Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Yuri Chernavets: 1948 - 2018.

Yura Chernavets, my good friend passed away this month at his home in Tyachiv, Ukraine at age of 69. Yuri was the drummer, singer, and plonka player from the Manyo band (known in Hungary as the Técsői Banda) and he was - without any shadow of doubt or danger of hyperbole - the best damn traditional drummer in European folk music, a natural talent who developed a an amazing level of expressiveness and virtuosity on an instrument that is usually considered an afterthought.

Yura was a member of the traditional folk band known in the Ukraine as Manyo, consisting of the sons of the Hutsul fiddler Manyo Chernavets, based in the small town of Tyachiv in the western Ukraine, just across the Tisa river from the Maramures region of Romania. Manyo play a mix of native Hutsul / Ruthenian music, a heady mixture of Ukrainian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Gypsy music with a healthy dose of Russian and Jewish songs thrown in for good measure. I met them around 2000 when record producer Ferenc Kiss and Imre Keszthelyi began to tour them around Hungary, showcasing their multiethnic repertoire.

Greenwich Village, New York, 2010

When I heard them play a medley of Carpathian Jewish dance tunes I arranged to visit them at Imre's sprawling 8th district flat, where they usually stayed in Budapest, with Australian cimbalom player Tim Meyen and fiddler Pip Thompson. We ended up recording a huge amount of music, much of it Jewish, but the day cemented a personal relationship that grew over the years. During that afternoon we were warned to keep the music down so that the neighbors wouldn't complain: this is Ivan on fiddle and Yura playing on furniture, and you can see the artistry coming through, as well as a few of his dance moves.

I had intended to include some of their tunes on Di Naye Kapelye's third CD for Oriente Records (Traktorist) but had to contend with post touring and studio exhaustion from my own musicians, when the Manyo band suddenly showed up in Budapest. So I simply invited them into the studio to do the songs with me, as well as Michael Alpert's rendition of the traditional tune "Hu Tsa Tsa" sung about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. At the time the band was involved in making Hungarian documentary which became "The Last Kolomeyke" (whole film on Youtube)  That film, sadly, became the story of the loss of their brother Mishka, the cimbalom player, but I allowed the film crew in to the studio to record the session and later we did a live gig at the old Castro Bistro in Budapest.

In the clip from that film you can hear - but not see - one the of Yuri's amazing talents: he was a master of the plonka, The plonka is a small bit of film - from a slide or an e-ray - held in the mouth and blown as a reed for effect during dances, tweeting like a bird, trilling like screeching brakes, or - for a talented few like Yuri - playing melodies like a crazed oboist on meth. Some of my fondest memories of Yuri are when I went with the band to New York for the Black Sea Roma Festival sponsored by New York city's Center For Traditional Music and Dance in 2010. For the first few days we stayed at my sister Pam's house in New Jersey, where we invited the cream of the New York klezmer scene - Michael Alpert, Sruli Dresdener, Zach Meyer, and Pete Rushevsky among others -  for a BBQ and jammed until the police advised to stop.

Later, the Center for Traditional Music and Dance sponsored a dance party at the Ukrainian Home restaurant on 2nd Ave in the East Village, giving the band the distinct impression that much of New York was inhabited by Ukrainians. While we were in New York ethnomusicologist Shaun Williams - who was teaching English in the Ukraine at the time and studying Hutsul traditional music - served as cimbalom player and translator, and basically, cultural advisor to the band ("no, they don't shoot the chipmunks and eat them here... yes, the coffee samples at Starbucks are for free...") While we were all shopping for fiddle strings at DiBella music in Bergenfield, Shaun pointed out that that Yuri had fallen in love with a three wheeled motorcycle parked behind.

Yuri Chernavets was a lot more than just a folk musician - he was a world class musician and many promoters and producers who heard him live were quick to say so. A couple of years ago I was contacted that a producer in England had seen some of my video clips and wanted to record the band... and it was one of the members of PiL. Another musician wrote to me from Japan asking about Yura and his drum style. For Klezmer musicians, who play the Carpathian poik drum, Yuri was one of the only practitioners of poik who really had a mastery above mediocre levels.

The Hutsul discovery of NY pizza.

Traditional musicians like Yura and his brother Joshka of the Manyo band are one of the reasons I continue to live in this part of the world. They are still here. I am still here. Something bigger than us is still here. Tradition doesn't just mean preserving the past. Tradition is a way of protecting the future. It is a way of giving something that you can't quantify with a price, something you can only have if you work for it, but you can never own it. Yura was a person who worked for everything he had, and shared with everyone he met. We are all better for knowing him,  we will miss him, and Heaven will now be a much livelier and noisier place.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Not All Americans are Assholes: Anthony Bourdain, 1956 - 2018.

