of crime and mafia dealings, a magnet for smuggling and stolen goods, and even for making less than exemplary tofu in illegal - yet artisanal - factories, The Four Tigers Market was all of that and much, much less. To put it bluntly: if you are Hungarian (or Slovak, or Czech, or Romanian, or Ukrainian) and you wear socks or underwear or pop viagra, shoot off fireworks, or fish for carp in the Tisza with budget gear then you can thank the Chinese market for providing these to you at a price you can afford. No Chinese market means a whole lot of sockless, shit-stained, limp, quiet and fish-less East Europeans. Not a happy image. ( Next photo is also from 444.hu)


A lot of Hungarians were afraid to even enter the market, a scary multilingual zone full of Romanians and Arabs and Gypsies and Chinese, Vietnamese, and even Mongols all chatting away in distinctly non-Hungarian languages and snacking on really good things with no name in Hungarian. (You could actually get freshly baked Turkish breakfast pastries in the center of the Market where a knot of Muslim eateries all tried to outdo each other with the same Gyro menus.) It was also a place where I saw a large number of Transylvanian Gypsies actually speaking in Vietnamese, and Hungarians happily chatting in regional Chinese dialects. Not many of them, mind you, but apart from its evil reputation it was actually one of the safer areas of the eighth district if you knew the rules (no photographs! no samurai swords!) It will be missed, but not all is lost: the Chinese Market is basically moving across the street. 


The first sign of this was the empty shell of the once glorious Dang Muoi Vietnamese Buffet, which was - and I am not exaggerating - the best restaurant in Budapest for many, many years. Sure, we now have a Nobu, and there is a Michelin Star tossed here and there, but Dang Muoi was the place we would go to eat if we had the choice. We even took visiting friends and dignitaries to eat there. 


Fumie and I do a lot of our food shopping at the stalls inside the Four Tigers, as well as the huge Chinese supermarket across the street. Next door was the Vietnamese coffee stand where we could get primo Cà phê sữa đá and free lotus tea and chat with the owner. The Vietnamese fish market offered affordable frozen squid and dozens of seasonal herbs and greens unheard of in Hungarian markets. And we usually stop for pho or bun cha noodles at Dang Muoi, since the area's Viet food is a bit more interesting than the Northern Chinese stodge that you can find poking around the stalls across the street. The woman working the last remaining Vietnamese grocery stall told us the Dang Muoi had moved across the street, as they would be doing, to "Vietnami Utca" in the Europa Piac, the more recently developed miniature Chinese wholesale suburb that has taken over the old factory district. 


We checked it out: all is well. Dang Muoi now has a small grocery and lunch counter near the entry gate to Vietnam street in the market, as well as an upstairs dining area and a couple of outdoor picnic benches.The food remains the best in Budapest if you don't want yet another helping of frozen Tesco chicken and CBA paprika. The wall shows offerings of over dozen soup based specialties, but I still find myself mysteriously drawn to the mysterious steam table: belly pork in spicy sauce, pickled veggies, Vietnamese slaw, chicken done four ways, tofu, eggs, and even slices of stewed or fried fish... just point... and as long as it fits on top of a plate of rice, it is yours.


My yardstick for Viet buffet dining is always going to be bun cha - grilled pork on cold rice boodles dunked in spicy fish sauce dip, but today I went for bun nem, the same but with fried spring rolls in place of pork. It is the perfect meal for a hot day. Note: if you want bun cha or bun nem you have to ask for it, it wasn't listed on the wall menu. All this for about FT 1000 a serving (about USD $4.00) The drill goes like this: dump salad and herbs into bowl of fish sauce and spicy broth. Then dunk heaps of rice noodle into broth bowl. Now dump a piece of spring roll or meat on top of that. Use chopstick to convey to mouth. Splatter with their home made sriracha sauce if need be. 


We hit this market for grocery shopping about once a week, so we will be searching around the winding alleys of the Europa Piac for any new eateries that may pop up. It is a wondrous world back there. I mean... how often can you have a fresh, tasty, affordable lunch al fresco and look out to a glorious panorama view like this one? This, my friends, is terroir! I love this place. 


