Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Zoe Aqua: The Romanian Synagogue Concert Tour

The Vizhnizer Kloys Synagogue, Sighet.
We return to Romania every summer. We just can't get it out of our system. Like salmon swimming upstream to reach their home waters, we take the train every summer to Transylvania. In theory it is a simple train trip. But it is never easy. Often the trains are re-routed or, like this year, the border is closed because Romania has entered the Schengen zone. Schengen, you may say, "That's great! No more border checks!" Not quite: the main rail crossing at Episcopeia Bihor was deemed "not ready for Schengen" so the train had to be diverted to Valea de East Bumfuck. But we got there. Satu Mare here we come! 

The Synagogue of Satu Mare. Not the Big One.

Satu Mare abuts the Hungarian border, and for most people it is known mainly as the original home base of the Satmars - one of the largest and most insular of the fundamentalist Hasidic sects ever to emerge from the extremist Hungarian Hasidic movement. But since the Holocaust the Satmars now mostly live in Brooklyn and Antwerp. Today there are less than 100 Jews left in Satu Mare, and Klezmer violinist Zoe Aqua - with her local band and her collaborator, British violinist Anna Lowenstein - was going to give a concert at the last remaining Synagogue in Satu Mare.

Zoe and Anna in the Satu Mare Synagogue
Zoe Aqua is well known in Klezmer circles as one of the young generation of violinists diving deep into tradition in an effort to inject some much needed life into Klezmer music. Most East European folk traditions have survived into the 21st century, while the folk traditions of  east European Jews were abruptly cut short by the Holocaust. Jewish survivors left for Israel or the America where - like the Satmar Hasidim - they worked to rebuild the intellectual and religious atmosphere that had been destroyed. They did not put a lot of effort into maintaining folk music traditions so that their assimilated hippie grandchildren could wake up in the 1980s and say "I'm bored of playing bluegrass banjo. I want to play Jewish music!" What we know today as "Klezmer" music was revived by a hard core of Jewish musicians who had to learn pretty much from scratch from the last alter kakkers living in Brooklyn and from scratchy gramophone 78 RPM records gleaned from Coney Island antique shops and archival sources like YIVO. 

Zoe with Maramures fiddler Dumitru Covaci
That first generation of Klezmer revivalists have now ourselves become The Old Guys and it is time to pass the baton to a younger generation, one that is not covered by Medicare and can still get out of folding chairs easily. One of those young virtuosi is Zoe Aqua. Originally from Denver, Zoe was already an accomplished violinist and music teacher when she began to play Klezmer, and soon moved onto neighboring styles of music such as Transylvanian fiddle. When I first heard Zoe she was technically perfect - as a violinist - but she lacked that certain "oomph" that you get from hard core Transylvanian and Romanian fiddlers. The lead fiddler in east Europe is called a "primás". In east European string bands there is a strict hierarchy - the primás is the leader, and the accompanying second fiddles, violas and basses follow the primás. There simply ain't no democratic discussion of roles in a Gypsy band. It helps that most trad bands in Transylvania are family based - you can't complain about the leader when your sister is married to him. (And 99% of the time, it is a him.)

Zoe spent two years living in Transylvania studying traditional violin styles. During that time she visited dozens of traditional musicians in villages far off the main roads, and learned the etiquette for working with Romani families in rural areas: you bring gifts for the wife, chocolate for the kids, and you make sure to pay the fiddler for his time. She also got good enough to be accepted among the discerning and very male in-crowd of Hungarian fiddlers who pay for the dance houses in Cluj. 

Zoe kidnapped in Oaș
Zoe's newish CD "In Vald Arayn" brings those two traditions, Klezmer and Transylvanian - together in compositions of her own that have the unique feel of traditional music, driven by a seasoned primás accompanied by a band of experienced Hungarian tancház musicians. This year Zoe crowdsourced funding for a project to bring those pieces to their original audiences by doing concerts in some of the remaining synagogues in Northern Romania. Me and Fumie had the pleasure of joining her for the final leg of the tour, which as always meant dropping in to visit old fiddling friends in the mountains of Maramures and the Oas region. After Satu Mare it was on to a concert at the synagogue in Sighetul Marmaței, otherwise known as Sighet, once a vibrant seat of Carpathian Jewish life and the home of Elie Wiesel. More on that in the next post - as well as amazing Romanian donuts!

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Waiting for the Kádár Rebirth

Solet: The Jewish bean stew that launched and empire

So the news is that the Kádár Ékezde, the tiny traditional Hungarian lunch place that has been serving honest, real Hungarian food, is set to reopen soon. The buyer is Gerendai Károly, founder of the Sziget Festival, who also runs a string of successful restaurants such as the Michelin starred Costes. But according to press reports, they are going to keep the Kádár's atmosphere and menu much the same. The only difference is that the place will not shut after lunch, and they probably will not replicate the arcane payment ritual of reciting what you ate at the door (slices of bread and self serve glasses of seltzer included) and tipping your waitress personally by slipping money in her apron. 