Back in the early days of blogging, before twitter and instagram and snapchat I wrote a post "Anthony Bourdain does Romania: National Scandal Ensues" which remains the single most visited page on this blog. Last Friday afternoon Fumie looked up from her tablet and quietly announced "Anthony Bourdain has died." The news that the host of CNN Parts Unknown had taken his own life in an Alsatian hotel was, perhaps, the only time a celebrity obit ever shocked me. I don't put much emotional value in celebrity passings, but Bourdain was in a different category. He may have had the most popular show on CNN, but he was no celebrity. He may have been the most recognized kitchen worker on TV, but he would be the first to reject the label celebrity chef. Bourdain was a normal guy... maybe hyper-normal. He was... a mensch. It is a type we know well in New Jersey... raised in the 1970s within walking distance of the George Washington Bridge, close enough to New York to catch the late shows at CBGB's but far enough to lack any street cred. It is a kind of massive chip to carry on your shoulder, and Bourdain carried it with a vengeance. In the suburbs either you got a Phd or you became a line cook. All my friends got Phds. I got a job as a garbage man for the Hackensack Sanitation Department. (My brother became a line cook. My sister, however, is a doctor.) So when I watched or read Anthony Bourdain's stuff, it felt awfully close to home. You could almost smell the Meadowlands stench on it, just aching to get to the toll booth at the GW Bridge and cross those rusting steel beams to the city of dreams.

Bourdain was raised in Leonia, NJ, about three miles from where I lived in Teaneck when I went to High School. We were both born in the same year. His local new Jersey hot dog stand was Hiram's in Fort Lee - ours was Callahan's, across the street. We both hung out at the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie NY at the same time in the 1970s with about the same amount of commitment. At least I was not enrolled - I played blues fiddle with the near legendary Chops McCoy's band in the CIA pub on weekends. I can't claim to have ever really met Bourdain, but I remember Chops once taking me off campus to buy a baggie of pot from a dodgy off campus guy who may well have been Bourdain - all I remember is that the guy was an asshole and the pot was... as Chops McCoy put  it "You don't smoke it, you season lamb with it."  Bourdain also partook of one major dirty, delicious secret that I am also guilty of: Popeye's fried chicken.

Bourdain was a competent chef - his specialty at Les Halles in New York was the bog standard French steak frites - but his real talent was storytelling. Bourdain loved food, but his real skill was describing the people who made it, from producers to dishwashers to chefs. Bourdain had no fear of words, no writer's block, and a knack for that wry twist that only comes from somebody who has puked tequila and beer at a Ramones gig. (As such he was a story editor's dream.)  He read widely and idolized  William S. Boroughs, Hunter Thompson, George Orwell, and Joan Didion among others. He read with an editor's eye, but he wrote as if he were talking to a table full of close friends at an after hours bar. At the age of 44, an article he had written "Don't Eat before Reading This" made it to The New Yorker, and from there to a publisher who reworked it as Kitchen Confidential. My brother - who has never held any job in his life that did not require holding an onion in one hand and a knife in the other - posted this on Facebook: "Before that book I could tell people what I did for a living and it was as if I was speaking in tongues. After "Confidential" people knew what we did and they respected it. I always wanted to thank Anthony for that. He made being what I was when I woke up, and what I was when passed out and absolutely everything between acceptable, even desirable."

Kitchen Confidential led to a successful career on television. Bourdain's style was unique - he didn't conform to the stereotypes expected by the Food Network or the Travel Channel, he smoked, he drank, he had opinions, he told stories of his drug days, and occasionally rolled one up and inhaled on camera. Some shows worked, some did not (Romania stands out in this regard.) but the viewer always knew that Bourdain was trying to show something honest and real: Truth in television rarely intrudes on travel or food shows. He eventually came to roost at staid CNN with Parts Unknown at a time when, in hindsight, we needed him the most. Anthony Bourdain taught Americans that they did not have to be afraid of the world. Sitting with iranian families sharing a meal, talking to regular folk in Gaza, knocking back a beer with Obama at a bun cha stand in Hanoi, or chowing down on greasy megashnitzels at Budapest's obscure and beautifully grungy Pleh Csarda, Anthony Bourdain showed the world that there actually were Americans who were not assholes. He used his airtime to describe the lives of normal people in places like Gaza, Laos, Armenia, and Beirut to Americans and others who, like him, did not want to be assholes. At a time when the United States of America is identified with one of the most repulsive assholes to ever hold public office, Anthony Bourdain presented an hour each week of tolerance, decency, and a willingness to listen to and learn from people not like himself. Anthony Bourdain touched a lot of people, and will be sorely missed. We needed that hour each week of learning to not fear people. Now more than ever. Now more than ever. 