It almost makes me feel like I am back in New Jersey. We are truly blessed. But if I wanted to look up from my bowl of pho and see some downtown skyscraper office building full of suited worker drones, I would have chosen to eat downtown.  Of course, you don't have to trek out to the market to test Dang Muoi. They have expanded and opened several Vietnamese restaurants in Budapest, including one on Nagymezo utca. 


Or you can do what we do: shop for your basic ingredients at the Vietnamese and Chinese grocery stalls in the market and make it all yourself. This is Fumie's idea of a light lunch: spring roll with shrimp and pork wrapped in lettuce leaf, basil, and mint with fish sauce and lime dip. Or maybe I should just have a couple of turo rudi instead?


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Holocaust Revision, Hungarian Style.

Hungary has grown a reputation in the press as a hotbed for antisemitic political movements over the last decade. The other day my father's friend, a guy in his 80s who tends to repeat himself a lot  looked at me through a skype screen and asked "Is there a lot of antisemitism in Hungary?" He asks me this every single time I have ever met him. And for the first time I simply told him "Yes." Usually I go into a convoluted explanation of Hungarian society and history, pointing out how Hungary didn't develop a political antisemitic tradition until the 20th century. Hungary didn't match the classic Russian definition of Jews as outsiders, there were no church sponsored pogroms such as my paternal Grandparents faced. The classic Austrian Catholic antisemitic tradition was blocked by the rise of the Hungarian middle class in the 19th century, which found urban Jews and Protestant (poor) nobles from east Hungary in an alliance both linguistic and economic. So why does Hungary now face the accusation of antisemitism? Simple. Because its political leaders are ethically challenged baboons.


Back in January, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, taking valuable time from his busy schedule of building himself a personal football stadium in his backyard, announced the erection of a monument in Budapest's downtown Kossuth Square to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the "Occupation of Hungary" that led to some 700,000 Jews being deported to the Nazi death camps in a matter of months. Except, if you are Hungarian Jewish (and about 100,000 of us still are) you may not remember History in exactly that manner. As in "What occupation?" Hungary was not an occupied country, it was an Ally of Nazi Germany. This was seen by members of the Jewish community, as well as most literate Hungarians, as a whitewashing of the role of Hungary in the Holocaust. Orban said he could not discuss the matter while busy fixing the national elcctions ... er... running for re-election. Subsequently, most of Hungary's Jewish organizations chose to boycott the government's planned events and refuse its funding.

"Dialogue, not doubletalk!"
Now, originally I wrote a detailed analysis of that history, which I then decided to shelve. You can read about the monument debacle at the Wall Street Journal, the Hungarian Spectrum, the Economist, also here and here and a zillion divisive poltics.hu articles to boot. Meanwhile, Jewish organizations are taking the effort to support independent memorials, such as that prepared by the Yellow Star Houses Project. These were houses around Budapest in which Jews were allowed to reside in 1944. They are everywhere - there are two on my street and another two on the corner two blocks away, and I don't even live downtown. The corner on Andrassy housing the Polish institute was also one.

This was a Star house. Remember on June 21."
The monument planned for the memory of the "German Occupation of Hungary" has yet to be completed. From the location and the existing structures - which would not be out of place in any Greek restaurant toilet in central New Jersey - it promises to be a classic of FIDESZ kitsch. It will be located on a strip dividing two lanes of an underground parking garage exit. How's that for an honored and sanctified location.


For a while the site was the scene of protests by Jewish organizations and their supporters. Nonetheless protesters were detained by the police and the right wing news cycles went into overdrive painting the events as disruptive left wing violence. Now the monument itself is under wraps, literally, guarded by police awaiting the day - soon - when Prime Minister Orban will dedicate the completed statue.


In the meantime, the area around it has become something of a spontaneous shrine to the victims of the holocaust. People have left mementos of lost family members, or objects symbolic of those murdered in the Holocaust, marked by piles of stones in the Jewish cemetery custom.