Raspberry soda and beet salad with horseradish at Kádár 

The Kádár closed in April 2020 at the beginning of the COVID lockdowns. The owners were getting old and and the Kádár was not the kind of place that was going to flourish using Doordash deliveries. Usually this spells the end of small family run lunch spots we know as "étkezde"... although the famed Roma Étkezde in Buda Roma Étkezde in Buda did fly from the ashes after covid, which may have given the new owners the inspiration to revive the Kádár. As a resident of the neighborhood, though, I am only hoping that Kádár will not become yet another victim of the mass tourism that blights the 7th district. Its a tiny space, and it was always a refuge for neighborhood regulars. Keeping it open late might take some of the pressure off, but it will never have the table space for a stag party of a dozen drunk Brits. Hopefully, the new place will not serve beer. Its a sad truth, but it is increasingly hard to find good Hungarian food in Budapest. The traditional dishes - gulyás soup, pork stew with dumplings, stuffed cabbage - have pretty well disappeared in a sea of pizza places, trendy burger joints (serving weird ground meat things that have little relation to anything this Bronx nationalist would call a "burger") A few months ago a friend of mine from Romania called asking if I could suggest something near the Opera House that served simple pork cutlets - schnitzel. It took me an hour to find a local spot. The true horror of eating in Budapest, however, is the satanic abomination known as "Street Food".

Lángos: As God intended, plain with garlic water and salt

"Street Food" is, at best, an Insta Influencer marketing term gleefully and parasitically adopted by locals eager to milk ignorant tourists for everything they can. Let's be frank here: Hungary doesn't have a street food culture. People do not eat on the street, and traditionally food was not sold on the street for this purpose., unless , of course, you wanted to eat a live unplucked goose or chicken while sitting on the kerb. People often eat outside... but sitting down. Some often have a piece of pastry after lunch at a cafe and consider it a meal. Two slices of strudel can sub for lunch. You could walk into almost any butcher shop and eat hot sausages and pork ribs from a hot table near the counter. You could buy a lángos - fried potato dough bread - at a stand at any open market. You could eat an ice cream on the street while walking, but that was about it. 

Garay tér market

But if the herds of mass tourism want street food, then street food they shall have. Walk around the 7th district and half the store fronts shout "Street Food!" at the punters. there are kolbász in a pita bread cone. There are endless interpretations of "burger" for the hungry twentysomethings. And for a taste of hungary... lángos. And burgers! Lángos burgers! A chunk of ground mystery meat sandwiched between two thick, fat, greasy potato pancakes. Hey - your cardiologist has to pay for that Tahitian vacation somehow, right? 

Satan's favorite burger

A normal lángos is a simple piece of fried dough, known to any resident of an American Indian reservation as "frybread." It is usually eaten with a sprinkle of salt, and a good lángos stand has a jar of garlic chopped in water to brush onto the hot dough. Or you could have it slathered in apricot jam, in which case it became a heavenly ideal of a donut. to sum up: Salt. Garlic. Or apricot. Full stop. Anything else is heresy against all that is good and holy!  

Play it safe: make your own!

Since the end of communism, however, lángos started to get creative: sour cream and cheese appeared as toppings, and a jizz of cloyingly sweet Hungarian Globus ketchup turned it into something of a "Hungarian Pizza." Ham and salami started showing up as toppings, and now the poor lángos has become a baroque satire of the simple peasant market snack it once was.
Downtown Budapest: USD $10-17 for a piece of fried dough

While a normal plain lángos at an open market runs about Forint 600 these days (about $1.75) the price goes up exponentially as it comes in proximity to the tourist crowds. Also: Greek salad on a platform of fried dough? Chicken paprikás? Just how many extra clean shirts did you bring? Tofu stew... appears only in the biblical story of Job when the devil tries to tempt sinless vegans. The worst offender is the lángos stand at the Vámház Ter market, which is actually a great market for buying meat but doubles as a tourist trap. The lángos stand on the upper level offers a lángos topped with banana and brown sugar for Ft 4800. That's like buying a twenty dollar Dunkin Donut.

The Petro Butcher Shop- Szell Kalman ter. 

You want a taste of Hungarian street food? You can do what Hungarians do. Either sit down at an étkezde - like the Kádár - and ask the waitress to bring you a plate of classic beef pőrkőlt or strapacska and eat it at your table like a civilized person, or go to a butcher shop and stand up at one of the counters and enjoy a kolbász or a chunk of smoked pork.

Lunch chez Petro

But if you do insist on ordering an overpriced lángos covered in liquid paprika stew, remember to bring an extra clean shirt. You'll thank me.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Istanbul 2024: Back for Buryan!

Scroll back to the first entries of this blog and you find that it was begun as a diary of a trip to Istanbul we made in 2006. Fumie had a job as photographer for the time Out! Travel guidebook to Istanbul, and we spent about two months in the city. It was enough time to get to know the cultural rhythms of the place and pick up a smattering of Turkish language. We traveled to Istanbul a lot in that decade - it was affordable and just a cheap bus ride away from our usual Balkan summer jaunts. and the food was immeasurably better. Its worth checking out those early posts - I looked a lot less like Grandpa Simpson in those days.

Surrounded by attractive people at Çiya Lokantaşı.

