Saturday, January 29, 2011
Hungarian Bagpipes and Media Dignity.
When I moved to Hungary in the 1980s, I was already a bagpipe fanatic. I had first heard the Hungarian bagpipe - the duda - on recordings in the 1970s, and it simply grabbed me by the neck and changed what I thought about music. Between the sound of the Hungarian duda and the raw power of the Transylvanian fiddle bands that I heard on Hungarian field recordingsI was hooked. Although I played fiddle in all kinds of bands – bluegrass, country, Greek, Irish and Cajun – I never gave up trying to get that Transylvanian sound, and the search for that sound eventually was the thing that brought me to Hungary in the 1980s. And since I couldn’t get my hands on a Hungarian bagpipe, I wound up playing the somewhat different, but still raw and riveting, Balkan gaida. I actually once put together a Transylvanian string band with some band mates from an African band I played in – a Ghanaian on the kontra fiddle and a Senegalese on the bass. It is a pity we never recorded. By the time I got here in 1980s, the Hungarian bagpipe – the duda – had largely died out, due in part because the shepherds who played it were replaced by electric sheep fences and the simple fact that society preferred more pleasant sounding instruments than the lowly duda.In the 1970s, however, Hungarian folk musicians such as Sándor Csoóri, Juhász Zoltán and Ferenc Tobak (shown above researching Moldavian bagpipes in the 1980s) sought out the last active duda players and learned the technique and most importantly, the manufacture of these instruments. But most of us were convinced that there were no older Hungarian duda players left in Hungary (except for a handful of Croatian ethnic players of the Croatian bagpipes in south Hungary.) Then, in the 1990s, while inquiring about the survival of any memories of duda traditions anthropologist Gergély Agocs and musicologist Juhász Zoltán found Pál Pista, a retired shepherd who had played duda – as well as shepherd’s flute - in his youth but had given up playing.Alone after the death of his wife and son, Uncle Pista was surprised to find that anybody would be interested in him, but encouraged by the younger musicians and armed with a new and functional bagpipe made for him, Pál Pista became an active performer at folk festivals and dance houses. The “discovery” of Uncle Pista was also important in that it gave a whole generation of young Hungarian bagpipe enthusiasts a living link to the old traditions, a face to face teacher and transmitter of the old aesthetic of the shepherd. And Uncle Pista took to his new role avidly – he still loves to give performances to schools and cultural clubs, but he is now 91 and over the last few years he has been slowing down a bit. His hearing is going, but he will still rise to the occasion if asked to appear to play his pipe and tell a few stories to the students and schoolchildren he adores so much.And now it gets ugly. Surfing around the net I came across this clip from Hungary’s “who’s got talent” reality show ‘Megasztar.’ Last May the show contacted Uncle Pal Pista, and asked him to appear on their “talent show.” Uncle Pista had no idea what the Megasztar show is, and thought he was being asked to demonstrate his traditional bagpipes for TV, which the only reason he ever gets called in by any TV station. Dressed in his traditional clothes – which appear funny and outlandish in the Megasztar context, especially with a ridiculous contestant number attached to his hat, Pal wanted to play his bagpipe. But backstage the show’s assistants asked him to play his flute, and then onstage they asked him to just sing a song for them. Onstage, however, celebrity talk show host and contest judge Sandor Frederikusz requested that Uncle Pista play a cowherd’s song (called a ‘gulyas nota’ – these are usually known to be obscene ditties.) And Uncle Pisti refuses and wants to sing a patriotic Hussar song instead.This clip takes the cake for bad taste – trying to get cheap laughs from an old man who just happens to be a cultural icon of Hungarian culture. The other contestants know what they are in for when they go on a cheap Gong Show knock off like Megasztar – Uncle Pista did not. Watching this, I can feel my stomach churning. I can understand why people talk of the need to protect “dignity” in broadcast media. I can’t understand the need, however, to legislate it.Which brings us to the new Media law and the concept of decency in broadcasting. Hungary is in the international spotlight these days because of its adoption of a new law governing press and media freedom and regulating fines for broadcast or published “assaults on human dignity” and “public morals.” What one must understand is that Hungarian TV offers some of the most invasive, hideous and downright scratch-my-eyeballs-out horrible television to be seen anywhere west of Azerbaijan (which has some truly unique bad TV of its own.) The best protection from such assaults is to simply turn the damn TV off. We had our cable company shut our TV off two years ago because of all the 50 or so channels, we were reduced to watching the Animal Channel, the desperate Hungarian cooking channel PaprikaTV, and BBC news until they took it off the cable service as well. Instead we chose to repurpose our TV more productively as a stand for potted plants. In truth, the new media law won’t be used to protect people like Uncle Pista from the indignities of broadcasting. It will be used to protect governing politicians when their mouths move and – as so often happens when their mouths move – lies and fabrications come out. It will be used to go after the media and press that report that simple fact and cause embarrassment to those politicians. The law is not there to protect us, but to control us.