For years I have spoken defensively when asked about "antisemitism in Hungary." I still stand by it: it is not the Hungarian people that are markedly antisemitic - it is the Hungarian political system, whether right or left, communist or "Christian", that can't exist without the rhetoric of the antisemite. It is the Hungarian political system, with its stubborn addiction to hair-brained "third road" schemes and creative economics combined with bad bookkeeping (and too many hungry poltical in-laws waiting in line to be fed) that sends the ping pong ball of Hungarian history on its eternal trip bouncing off the table. Blaming nationalism or the hangover of communism is a bluff. Hungarians have been locked out of a participatory role in politics by their ruling class ever since King Arpad arrived in the 9th century. The PR machine that keeps Orban's government going believes it can revise history in its image with an humongously ugly statue. The problem is: its image is just as ugly as that history.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Year in Pork. Part 1.

Hungarian Products!
This year has been a very, very good year for pork. Mr. Pig, the provider of the other white meat has provided us with may excellent meals spanning many widely divergent cuisines this year, and as my budget allows, all of them have been in the affordable to dirt cheap category. I like pork. There, I said it. I like pork with the like that dare not speak its name, the affection that only comes from having avoided pig meat for something like fifteen years because, well, God told me not to eat pork. Yes. I was a deist pork avoider for many years. I am not a religious man. I am a basic simple Jew. For years I shuddered at the mere idea of eating pig meat. I don't observe orthodox practice. I rarely square off on questions involving "faith" although in my case the main modern theological questions consist of "should I order the ham sandwich?" and " you mean like, no bacon?" For many years I did not eat pork. I wasn't exactly kosher, but like a lot of my tribe, I drew the line at piggus scrofus, the lowly porker. The pig was off limits.

At the Szimpla Kert Sunday bio market.
That changed when I moved to Hungary, where pork is the main meat, eaten three times a day and in the afternoon there is even a snack called "bacon time" in which guys pull out long pocket knives and hack away a slab of smoked bacon to get in the mood for a bit of evening drinking. If you go to Heaven, you eat what the Angels eat, right? In Hungary, the Seraphim and Cherubim chow down on sausages and smoked back fat. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, if God did not want us to eat pork, then why did He make it taste so good? And why would he give us such a wide selection of pork products to choose from? What kind of perverse and vengeful deity would dangle jionts of smoked pork hock and juicy links of Debreceni sausage in front of your face and then tell you not to eat this? Forget all those vexing questions of "why art thou forsaking me"... just answer me this: why did you make Spam such an addictive snack?

Buapest's Bosznyak ter Market just before Easter
So there, I admit it. I am no longer eating kosher. Nope. Like those Sephardic Marrano Jewish poets of the fifteenth century, I extol the dripping lard that runs down my beard and gives me away as a sausage eating Jew. I admit it. Actually, a brief skim through the earlier entries of this blog would also confirm my rather public consumption of pork, but... heck, I have come to appreciate a juicy bit of khazzerei. And where else but Hungary will you find \pig meat in all its glorious porkographic splendor? Another good thing about pork: it is cheap. Maybe not in the chiochi places you eat, especially in the US where pork was relatively rare outside of the south and Puerto Rican neighborhoods until recently, but in east Europe pork is the lunch meat of those of us who want to go carnivorous for lunch on a budget.  Let's start with the normal stuff: this is what I ate for lunch for many years while working in downtown Pest. Pork stew on galushka dumplings at a stand up lunch window in the Rakoczi ter market.

The default option for lunch!
The Hungarian forint has inflated, but at dollar rates it remains the best three dollar lunch in Europe. Three bucks is also the going rate in next door Slovakia for a lunch plate of halushky. Notice the linguistic proximity to the Hungarian galuska. Yes, they are both pronounced almost the same way. Yes, they are both basic pastas made of flour and eggs. But the Slovak national lunch means dumplings covered in sheep cheese and bacon. Yes, fry the bacon bits and pour the hot grease and bacon all over the melting cheese. It's good for you!