It has been over ten years since we were last there, so when Fumie took Turkish Airlines to fly home to Tokyo, she opted for a return stopover in Istanbul, we jumped at the chance to return. My son Aron, who lives in London, joined us. We were only there for four days - not enough. But better than nothing. 

Rustem Pasa Mosque

I set myself a few guarded parameters. I was not going to buy a carpet. I was not going to buy a new bağlama saz, any or Pontic bagpipes, or kemençes, not even a tiny three stringed uçtelli saz that can easily fit in hand luggage. I was not going to do any of the things that I did two decades ago when I returned home to Budapest with a small orchestra strapped to my back and a huge Turkmen rug wrapped in the worlds largest  plastic shopping bag. I was, however, going to eat as much Turkish food as possible. 

Karalahana: Black Sea stuffed collard greens

We were there for the last two days of Ramadan. Many Turks don't have a problem eating during Ramadan, but eating pit roasted lamb in the Kadinlar Pazar (aka, the Siirt Market) in the strongly conservative Muslim Fatih district would have to wait. We ate at at this market for iftar - the nightly feast after a day of Ramadan fasting - back in 2010. Most tourists avoid Fatih, and "cool" people from the trendy neighborhoods would warn us against going there. They were wrong. Sure: you can't buy beer in the neighborhood, but you will find, hard core Anatolian hospitality rules in effect here. You can drink tea.

Kadinlar Pazar: The Baby in the Watermelon Haunts my Nightmares

For the time being, we took the ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian side. Çiya is a restaurant founded by a Turkish chef turned ethnographer which presents dishes collected as folklore through different areas of Turkey. I ate there twenty years ago and have gone back ever since - it rates as one of the world's best restaurants, with absolutely amazing food at normal prices. Over the years Çiya has featured in Anthony Bourdain's show, a Netflix series, and gets written up in all the tourist brochures, but it still keeps high standards and low prices.  We had a salad plate of regional specialties, and then some meatballs made with fresh almond fruit, and I - ever adventurous - went for a plate of good old beans.

Çiya salad plate.

We stayed in our old neighborhood of Beyoğlu near the Galata Tower, but the area has since become a victim of over tourism: crowded streets, expensive restaurants pushing out the old neighborhood local kebab shops. Restaurant prices were a bit of a shock: Turkey has had a bad economic year and between inflation and currency devaluation food was up around 130% over last year. Working Istanbullus traditionally eat out during the day and their sticker shock was leading to a lot of small local restaurant shutting down.  In the future I would definitely consider staying on the Asian side of Istanbul. Quieter, Cheaper, And some of the best classic Turkish food in town. 

Fatih, Kadinlar Pazar

Once Ramadan ended, it was time for Seker Bayram, more widely known as Eid al-Fitr. Celebrating the end of Ramadan, people feast on sweets and for the three day holiday crowds of families go visiting and the guidebooks told us to expect crowds in public transport. They weren't kidding. Everybody was out and gulping baklava and halva from dawn to dusk. We finally made it to Fatih to visit the Kadinlar Pazar, which is a market serving the needs of the southeatern Anatolian internal emmigrants in Istanbul, ringed with restaurants serving the specialties of Siirt, Bitlis, and Mardin: buryan kebab - whole lambs roasted for hours in a pit oven, served simply on Anatolian flat bread and an esme pepper salad. There are few foods I love as much as buryan lamb. Popeye's fried chicken. Sarajevo Cevapcici. Cantonese rice rolls. Maybe Shake Shack burgers. But Buryan wins. I'm already planning to go back.

With only a few days to stay in Istanbul, and city traffic nearly unpassable due to the seething sugar-crazed crowds, I did miss out on seeing any live music. I did encounter some of the most classic Istanbul sounds on record, though. 78 rpm records, in fact. I passed by an antique record shop in Kadikoy and noticed some gramophone discs in the window, walked in, and immediately rediscovered my long gone fluency in Turkish. "Do you have any old Ottoman records? Greek or Armenian music?" and the shop owner sits me down and starts pulling out carefully preserved 100 year old discs, properly stored and protected in new paper sleeves, including classical Turkish recordings by Tamburi Cemil Bey. 

Cemil Bey was an Armenian Istanbullu who mainly recorded playing the classical Turkish kemençe, a small three string fiddle played on the knee.  In the 19th century, a majority of the musicians playing Turkish classical music were non-Muslims: local Greeks, western Armenians, Jews, and Gypsies. Playing non religious music as a profession was not considered suitable employment for a good Muslim. By the middle of the 19th century this sound had become the contemporary Urban Pop sound of the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean, which is why so many of the melodies and musical practices of Turkish fasil (light classical) have entered into the repertoires and playing styles of modern Greek Rebetika, Jewish Klezmer, and Armenian halay music. Tamburi Cemil Bey's versions of makam melodies have gone down as the defining versions. His Nikriz longa is still played across the post-Ottoman world. 

Modern musicians still adapt Cemil Bey's work. Salih Korkut Peker from Izmir plays a modified electric cumbuş - an oud neck stuck to a banjo body, and changed the rhythm to reggae. This version was my particular ear worm for this year.

