Sunday, September 28, 2008

L'Shanah Tovah, Y'all!

L'Shanah tovah, everyone, happy Jewish New year, it's Rosh Hashonah and we get to start the whole annual cycle again! I am off to Croatia on short notice... ahhh, passport stamps... wish me luck... but until then, I will be back with more burek photos... and more from Croatia and Slovenia.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Técsői Banda: The Last Kolomejka

I've know the guys from the Técsői Band for almost a decade, ever since Kiss Feri from Ethnophone Records started bringing this amazing Hutsul band to Hungary for festivals. One of the last functioning traditional bands in the region - in the sense that playing their traditional repetoire in their community as a full time job - the Técsői Banda hail from the western Ukraine, just across the border from Hungary in the multi-ethnic village of Tjaciv, known in Hungarian as Técső (there is a large Hungarian speaking minority, and most of the band can speak Hungarian alongside Ruthenian, Ukrainian, Russian, and Romani.) Truly a band of brothers (with one in-law, Ivan) the Técsői band are the sons of Manyo Csernovec, a Gypsy fiddler and and leader who was reknowned in the western Ukraine as the preferred musician for local Jewish and Hungarian events, alongside Hutsul music. A couple of years ago some Hungarian film makers started working with them on a documentary, and this week the end result saw its premier at the Urania Film Museum in Budapest: The Last Kolomeyke. The filmakers followed the band around in Budapest as well as in their home village of Tjaciv, focusing on the friendships that grew between Imre Keszthelyi - their local host and manager - Sue Foy (our own amcsi friend and dance ethnographer of central European dance styles) and me - I recorded a few cuts with Técső for our forthcoming new CD, and the studio session is included in the film. As is usual with these projects, the documenting went on and on and on... but then in 2007 the tsymbaly player, Misha Csernovec, suddenly passed away.The question hung in the air whether the band could continue without Misha or not. They persevered, and this gave the director the story he needed to tie the film together. Unlike a lot of documentaries destined for air play on Hungarian TV, this has a real story, and is not just a bunch of national-nostalgic cliches about Hungarian culture (heck, the guys are Ruthenians!) and the end result is a surprisingly entertaining film. Here is a bit of the preliminary trailer:
After the premier, there was a reception at the Nyitott Muhely gallery in Buda. Sue was there along with the crew and a good crowd, and Szederkenyi Miklos broke out an awfully fine jug of black current home-brew... and so a jam session followed. We played through a hour of the usual Maramures/Ruthenian dance repertoire, and then I sang some Yiddish tune with them, and finally, well under the influence, I tried out a new Jewish tune on them. This is how I usually see if they know a Jewish tune - take one from the post-soviet repetoire of Yiddish music, and let rip. This is an old Transylvanian Gypsy horse-trader's tune as sung by Bessarabian Jews in Yiddish - a true staple of indie rock bands these days - I learned last year from the 85 year old Bessarabian Yiddish singer Arkady Gendler of Zaporozhets, Ukraine, but it is based on a relatively new style Transylvanian Gypsy tune.
Bingo! They knew the tune,but in a different version, which Yura immediately called a "Gypsy tune." They ran through it, which led to a boozey medly of other tunes that hang in the grey area between Jewish and Gypsy repertoire in the sub-Carpathian Ukraine region. The last tune of this set is the tune known in the Satmar region as the "Ghetto tune." I learned it from the late Roma fiddler Andras Horvath from the Szatmar county town of Jankamajitis. I have never understood the meaning of the label "Ghetto Nota" since the Roma were not herded into ghettos in east Hungary during the Secong World War, only Jews. It is a classic Gypsy tune in Hungarian, albeit a rare one, but is always played in the context of any jam session which touches on Jewish music.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Slovakia. Trout Win. We lose. Let's have a borovicka!