Big Plate o' Slovak goodness!
This is lunch. In Slovakia. For three bucks. There are many reasons to love Slovakia. The fact that it is nearby and offers good trout fishing is the main draw for me. Buy when I am there I manage to both fill up my trout quota and my bacon quota for the year. Slovak food is closely related to Hungarian cuisine, with an emphasis on honest, peasant starch based dishes featuring potato and pig. If it consists of spuds and porker, you can be sure the Slovaks will make a hefty dinner out of it for under five bucks. But the best local option for a good plate of pork is to make it at home, and this is when I really appreciate living in a neighborhood with a good market. Pigs head is a regular offer at my local market, which has two butchers who specialize in offal and bits of animals that would normally be offered to cat food manufacturing concerns. This wonderful slab of snout and head went into a home made souse last winter. Total cost: about four dollars.


One of the first things I notice when I come to Hungary or anywhere in east Europe after traveling to the United States is that the pork here... tastes like pork. To which my American friends can argue about artisanal pigs, and free range pigs and all kinds of pigs but the pork uniformly tastes like cardboard in the USA - in the states I stick to beef. This summer I will be back in Romania, which offers some of the best pork in the world: similar to Hungarian pork, and often prepared by Transylvanian Hungarians themselves, but somehow porkier, piggier, somehow more swine-a-licious in flavor that the stuff we eat in Budapest. This is a plate from the incredible cabbage and pork specialty restaurant in downtown Cluj (in Hungarian: Kolozsvar) in central Transylvania known as the Varzaria, or "Cabbagerie" This is one of the best plates of food available in Europe - by a mile - and that includes Northern Italy, Paris, much of Portugal and Fife's place in Split, Croatia. This is what Jiro would eat if he wasn't dreaming about making sushi in a Tokyo subway passage. This is Pig heaven for under five bucks.


Wednesday, May 07, 2014

May Day: An International Celebration of Commies and Pork


Remember the Working class? Those hard toiling, repressed masses that were supposed to rise up and overthrow their top-hatted Mr. Monopoly slave masters in a Glorious Revolution of the Proletariat? Arise, ye trodden masses and all that? Somewhere along the road that is the history of progressive movements deriving from the mind of Hegel, the Workers of the World seem to have gone the way of the buffalo. Where once great herds of organized workers covered the industrial earth, today only consumers and interest groups graze the denuded plains. Today the majority of people you meet would never identify themselves as "workers."  Today we know them as Employees. Or "Consumers" and occasionally as "voters". But never Workers.

The last stand of the mimeograph machine. 
Well, you should have been out at the May Day celebrations in Budapest's City Park last weekend. May Day - which is celebrated as International Workers Day in memory of the Haymarket Riot (which occurred on May 4, 1886 in Chicago and, apparently, involved Workers. And Police shooting at them.) is celebrated in almost every country in the world, with a few exceptions including the United States, which celebrates Labor Day in September instead, just so we can avoid that awkward, nasty bit called "solidarity with the Workers of the World." Elsewhere it is a great day for strolling, as unions and political parties set up tents and festivals in an effort to show that they, and not some other, more honest or efficient organization, should truly represent the Working Man of Today.

Lenin advising the stockbrokers.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Budapest City Park. Traditionally, the post 1989 Hungarian left has chosen the park to host their celebrations, while the various center and right wing parties, of which only the right and far right exist today, go elsewhere. (Jobbik, the Neo-Nazi wannabe Party holds its celebrations out on the Boat Factory Island in the Danube. For three days, which kind of goes against the idea of a holiday called "May Day" but they are not really into that whole "rules" kind of thing.) Traditionally, Hungarian May Day was celebrated by party organizations offering free beer and hot dogs (virsli) for the workers, obviously based on the opinion that Workers could not appreciate a nice aged steak, a plate of chilled oysters, a  healthy tossed salad, and a vintage bottle of French red wine.

Swine-o-licious!
Today the beer is not really free unless you have a union card that gets you into one of the special tent areas, and the hot dogs have been replaced with all kinds of other pork products. It has become, essentially, a festival of the Capitalist Pig. The Cholesterol-a-thon of the spring season, if you will. Now, don;t get me wrong, I like eating the other white meat. Yes, it goes against everything that has defined the culinaria of my narrow ethnic confines for millenia, but if you have to swallow swine, this would be the place to put away your religious concerns - jump on in, the lard is fine!