No, I didn't buy any of the old records. I am very careful to know my vices, and collecting 78s is not going to become one of them. I know 78 collectors. They are very odd people, often well beyond obsessed, and most of this music can be found on reissues. But that won't stop me from rooting around old record shops. We are already planning to go back in the future. Maybe I'll get one of those Black Sea bagpipes yet.

Friday, March 29, 2024

2024: The State of the Blog Address

 Who even reads blogs anymore? Ok, you do, obviously, but the Golden Age of blogging joined the fate of the Wooly Mammoths over a decade ago with the ascendancy of Tumblr, Facebook, Insta, TikTok, and Twitter (now known as Elon's Edsel.) Users of social media no longer consume prose. They like captions, blurbs, viral visuals. Its a trend that I discovered back when working as a print journalist. Publishers began demanding blurbs, not feature articles. More photos, less words. Small local newspapers fell like flies. Finally, Capitalist God declared a pox on all their houses, and print media - along with its modest paychecks - went the way of the ocelot (i.e: its still there but you can't see it.)  

Gone but not forgotten

I began blogging back in 2004 after reading a NewYorker article while flying from NY to Budapest. Thought I'd give it a try. It was an easy way to keep in touch with friends and share photos and stories of our first trips to Istanbul, where Fumie was working as a photographer for Time Out travel guides, (a great travel series that was eventually replaced by an ingominous "app".) And then I kept it up. The end result is that I have a non-comprehensive diary of various crap that I engaged in for the last twenty years. I have visual documentation of nearly every pastrami sandwich I have eaten in the last two decades.

I used to write for and edit the culture section of Budapest Week - Hungary's first privately run English language weekely newspaper begun in 1991. The saga of BP Week remains to be written, perhaps someday when all the bodies are finally buried, but suffice to say I enjoyed being read by a few thousands of folks weekly - folks I would often meet later at then flourishing Budapest alternative bars like Tilos Az A, the Raczkert, Picasso Point, and the unforgettable bar "A Széklet" ('the stool sample.') There was evidence that real flesh and blood people read the stuff that I - under numerous assumed names and aliases - wrote. 

This was often pleasant, and when it wasn't, it didn't matter because by then I was drunk and belligerent. But I really liked knowing who was reading me. It felt like real communication. Later I wrote for email newslists, magazines, travel guides, even a series of educational readers for American teens. Blogging was like my personal writing excercise space. But in the glory days I could clock in over a thousand readers a day. Nowadays, readership rarely hits double figures.

Perhaps my masterpiece

Budapest Week folded due to gross mismanagement and fraud, and subsequent attempts to revive it failed due to gross incompetance but mainly fraud. Most of the publishing industry in Hungary fails due to corruption and fraud. Heck, we can extend this to explain the failure of business in Hungary in general - note that Hungary has recently slipped behind Romania in the lower rungs of economic vitality in the European Union. Does this sound like a swan song to blogging? A dear John letter to blogspot? Naaaah... not happening. I am way too narcissistic to shut up entirely. I simply do not update the blog every three days like I once did. I'm older and time moves more slowly. My advancing dotage no longer merits the kind of adventure that I once spent so much time pursuing. (To quote the song: "Its getting to the point where I'm no fun anymore. And I am sorry.")

My idea of fun 

And I don't care to write much or comment much on the contemporary Hungarian society I live in. If you read the news you can find a lot about our Prime Minister and his policies. You don't need me for that. Every time I read the NY times or the Guardian and they call Orban a fascist I want to rush to the keyboard and spew out an eloquent rebuttal: He's not a fascist! He's just a common garden variety capital-A asshole! His henchmen are a bunch of high school bullies and lickspittles and corrupt wheeler dealers, but they don't have the competence to rate the label of "fascist." It deflates the power behind the term "fascism." Heck, he barely holds a candle to Trump! The young Viktor Orban initially hoped to become a professional football player in Hungary. He was rejected because he was too short, so he got into the ELTE Law School instead. Orban doesn't model his style of government on Mussolini or the Nazis. He models it on FIFA, the international body governing professional football (soccer to us yanks) which is known for deep pocket corruption, quisling politics, and a relationship to its players that evokes high stakes serfdom. If you want to know how Hungary is governed, look at the worst aspects of international football. Viktor Orban may have graduated from the ELTE Law school, but he spent at least an hour a day playing soccer in the Law school dormitory backyard, and believe me, he does not like to lose. I know. I was the resident English teacher at the dorm (albeit a year after Orban had graduated, but he still showed up for games.)

One of my lesser known works
But I digress.

People ask why I remain in Budapest. My answer is that much of what originally drew me here is still here. I arrived at the end of communism, so I am used to living under a deeply cynical incompetant government that has no program except the maintanance of its power. The extreme polarization that characterizes Hungarian politics and social life is not of my making. I only live in it, but I am not of it. What really kept me here were my friends, mostly folk musicians, and the traditional music that consumed their lives. Although that music is mostly found in Transylvania, across the border in Romania, I have lived most of my adult life in Budapest and this is the city I call home. I like the food, although I no longer enjoy it as I once did  (I lost a lot of weight this year by avoiding carbs, and that includes bakeries.) I can finally ride the metro for free! I can get Serbian radio on AM. And I do not watch Hungarian TV, for the same reason I do not watch professional wrestling. I can live my life without Kayfabe.  I like the real thing, and I know where I can find it. 

