It used to be one of the most exciting traditional music festivals in the world. During the early 1990s, when eastern European borders first opened and amature folk collectors began to scour the neighboring regions for unknown village bands the Táncháztalálkozó was a place to make real discoveries and real friends. Today it is, basically a commercial market for the folk dance business, a staged show for the TV sponsors, and a showcase for provincial school folk dance troupes with a jam session in a bus station parking lot.
It is a folk festival in an indoor sports arena, fer chrissakes, not the most amenable venue in the world for traditional culture. Now, a lot of my friends work very hard organizing this festival and they do a great job with the limited resources they have (meaning the stadium provided by the city of Budapest for the event) but the truth is this is not really my cup of tea anymore when it comes to hearing live traditional music. Rather than just rag on the whole thing, I'll just rag on a few small points. The best features of the original festival were the jam sessions - especialy the opportunity to play with traditional bands from Transylvania - and the crafts sellers who came from villages to sell authentic folk costumes, pottery, and all manner of folky weavings and carvings - this is where you go to buy a year's worth of birthday gifts.
The main area of the festival has become commercialized into a souvenir market, while the traditional crafts are now packed into a backstage room, instead of spread out around the venue as they used to be. At the old festival the atmosphere was like a village fair, and you could make friends while browsing somebody's old laundry while sampling their home brewed palinka. Not any more. Now it is like post-holiday shopping in a crowded subway car.The peasants from the village of Szek are there in force - the women dressed as they always are in red skirts and kerchiefs - although it is always good to see some of the Transylvanian Gabor Gypsies have caught onto the advantage of selling folk costmes in Budapest.
The main arena is dedicated to huge pageants of mass folkery... dance teaching on a basketball court can get little beyond teaching people to hop in a circle in rythym. The pageants feature strings of revival bands taking the stage to provide music one after the other with hardly any rest, with unfortunate sound system results blasting out into the arena. The stage pageants are not worth watching unless you are the parent of one of the unfortunate high schoolers bussed in to provide heritage footage for the ever present TV cameras funding the main events. The actual music occurs in four smaller rooms located at opposite ends of the horseshoe shaped arena - meaning you can only reach them by walking a few kilometers around the arena after climbing upstairs one or two levels. The dance room is about as unacceptable a space as possible for dancing: low ceilinged and carpeted.
Not exactly prime space for the events that the festival is dedicated to, namely folk dance. Of course, those who attend love it anyway. But why expect them to accept second best? How about the outdoor "folk tavern" area? In real life, this is the lower level of the Stadium bus station parking lot, a dimly lit, cement echo chamber. This, however, is where the best music can be found: I got there to see the Palatka Band from central Transylvania warming up at lunchtime.My biggest complaint is that over the years fewer and fewer traditional bands from the countryside appear at the festival, which is more and more focused on the revival folk music movement. It is not that there are no longer any village based trad bands to hire, there are. And for young Hungarian folk musicians who don't live in Budapest the chance to sit in and jam with musicians like the Palatka band is the dream of a lifetime, the reason many of them come to the festival. The bands and the fans deserve a better atmosphere than a bus parking lot.On the positive side, this year featured an exhibit of photographs of "Fathers and Sons" in Hungarian folk music. And there was our own Puma, whose son "Little Puma" has turned into one of the leading kontra fiddlers for the younger generation of dance bands...