Lard bread:  Hello Lipitor!
If you are on a budget, or simply not that hungry, there is the old standby of Hungarian bar food and student snack stands: lard bread. Pure pig fat spread with red onions and paprika. If you want a vegetarian option, there are langos, the fried potato dough treat that gets far more respect than it deserves. Other vegetarian options include french fries (pre-frozen for your convenience!) and the ever popular plate of pickles. That is it.
Pig knuckle ham: meaty chunks of greasy goodness!
If you need any pork, however, there are dozens of stands to accommodate you. Those ham chunks? They are pork knuckle. They are fatty, fully of chewy skin and cartiledge, and if God eats pork while sitting in front of television - and face it, why else would He forbid us, His chosen people, from eating it if He weren't keeping all the good stuff for Himself - this is what He eats. Sausages, ham steaks, and dozens of stands offering a new food fad, the soggy flat bread called lepeny served as a Hungarian version of a taco. No, it isn't traditional, or historical, or even creative. But they are cxheap, and if you know what the Workers want, they want cheap. I will devote an entire other post to these quasi-tacos as well as other fast festival foods blatantly masquerading as "traditional Hungarian specialties" sometime in the futre. Now, of course, the real reason we are here is to celebrate the workers. In the corner of the City Park near the castle is the area traditionally set aside for the old time, hard core, Communist Stalinoid left.
The Workers Party: Still searching for meaning.
This includes the Hungarian Workers Party, the party that refused to admit defeat in 1989 and has since been run by Gyula Thurmer, a hard line old believer in the principles of Lenin and Marx. They garner dozens of votes each election year and have been at this for years. But they do put on a good party, and their May Day areas are one of the few public places that Gypsies feel comfortable celebrating in public, which is a rather telling symbol about the state of ethnic relations in Hungary today. Just down the road was the "Janos Kadar Circle of Friends" which is a club of old time Commies (and I think they would prefer we use that particular term) who enjoy ticking people off by supporting one of the most unpopular slugs in the history of Hungarian politics.
Are we attractive yet?
Think of it: with these guys in charge our future would be so much brighter!  Living up to the ideals of Janos Kadar, the man who betrayed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and led the Hungarians into their grumpily mediocre "Goulash Communism" period. What lofty ideals could these evidently vertebrate minds be hiding? Just in case you were not sure who the Janos Kadar Circle support, they were offering match boxes emblazened with the likeness of two of their favorite contemporary world leader.


Yes, that's right. Hugo Chavez and... Bashir Assad. Somebody sat down and decided that the butcher of Syria would be a great poster boy for a Hungarian celebration. And you wonder why the progressive world looks at Hungary and weeps?

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Táncháztalálkozó 2014: The Unpronounceable Power of Music.


Spring came to Budapest in full force this weekend with sunny days, high temperatures. The Hungarian elections are happening in a week, and that means the weekend was marked by mass marches and election rallies featuring stump speeches by cognitively challenged baboons who display the moral compass of Nigerian email scammers. But,alas, I digress... We all know the genuine harbinger of Budapest spring in March is the national folk festival, the Táncháztalálkozó.

An intimate context for traditional culture.
Held in the uniquely inappropriate venue of the Papp Lászlo Sports Stadium (formerly Népstadion, for all of us Comrades who remember the old days.) As festivals go it does the best it can given the circumstances, that circumstance being a huge cement salad bowl Arena designed for just about anything but a folk festival. The organizers - the Guild of Dance Houses - have a lot of experience finding innovative work-arounds for the shortcomings of the venue, mainly because the crowds converging on the festival are so ravenously enthusiastic that they would enjoy a festival in a septic tank as long as folk musicians were playing in it. You probably get my drift by now: I hate being inside the frigging stadium almost as much as I hate being inside an Ikea. I may not be alone in that opinion, but I think I am definitely not in the majority.

Stock up on all your Moldavian instrument needs!
Heck, a lot of people like folk festivals inside an Ikea, wandering though the maze of Blögg and  Sündqvist and Duda and Koboz browsing for something that suits their personal taste. (Ikea, at least, has meatballs.) Anyway, I had my say about the festival back in 2009, and now I go simply to meet old friends and hear good music, which the Táncháztalálkozó has in spades.