Ioan "Nuku" Harleț. Budești, Romania. It don't get realer. 

This said, I can happily get on a plane next week and fly off to Istanbul, the city where this blog began 18 years ago. My son is coming to meet us there and I can't wait to take him around to places where the public bathroom may well have been built in Byzantine times, where the lowliest kebab shop is better than the best food in London, and where the best roast lamb on the face of the planet can be found (the Kadinlar Pazar in Fatih!) So expect a bit more from the blog in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Vienna: The Klezmer Project at the Viennale Film Festival!

Fumie, Leandro, and Paloma 

Some years ago I was approached by a young couple from Argentina at the Krakow Klezmer festival. Paloma Schachtmann and Leandro Koch were making a documentary about Klezmer music and they wanted to accompany me and Jake Shulman-Ment on one of our summer trips around Maramures to record fiddlers who retained a knowledge of Jewish repetoire. I don't always like traveling with a cohort of folks I do not already know, but they turned out to be fine traveling companions. I didn't hear about the project for a couple of years and then in 2020 they contacted me again. They had recieved funding to finish the film with a group of Austrian film makers and could we go on the road with a full film crew again? Covid intervened, but the next year we went to Tranylvania with them. They turned out to be some of the nicest film folks I ever met. (Note: I rarely say anything nice about film makers once they finish paying me.) The result was "The Klezmer Project" or "Adentro mio estoy Bailando" which premiered at the 2023 Berlin Fim Festival, winning the Best First Feature award. The Austrian premier happened a few weeks ago at the Viennale Film Festival in Vienna, and we were invited to attend. 

The film is like nothing I had expected - not a simple documentary about collecting folk music, but an experimental fim that works on many levels - a romance, a road film, a I.B. Singer Yiddish allegory, and of course, a documentary. The narration in Yiddish tells a tale that transcends the scenes of film financing, backstage at gigs, and weddings in Maramures, Moldavia, and Argentina. The end result is something I am really proud to have been a part of, and when this film finally gets to widespread distribution I hope it gets seen at festivals of Yiddish culture: it is probably the most contemporary Yiddish film of this generation. In any case... the Viennale was a great excuse to visit Vienna. We got to stay in the Hotel Intercontinental downtown next to the Stadtspark. Not shabby at all! 

Plus, the Viennale staff handled everybody with VIP courtesy, no eay task when the VIPs are hundreds of quirky avant-garde types whose stories always begin with "When I was kicked out of film school...". We checked in with the office and were given swag bags with info and gifties and shown a refrigerator full of refreshments to which we could help ourselves while in the hotel. I like swag bags! I like free beer!  Plus: the Viennale hosted a dinner each evening at classic Viennese restaurants of the sort that I would probably never visit on my own dime (I'm more of a felaful and chinese noodle kind of guy on the road.) Of course, if traveling in Vienna, there are certain prosaic pleasures that are not to be missed: such is the Wurtelstand.

Wurstelstands are located all over Vienna and offer the street level diner a quick and cheap Teuronic standard, the wurst. For about three Euros you get a choice of bratwurst, boerwurst, frankfurter, or the odd construct that is a bosna. Everybody says to go for the käsekrainer, a kolbasz laced with cheese that is the darling of the Austrian Wurstiverse but just seems like a Polish kielbasa that is trying too hard. There are also Leberkäse sandwiches, a thick steamed slice of square veal baloney on a kaiser roll that fills you up as you hop on the tram.

Bratwurst and käsekrainer in the park.
I do love sausage, but I still had to go farther afield to Ottakinger Strasse west of the Vienna city center. There, along what is called "The Balkan Mile" is the Brunnergasse market. This neighborhood started out as mainly Serbian and Turkish, but has grown into one of the centers for the recently arrived Syrian refugee community, the one that Hungary's Viktor Orban treated so miserably in 2015. They were welcomed in Austria and from the looks of it, have made a pretty decent home here, given that Vienna is rated the most liveable city in the world and Budapest is... not the most livable city in the world.
Brunnergasse Market
You might think that Budapest and Vienna, given their historical connections and their geographical proximity, would have close relations and cultural exchanges. You might also be wrong.  Vienna and Budapest are like neighbors that never speak to each other except when one puts hits garbage bins in the other's parking space. It is as if the two cities pretended that the other does not exist. At present, Budapest doesn't even have a direct railway connection to Vienna - you have to switch from buses to trains several times. This has to do with the state of the Hungarian railways, which are no longer allowed to make international connections any farther west than Vienna since the Hungarian trains simply can not run on schedule. In the end, this produces a bit of an inferiority complex which the Hungarian government deals with by producing short films for its government controlled media in which Vienna is portrayed as a shabby and dangerous place inhabited by shady Middle Easterners slinking about the streets in burnooses and caftans. Like much of the propoganda coming out of the Hungarian government, it comes off as a bit racist and laughably inaccurate all at the same time. I considered this as we sat down for a snack of fresh Syrian mankaneesh - a freshly baked flatbread topped with olive oil and za'atar spice - and tea. Three Euros for all of it. Why couldn't we have this at the corner market in my neighborhood?
Syrian breakfast
Given that the news in the Middle East at the time of our vist was rather catasrophic, we found everybody in the market to be chatty and friendly as they went about their business of selling fresh vegetables and halal meats and Syrian street food at prices even I can afford. We had two of the most impressive lamb kebab sandwiches of my life at one stand. it was hard to choose - there are stands offering kebabs, felafuls, lahmacun, every kind of Middle Eastern delicacy in its raw, local authentic version. We simply got lucky.

