Friday, July 19, 2013

Béla Halmos: 1946 - 2013.

Béla Halmos, one of the founding fathers of the Hungarian folk music revival movement, passed away at his home in Budapest yesterday. He was 68. Béla was one of my great friends and a role model as I was growing up. He was, in fact, one of the main reasons I live in Hungary today.
In 1972 I was staying at my Uncle's house in Veszprém when I saw a TV documentary following two long haired but serious young Hungarians as they went from village to village in Hungary sticking microphones into old people's faces, collecting folk music, and then attempting to reproduce it themselves. I was fascinated, and so my uncle began taking me to friends of his who played the fiddle or the Hungarian zither. Eventually my uncle bought me a cheap Czech fiddle (which is hanging on the wall behind me as I type) and started me on my lifelong path to making screaming East European fiddle music. That TV show was a window on the very beginning of the Dance House movement.
At the original dance house, Kossuth Klub, Zuglo, 1972
Eventually, I got to meet Béla Halmos in 1986 in Boston Massachusetts, when Beth Cohen and her all Woman Hungarian folk band brought him over to play for Dance workshops. The serious unsmiling guy in the film turned out to be a rather jolly fellow with a taste for Chinese and Japanese food and a wonderfully competent, if quirky, command of English. Béla Halmos took Hungarian musical culture out of the academic and folkloristic realm and put it back into the hands of everyday people, especially young people, and set an example that would grow into a movement. That movement – beginning with 1970s communist era Hungarian youth in bad hippie haircuts – grew into a unifying social force for Hungarians called the Tanchaz, or Dance House movement. Dance House put the fun back into folk dancing, put fiddles back in the hands of teen musicians, returned the csárdás  to its place as a sexy dance for young Hungarians, and helped Hungarians retain their unique cultural identity at a time when the prevailing Communist ideology still strove for a Stalinoid cultural sameness in the identity of the World Proletariat. What Béla Halmos did was simply genius: he learned to play the fiddle in Hungarian village style. And then he played. A lot. Everywhere.
Fiddling in the bar at the Fono Club
Béla bácsi (Uncle Béla) was as central to the shift in consciousness that led to the fall of Communism as any samizdat publisher or Radio Free Europe broadcaster. Bela helped shift a cultural viewpoint, and he did it simply by saying “This is how we sound.” And then he would pick up a fiddle and show you. I mentioned Bela a couple of posts ago when he was playing a set of dances from Szék at the Dance House Day celebration at Franz Liszt Sq. in Pest in June. While at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival I asked several organizers there “Why isn't Béla bácsi here?” since anything celebrating Dance House culture on a large scale could have included the participation of one of its founders and key popularizers. Béla Halmos was (with Ferenc Sebő) the founder of the first of the Hungarian Folk revival band back in the early 1970s, the Sebo-Halmos band. As such, he had a stature in the scene equivalent to, say, that of a Pete Seeger in the USA or a Ewan MacColl in the UK as the Father of the Folk Scene. Trained in classical violin and studying to be an engineer, Halmos met Sebő as students taking part in a folk song competition around 1969. Rejecting the over-arranged restaurant Gypsy music style of the folklore troupes, Sebő and Halmos wanted to sound like the village musicians they had heard on field recordings of folk music recorded by ethnomusicologists like Bartók and Lajtha.
Playing with Icsan in Szek, around 1973
They sought out the dance ethnographer Gyorgy Martin who shared his huge collection of original recordings of Transylvanian folk bands and steered them in the right direction of getting on a train and going to the “pure source” of the village musicians themselves in Transylvania, where the older Hungarian traditions still maintain their context in rural villages. Béla found his sound in the village of Szek, in the north Transylvanian plain, and his mentor was Adám István, named “Icsán” - a hard-boiled old village Gypsy fiddler whose repertoire and fiddle style were absorbed by Béla to became the core of the Dance House revival.
While the Dance House movement was “tolerated” during the 1980s, after 1990 Béla and other Dance House researchers worked to make the folk dance movement a part of the education system and bring it to a wider audience. Béla produced a long running TV series on Hungarian folk music as well as taking a position at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as a musicologist and archivist, all the while teaching workshops and performing concerts and dances.He preferred the simple joys of a weekend night playing fiddle for a room full of sweaty dancers to almost anything – except maybe a few strong shots of palinka after the set, as long as somebody had the foresight to bring along some spicy salami or bacon to settle the stomach. Which I always didBéla Halmos' influence will far out shadow the sorrow at his passing: he leaves behind thousands of active musicians, singers, and dancers all over the world whose love of the arcane village band sounds of Transylvania is directly the result of his life's work. Béla was one of the strongest supporters of what we were doing in Di Naye Kapelye, and included us in several of his music series and TV projects. He had a broad, relativistic modern Anthropologists' view of the world, not the provincial East European “folklore” vision so many still profess. He was not a ranting nationalist, but he loved Hungarian culture while valuing the multicultural aspects of life in the Carpathian basin. He was a cultural treasure as well as a cultural activist, a real Renaissance man. But most of all, he was a nice guy. A wonderfully nice guy. A good friend. He knew what was good. As his mentor, Icsán the fiddler used to say "Ami jó, az jó." What is good , is good. Bela simply did good work.

He played a dance in Budapest like he belonged in a village in the Mezőség. He was a good teacher, a good man. We will miss him, but we will feel his influence for many, many years to come whenever a fiddle comes out of a case, and a Hungarian tune comes out of a fiddle. Nyugodj békében Béla!


Rose said...

Thanks for this heartfelt memorial. Bela really did have an influence on us foreigners. It's safe to say that Bela transmitted the experience of Hungarian/Szek music in such a way that I ended up going into ethnomusicology in Hungarian-speaking territory. He left us too soon but he left us with a lot! --

Cesar said...


Chris Matie said...

Very informative, Bob. Nice, touching tribute on one of the true masters of East European folk music. I can relate because my Romanian paternal grandparents had started me down my lifelong path as I was growing up listening to the Romanian band music of John Boldi and Neil Bondshu which were based in East Chicago, Indiana. They were all brass bands whooping up Romanian folk music 1930's and 40's big band style. But thank you anyway for a nice, touching, informative piece.