Two Generations of the Csóori Family band, masters of music from Szék
I live in Budapest, where you can find a Hungarian dance house pretty much five nights a week, so I can seem pretty jaded about the folk music scene here. For younger enthusiasts, especially those who live outside of the capitol city, this festival is the high point of the year. You can browse the crafts market for quality items for your folk dance costuming needs, or even pick up hard to find folk instruments as well as the teaching materials you will need to master them. The main arena area is given to mass dance teaching during the day, with bands taking the main stage for shorter sets of dance music.

 Márta Sebestyén and the Vujicsics Band
When we got there the legendary Vujicsics band was burning through some of the local Serbian minority (bet you didn't know that the northernmost Serbian ethnic settlements are north of Budapest!) repertoire when suddenly the world famous and perennially cute singer Márta Sebestyén appeared for a quick photo op. And who was in the front row snapping the photo but our old friend Béla Kása.

Béla Kása 
Béla Kása is a photographer whose dedication to the traditions of Hungarian music is legendary. He has been tramping the back roads of Transylvania in search of the roots of this music since the early 1970s, and his work has found a home in galleries the world over. Kása didn't just document the tancház mevement: he was a part of establishing and spreading it. This year the Hungarian folk dance movement lost one of the key personalities that launched the revitalization of folk music in the early 1970s when Béla Halmos passed away. Bélabácsi was honored with a photo exhibit in one of the upstairs concert rooms depicting his decades of untiring work to propagate the tradition of Hungarian instrumental music. It was fitting that the same room hosted a special event celebrating the publication of Muzsikás 40, a new book looking at the history of the band Muziskás after four decades of music. Muzsikás was one of the first bands to form in the early 1970s under the influence of Béla Halmos and the dance house movement. They were also the most innovative and attracted a huge following, rising to pop star status without ever abandoning their roots in village music, and were eventually the band that broke through to international fame.


Writer Béla Szilárd Jávorszky has collected their histories and anecdotes and put together a fascinating portrait in his new book Muzsikás 40, which is highly recommended. The all too brief Muzsikás session was followed by a blazing set by the Buda Folk Band, comprising of some of the young hot shots of the folk music scene and featuring no less than two offspring from the original members of  Éri Márton and Csóori Sándor, Jr.
The Buda Folk Band
This is the most innovative and enjoyable band I have heard in years, and I will write more about them and their new CD Magyar Világi Népzene. in the near future. It is the Cd to buy this year: traditional, modern, but most of all, tasteful, well thought out, and it sounds like a bunch of guys having a heck of a lot of fun. But I had yet to wander about. Jam sessions are what make a festival for me. Alas, the festival layout leaves only the bar as a suitable area for jamming, which is located in a semi outdoor area that is, in real life, part of the underground parking lot of a bus station. Ideal for noise, not so much for music. The energy level is high, as is the decibel level, but nothing cuts through the ambient noise like a set of bagpipes.

Hungarian Bagpipe jam session
These two younger pipers were playing without their drone pipes attached, which is common when more than one piper plays. Traditionally, Hungarian bagpipes - the duda - were never played in pairs. There is even a saying in Hungarian that "two pipers do not fit in one tavern." But modern innovations have improved the instrument to the level where they can actually be tuned, so tradition be damned. Of course, the folk bar area has the best and most spontaneous music if anything like a traditional context for this music can be found inside a cement bus-station-sports stadium, it will be where booze can flow, and that is where we found our friends the Codoba family band from the central Transylvanian village of Palatka playing.

Lőrincz and Florin Codoba leading the Palatka Band.
The Palatka band is probably the most active of traditional style gypsy bands still working in full form. They still perform using two lead fiddles and two kontra violas, and maintain the old style of harmonizing modal melodies using major chords which characterizes the band music of central Transylvania. Presently the leader of the band is Codoba Lőrincz, whose brothers Marton and Bela were the double fiddle pair that defined the style for a generation of Hungarian folk fiddlers, but Florin, the son of the late Marton Codoba, has been taking front man honors more and more of late, and often comes to Budapest to guest with local bands playing in the Palatka style. This is the music that I love, the stuff that brought me here so many years ago, and the stuff that keeps me here. This is the reason I drag myself into the cement sports stadium. This is the sound of life itself.