You choose your meat skewer, and they rack it on an upright grill to roast for about five minutes and roll it with parsley, onions, and sauce on a fresh flatbread. Two full kebab sandwiches and two ayran yogurt drinks came to nine Euros. And I will add on more thing: the Wiener schnitzel we had at the Viennale dinner that evening was transcendant as well. And then, on our way home, we stopped at the huge superkarket located in the Main Train station and did a weeks worth of shopping to bring home to Budapest. Yes, shopping for groceries is now cheaper for many things in Vienna - due to the 125% food inflation that Hungary has accomplished in the last year. We picked up smoked fish, wurst, cheese... at about half the price I pay at my local supermarket. As soon as they get the direct trains running again, I will be back!

Monday, October 16, 2023

Old Timers on Fiddle: Maramureș

Goreu Canaloș on fiddle, Tărșolț, Oaș, Romania.

When I began playing fiddle (as in not classical violin) Richard Nixon was the President of the USA. America was going through one of its periodic "folk revivals." There had been several by then: the Great 1950s Beatnik Folk Scare, then a period in the 1960s where cleancut trios and quartets with three guitars and a banjo sang arranged "folksongs" in harmony, then came the Dylan-does-Woody-Guthrie Protest  Song era. In the 1970s Bluegrass music broke into AM radio with "Dueling Banjos" - the theme song to the film "Deliverance". I had an old Harmony acoustic guitar that my parents got for me when I was recovering from an illnesss. Of course, I wanted an electric guitar, but my parents were smarter than that.  As a result I wound up playing a lot of old time blues, Appalachian and southern string band music, most learned from reissues of old 78 RPM recordings made in the 1920s, and friends of mine who drove down to West Virginia and North Carolina to tape record and learn from people like Tommy Jarrell and Melvin Wine. I never made the trip down south (although I did drive  to Canada recording fiddler Cameron Chisholm in Cape Breton in 1975) and by the time I could, a lot of the old timers had passed away. 

Chris March, Chops McCoy, and me on fiddle, 1975.

To us New York kids, North Carolina and West Virginia were the last pockets where the old "archaic" fiddle traditions still hung on. (I was entirely wrong about that. Time and age have granted me a lot of enlightenment as to what I am entirely wrong about.) I felt like I had missed out on some golden age of folk music because I had never made it down to the Appalachians a half century before I was born. When I moved to Hungary in the 1980s, I had the same sense: I wanted to get into the boondocks before their fiddle traditions evaporated into a dust of decaying folklorists' tapes. I finally got to roam around Transylvania in 1988. Since then I have made an astounding realization: this music is not disappearing. It isn't always apparent, but it hasn't disappeared.

Ceterașul Dumitru Covaci

This should explain why I am hooked on the Maramureș region of Romania. I know of almost no other region in the world where folk fiddling is as essential to the local cultural identity as in Northern Romania. Transylvanian music is still a proud badge of local identity, whether providing the background music to a wedding or thrilling the crowds in a bar before a football (i.e.: soccer) game. Tradition is strong in Transylvania.

 Ieud, August 15th, Virgin Mary Day.

Spoiler alert: If you didn't already know, I play Jewish music. Traditional, kind of like the stuff you probably call "klezmer." And due to the fates of history, there aren't a lot of people alive today who can play this sort of music. Maramures was once home to a large, rural Jewish population. Unlike Jews who lived in the "Pale of Settlement" in Russia and Poland, the Jews of Maramureș - like the Romanian, Zipser German, and Rusyn peasants who flocked to these mountains in the 1700s - had rights granted to them directly by the Hapsburg Treasury, and were able to own and farm their own land, an anomaly among Jewish settlements in Europe. As such they created a Yiddish world much closer to the culture of their neighbors, which lasted in some pockets even after the Holocaust. Today, however, most of the Jews of Maramureș are gone. A large part of their surviving descendants form the bulk of what we know as the Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Antwerp Belgium. The community in the town of Sighet is now down to 22 members.

Jewish and Rusyn musicans, Bogdan, Maramureș 1909 

Like their neigbors, Maramureș Jews were avid fiddlers - the ceteraș is an essential figure in the life of Maramures, and even after the Jews had been eradicated during the Holocaust their presence and musical traditions continued to have an echo effect on their neighbors. (The villagers, mind you, did not take part in the eradicating. That was the work of the Hungarian Army.) When I began recording music in the 1990s, older fiddlers - particularly in the Iza Valley - still played a repetoire of Jewish fiddle tunes. They did not necessarily remember the details or context in which the tunes were played - most had heard them as teenagers while playing as pickup musicians for Jewish fiddlers playing outside their home communities. (Gheorghe Covaci "Cioata" from Vadu Izei remembered playing with the Shloimovich family band from Rozavlea "They used to pay us with cake!") These were tunes that were remembered mainly because they were interesting musically, since most Maramures tunes are connected to either a ritual function or to an aspect of social dance. For the aging fiddlers I met these Jewish tunes were simply "cool tunes my father played for listening." 