In Memoriam: Anthony Bourdain visits my home town, the Bronx:

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Spring comes to Budapest's Party District

We want to come and live underneath your bedroom window !
...and thus ends the longest hiatus in the history of this blog! We haven't posted since that New Years day in icy Paterson, New Jersey. There are a lot of reasons for that. One is the simple realization that my daily life in Budapest is simply not that exotic, and how many more posts do we need about spring vegetables in the local market, or recipes for liver sausage? Of course, if you don't live here you may think it is exotic. My neighborhood - the historic Jewish Ghetto of Budapest's 7th district - is fast becoming the center of Budapest's drunk and loud nighttime tourism flood. This is not the yacht crowd, or even the seasoned backpacker crowd you may find in a Nepali mountain hut. Think "accounting department of a property management company in Liverpool stag party" meets "football fans from Lyons  on a crazy weekend getaway" with beer one quarter the price of what it is in Olde Blighty. It gets noisy. And messy.

"Le Grand Rue du Bad Restaurants"
Half the flats in my building have turned into Air B&B rentals or semi legal hostels, indeed half the residences in my neighborhood have become budget rentals for fly-in weekenders and Hungarian flatlanders who flock here for the rebranded bulinegyed or "Party Quarter." Ten years ago there were about four really good pubs in the area - and there were about three "ruin bars" - alternative spaces set up in abandoned or condemned housing. Today the real "Ruin Bars" are all gone, replaced by pricey courtyard garden bistros or by lots of cheap "Eight shots for a five bucks" tourist bars. Then there is the Godzsu Udvar, an uber-kitsch testament to bad taste and disastrous city planning which turned a unique piece of urban history into the food court of a sad mall. The majority of these places are owned by families and companies with close funding ties to the Ruling Party That Rules Everything. The Szimpla, which was one of the original ruin bars, is now a self conscious tourist magnet for those who want to visit something of the alternative past - sort of a hipster ride at Disneyland - but so crowded with tourists at night that they actually have a velvet rope and doormen to face check you as you enter.
The Szimpla Kert in the quiet moment before it becomes an Australian backpacker meat market..
Still, the Szimpla - as the oldest and probably the last of the original ruin bars - does keep a sense of community, at least, hosting an organic farmer market on sunday mornings, periodic bicycle markets, and dance houses on some weekday nights. I used to maintain a live and let live attitude towards the changes that were engulfing the 7th district: after all, it maintains its daytime character as the Jewish district and a place where you can get a shoe fixed or a zipper replaced at the corner tailor shop, plus we have an Indian grocery, a cevapcici diner, and a decent cheap Bengali place for cheap take out biryani. But this summer the pressure is building. Local residents are growing angry at the noise levels and the nighty trashing of the streets - on Sunday morning the sidewalks are literally covered in vomit, broken bottles, and yes, excrement. A few days ago I had drunken people - tourists, unless Hungarian drunks have switched to French and Mancunian after midnight - howling beneath my bedroom window until 4 in the morning.

On a lighter note - Hungarian Dance House Day held its annual festival on Ferenc Liszt square and I dropped in for a set by Muzsikas. Muzsikas still top the list of my favorite trad folk bands in Hungary, still kicking after four decades of playing together. The festival was originally the brainchild of Bela Halmos, the fiddler and musicologist who ignited the revival of Hungarian traditional music back in 1971, starting an alternative youth movement that became a way of life.

Bela Halmos: a good friend, a great musician.
Sadly, Bela passed away a few weeks after I last saw him playing at Tanchaz Napaja in 2013. Since then the event has been held in his honor. Another simple reason for my lack of posts has been technical. My usual digital Nikon coolpix camera has gone insane. Taking photos with it is extremely hit or miss: will it turn on or will it not turn on? How about if I remove the battery? How about if I hit it? Aha! that did it.... so most of the time I use my Nexus tablet , which is not exactly the best option for photography and definitely not convenient. (See the photos above? The nice night time bar photos? Fumie's.) Most people simply tell me to get a smart phone... my answer is no. I am not a smart phone person. I'm not entirely a luddite or technophobe, but I see all those people walking around in the streets with their eyes glued to their little square phones and I know that could easily happen to me.... I could become one of them in a microsecond. Instant internet access. 24 hour Google maps. Apps for everything. Nope. Ain't gonna happen. At least not anytime soon. So we will see if the blog regains its graphic splendor. It all depends on a Nikon Coolpix with mental disorders.