The late Brothers Nicolae and Viktor Covaci from Dragomirești in 2015.

If you have heard recordings of dance music from Maramureș, it is easily identifiable: the fiddle is backed by a four string guitar tuned to an open A chord and a small bass drum. The guitar - called zongora - which, oddly, means "piano" in Hungarian - has been around since at least the 1920s, when Bela Bartok made recordings in the Iza valley. There used to be an older style, however, that used a three string viola kontra fiddle like the one used in central Transylvania, and a bass. Around 1964 the Petreus Brothers, a fiddle and guitar dueo, recorded an album for Electrecord, the Romanian State label. The State culture authorities declared that from then on all Maramures music had to be played on fiddle and guitar to be broadcast on TV or radio, effectively killing the older style of music and the repetiore that went with it, including the Jewish tunes. During the Ceaucescu era only a few ethnomusicologists had access to tape recorders and little of this style of music survives, although a recording made by Ghizella Sulițeanu and Anca Ghircescu in 1971 featured the fiddler of Borșa, Gheorghe "Stingaci" Covaci and his band playing several sets of the Jewish repetoire in the older style.

Ion Pop is one of the hardest working musicians in Maramureș. He is the leader of the Iza folk music ensemble, and as he says "I'm a peasant from Monday to Friday, and a musician on weekends." Ion, in fact plays a large role in the continuation of Maramureș traditions. He consciously strives to make the old village aesthetic marketable, playing for village weddings as well as appearing on television and at festivals. 

Ion Pop with Fumie, just off to work!

Romania loves its folk music, but just like the United States has Contemporary Country and Western, Romania has Musică Populară - at any time there are about seven round the clock TV video channels playing professionally produced "folk" music videos featuring idealized peasants and trained dancers and musicians lip synching while choreographed stepping around the haystacks. Ion doesn't do musică populară. Among his talents, he single handedly revived the use of the three string kontra viola in Maramureș music. Once, when I asked him who was left in Maramureș who still played music in the old style, Ion answered "You and me, Bob. We are all that's left." 

Jake on stage with Ion Pop in Breb, summer 2023

Luckily, we aren't all that's left. Zoe Aqua from Denver, Colorado has been living in Transylvania for thae last few years actively learning from the surviving village musicians, and has even synthesized what she has been learning into her own compositions in traditional style on her CD "In Vald Arayn" (dowload it from bandcamp!) Jake Shulman-Ment has been a fixture of the New York klezmer scene since he was a wee child. He has traveled around Maramures with me as well as spending a year living in Bukovina while working with the Lautar orchestra of the city of Botoșani. His CD A Redele on Oriente Records in Berlin is one of my favorites. He is also one of the reknowned Brothers Nazaroff.  Vasile Rus, from Vadu Izei, also consciously preserves a repetoire of Jewish melodies, and was instrumental in teaching the style to Zoe Aqua, who subsequently, taught some of this music at a workshop last summer at KlezKanada.

Nicolae and Viktor
We were lucky to meet these musicians when we did. Sadly, most of them are no longer alive. Jake and I leanred  a lot from Nicolae Covaci in Dragomirești, who passed away around 2019. His brother Viktor could play the Jewish repetoire when playing duet with his older brother, but unless I prompted him he couldn't remember more than two or three of the melodies, since he had been born after the era when Jewish musicians were in the area. This summer I dropped in on Viktor only to find his wife dressed in black - he had passed away in late July, two weeks before my visit. I miss him. Viktor was one of the last old style fiddlers in the region. He was a great guy to hang with, gentle and always the little brother, even into his 70s. Two years ago we filmed him while working with Argentinian film makers  Paloma Schachmann and Leandro Koch on their indie documentary The Klezmer Project "Adentro Mio Estoy Bailando" This weekend Fumie and I are going to Vienna to meet them at the Viennale film festival for the Austrian premier of the film. I wish Viktor could be with us. 
Bonus: At 1:10 into the trailer, Fumie is dancing with Maria, the wife of fiddler Dumitru Covaci.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Romania Part 1: Trumpet Fiddles and Goulash

Pictured above is a plate of iahnie de fasole cu ciolan afumat. Stewed white beans with smoked pork hock. It is one of the most radically non-kosher foods existing in the universe. It is also one of the most delicious. Similar dishes may exist elsewhere in the world, but iahnie de fasole with smoked pork is decidedly Romanian. You can't get this in Hungary, or in Serbia, or even in pig loving Austria or the Czech republic, which boasts the highest per capita consumption of pork in the world. Only in Romania. And in Romania, you can get it in nearly every restaurant, where it is usually the most expensive dish on offer, and still clocks in at under USD $10. It had been too long since I had been to Romania to enjoy its swiney delights... so this summer we made plans to meet up with Zoe Aqua and Jake Shulman-Ment, two of my close associates in the world of old style Jewish fiddling, to drive around the porkier parts of Romania visiting some of the older fiddlers. As fate would have it, our small party expanded into a small safari as six other friends joined the caravan, but somehow we managed. 