FIDESZ 2010. We do not forget easily. 
Oh, and we survived the Hungarian election in April. FIDESZ won. FIDESZ always wins. And the poster above tells you why: a photo of George Soros with the words "Don't let Soros have the last laugh!" graffitied - as most were - with the words "Stinking Jew!" So helpful. Thanks FIDESZ. Enjoy your victory.

Friday, January 12, 2018

New Year, New Jersey. 2018

The New Jersey New Year arrived in the middle of yet another "Polar Vortex" - the term that news anchors use when they don't want to say "freezing your ass off." Because news anchors are always polite, even when the Clown in Chief is ranting about "shithole" countries and wishing he could find Norwegians willing to clean his toilets, groom his golf courses, and prep his fast food lunch, a thing which, incidentally, Norwegians do not do. But a month in the USA of Donny the Dick will do that to you. This place is warped, soured and divided by a year of the Orange Asswipe. Trump is on the TV constantly - he doesn't want you to turn him off or change the topic of conversation. After all, it is all about the ratings. Almost makes me anxious to get back to Hungary and our own dickweed politicians with their own idiot haircuts (an obvious reference to this weenie.)
The Mighty Passaic River stopped by a polar vortex.
The New Year for us started with a visit to the Great Falls of Paterson, NJ, the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Ice formed where the spray hit the cliffs, and with temperatures hanging around -10 centigrade, there were not too many other visitors willing to face frostbite to see the amazing glacial gorge covered in ice.The rocky gorges and huge boulders that are strewn all over this part of new Jersey are what is left over from the last Ice Age. It's like the glaciers drove down to the Jersey shore, enjoyed the free parking for a few hundred thousand years, and then - like everybody from New Jersey - they left, probably bored or disgusted by some prehistoric Chris Christie or the Blue Laws, leaving their glacial garbage behind to remind us that nothing can last forever in New Jersey. Everybody leaves Jersey. Everybody.

Practicing the Downward Freezing Dog yoga position!
Just around the corner from the falls is one of Paterson's iconic cultural landmarks: Libby's Lunch, a small diner specializing in the "Texas Wiener" style of hot dog that is one of the unique cultural treasures of the Silk City and its neighboring towns. Essentially, its a "chili dog" but the chili is actually a Macedonian meat sauce flavored with paprika and oregano, and cowboys looked a lot more attractive than Chetniks and Komitadji on the highway signs that used to advertise these places to truckers looking for a quick meal before pulling into New York City. There are at least a dozen "Texas Wiener" restaurants in the area, which we sampled during hot dog pilgrimages on earlier trips.

The least photogenic food on earth.
The most famous Dog House is Rutt's Hutt in Clifton, featured on lots TV shows, and of course, Bourdain's favorite in Fort Lee, Hirams. These are deep fried hot dogs, but Libby's doesn't go for the artistically incinerated object d'art that makes Rutt's famous. Libby's are just good wieners. Big, fried, and covered in, well, a pile of shit. Tasty shit, yes, but you are definitely not the first to comment on it. It is all part of the provincial New Jersey charm of the dish. Until recently, we were partisan for Clifton's Hot Grill, but I think Libby's has taken the ribbon for Vest Value in an Aesthetically Unpresentable Food. The menu does not seem to have been examined by an economist since the late 1970s.

Taylor Ham. The NJ state Sandwich.
Of course, man does not live by hot dogs alone. There are also hamburgers, and that means either Hackensack's White Manna or... the decidedly more upmarket Shake Shack. Shake Shack used to be the hobby of the owner of the Union Square Cafe. Stuck with trimmings from the various aged steaks they served, he opened a classic burger stand in new York City offering a high quality beef burger.  These are not in the same category as McDonalds... and are usually compared to the burgers sold on the west coast at In and Out Burger.

You want me, don't you? You know you do!
Yes, I love Shake Shack. I like them so much that I do not eat any hamburgers in Europe - well, at least not outside of Berlin - because they will only make me sad at their inability to live up to a Shake Shack burger. Shake Shack is not the only burger in the world: I like a good diner burger, and some truck stops and country restaurants can also turn out a great burger. I've even had a decent cheeseburger in far distant Canada!

Bacon cheeseburger, because you will die someday and you can't do anything about that.
But European burgers.... oh... please, no.... especially the ones sold at the trendy burger joints in my nabe, Budapest's 7th district, designed to lure in the tourist and yokel trade. Note to chefs: NEVER use a brioche bun on a hamburger! If you think that brioche buns are some sort of creative fusion, you are wrong and you do not know anything at all about hamburgers beyond the mere shape of the bread. Walk away from the kitchen and find a job you are qualified for. Or go to Paterson and learn how to do it right.