Neolog Synagogue, Oradea, Romania

We started out just across the border from Hungary in the city of Oradea, (known as Nagyvarád in Hungarian.) Once a grey and dusty border outpost, Oradea has spent the last few years using its European Union funding to spruce up and attract foreign investment. I was literally shocked at how magnificent the city had become, with several pedestrian streets lined with carefully restored old buildings filled with outdoor cafes and shops. But we were in Oradea to hop out to its suburban villages. In nearby Cihei lives Marius Mihuț, a maker of the vioara cu goarne, a resonator fiddle unique to the Bihor region of northern Transylvania.

Zoe was there to purchase a vioara from Marius, and every time we visit him he and his sister like to make a party of it. First, there was wild boar goulash made over an open fire in the backyard, followed by home made salami and home brewed palinka de prune, plum brandy. This is the reality of doing ethnomusicological "field collecting." You end up with wonderful, insanely generous new friends in places you would never expect. Also, amazingly great fiddle music.

Vioara cu goarne remain a popular instrument for weddings and celebrations around Bihor county, because it is loud enough to be heard over crowds at events such as football matches, where the local identity of the instrument dovetails perfectly with the local Oradea football team (by which I mean soccer for all you Americans...) 

The demand is such that Marius keeps quite busy churning out these hand made fiddles. The horn is attached to the body through a small reonator device set beneath the bridge and strings, rather like the metal resonator on a National Steel or dobro guitar, but in miniature. A more developed tone can be made by using the resonating device cannibalised from old phonograph players, particularly the Czech Suprahon brand, which Marius collects by being in touch with antique phonegraph collectors on ebay.

"Bobby" the deer with Fumie and Zoe

Did I metion that Marius keeps a pair of tame deer as house pets? Yes he does. Bobby and Bambina. He's raised them since they were orphans found by some local hunters. They walk around the farm in back and seem to think they are just another one of the goats. He also has a couple of baby wild boar. I'm pretty sure those will not end up as house pets, though. The goulash is just too tempting.

The Status Quo Ante Synagogue in Marosvásárhely

With a few days to spend before we traveled to Maramures, Fumie and I decided to see Tărgu Mureș, (Marosvásárhely in Hungarian.) For some reason, I have never actually stayed in this traditionally Hungarian speaking city, (today about about 50% use Hungarian and the language has official status) although a lot of my acquaintances in Budapest hail from here. I, personally, base myself in Cluj (Kolozsvár) when I am in Transylvania, and for some reason I haven't ever had a big reason to spend any time in Marosvásárhely. It is, however, off the tourist circuit and that meant hotel prices were cheap, and so was the food pictured above, the iahnie de fasole cu ciolan afumat from the Laci Csarda around the corner from our pensiune.

Herbal teas, fresh berries, and jams

The thing to do in any town in Romania is to visit the local open market. We were there in time for summer produce to be piled up in small mountains. People will preserve fruit and make huge amounts of  vineta and zakuska eggplant spread for use later in the year.

Mountains of egplant
Usually there are people setting up to sell locally made products like carved spoons, basketwork, and custom farm tools. Fumie found a 90 year old woman selling thick woolen socks she herself knitted, perfect for Fumie's mom and sis back in Tokyo, so she began to ask about them and the woman was utterly charmed by the existance of a Japanese woman who can chat in basic Romanian with a markedly Maramures accent.

Also, it has been a good year from wild mushrooms. These are fresh chanterelles going for about USD $6.50 a kilogram. Not a pound. A kilo. I don't really want to slag on any of the places I have visited in Romania, but honestly? These mushrooms were the most exciting thing I saw during my time in Marosvásárhely. It is a pretty town, in a stunning location. Don't miss the mushrooms!
After a day in Székélyland, we were off to visit fiddlers in Maramureș, a few hours drive to the north. I will post more on that later. Pictured below is what greeted us when we arrived. Home made sausage with stewed sour cabbage. No. It was not kosher. It was, however, wonderful. 

You may well ask about my obsession with pork. Well... for most of my young life I did not eat pork. Although my family did, I avoided pork for a variety of reasons from the time I hit my teens until after I moved to Hungary. That all changed for me in Hungary and the Balkans. You have to be pretty effing hardcore to avoid pork in Hungary, or anywhere else  in Central Europe for that matter.  Pork is simply what is for dinner, lunch, breakfast, snacks, and in the intravenous feeding tube that hangs over you as you take your last breath. The amount and variety of pork available here was so overwhelming that I used to write a regular column for the English language newspaper in Budapest - Budapest Week - bylined by "the Prince of Pork." Its easier now - there are halal butchers and kosher markets, and vegetarians are no longer slaughtered as mass entertainment in the town squares, but after that first bite of kolbasz so many years ago, there was no going back for me.)