We have been back from Slovakia for over a week, but for some odd reason I was having problems signing into my blogger account, but by applying a bit of my naive genius (and downloading a new browser) I am back. Our gig was in Sala (Vagsellye in Hungarian) about three hours drive north of Budapest. Sala is a beautiful small Slovakian town about an hour east of Bratislava, and one can immediately feel the impact of the economic changes that hav made Slovakia the powerhouse of developing east European econiomies. Clean streets. Well dressed populace. People have jobs. The towns can sponsor festivals. This is an economy that is working. Compared to Hungary, I was well impressed. About 20% of Sala speak Hungarian (it's next to Galanta and Nitra, two areas with strong Hungarian minorities in Slovakia) but it seemed that just about everybody could speak some Hungarian and didn't mind doing so. The Mayor greeted us in Magyar, although he wasn't entirely fluent, nonetheless, his wife was Hungarian. The whole atmosphere was welcoming and tolerant, which flies in the face of the picture painted of Slovakia in the Hungarian press. I announced most of the concert in Hungarian, which we shared with the very impressive Pressburger Klezmer Band, Slovakia's first ever klezmer band, the occasion being Sala's Day of Jewish Culture. The PKB's exquisitly trained singer Marta Potančoková takes her Yiddish seriously, and clarinetist Miro Lago really knows how to lead a crowd.
On our way out of Slovakia we strolled around the capital, Bratislava, for the afternoon (both photos above are Bratislava.) As European cities go, Bratislava isn't huge, but during the 18th century it was the seat of the Hungarian diet and the most important city in the territory of Slovakia and Hungary. The architecture is a mix of Hapsburg baroque, Communist Mega-Cement Monster, and Post-Modern Yuppie glass tower. The suburb of Petržalka along the Danube banks is the world's largest single settlement of butt-ugly communist style block housing in existence, but even that is getting a clean up, with special companies setting up to rebuild your forsaken proletarian panelak apartment. Anonymous seems to be the design password here. The Bratislava Synagogue, for example, inhabits a boxy building on a downtown side street, without any outward symbols such as a Mogen David to show that it is in any way Jewish. But we didn't come to Bratislava for the history.We came for lunch. Slovakia is probably the last great travel bargain left in East Europe. Beef stew with knedli, the steamed bread dumpling so beloved of Czech and western Slovak cuisine... 5 Euros with dessert.Besides lunch, Bratislava is a great cafe city. The old city is full of cafes and just about every corner of the town has a place to sit and sip. The coffee culture here is a mix of Viennese and Czech... meaning you can order "turkish coffee" which is essentisally cowboy coffee, with the grounds swimming in the cup. Or a Viennese style "mit schlag" (whipped cream) which is actually something nobody in Vienna actually drinks any more.We had left Sala and taken a train east into the highland area near Ruzemberok, to our favorite little Carpathian hidaway at the Bodega, a small in in the tiny hamlet of Podsucha. In Ruzemberok we got our Slovak fishing lisences (national and daily tickets for the stream - in our case the Revuca again... which is directly across the road from the Bodega.) The Bodega is essentially a lumberjack bar with cheap rooms (7 EU a night per person, with bath and TV!) and good food. Cheap food. Take a look at the menu: almost nothing is over EU3.80. This is what I call an affordable vacation.
The local cuisine around these parts is Liptov style: lots of potato and cheese. Classic halusky - potato dumplings swimming in cheese - was EU 2.66, and a plate was enough to keep you stuffed for a day. Potato pancakes (actually giant, garlicky latkes) went down nicely for breakfast alongside a plate of eggs, and for dinner I had a pork cutlet stuffed with cheese and ham, fried in a jacket of potato dough, all for less than the price of a Big Mac in Budapest.For dessert, palacsinta with fruit. A whopping one Euro. Remember: this is a Slovak lumberjack bar we are talking about, not some fancy downtown bistro. Shots of borovicka - raw mountain gin - are still only 70 Euro cents here. This is still the village hang-out, where the grizzly old men gather on sunday mornings for beer and shots while their wives go to church. But if you want a nice dessert, they have them...Fishing, however, was a total wipe out, the first time we have ever skunked on the Revuca. It may have been the heat wave that suddenly hit the region the week before we arrived - the river was pretty low and trout and grayling tend to become inactive when the water warms. The water was crystal clear as well... making it relatively tricky to sneak up on a good run without spooking the fish.There are a million possible reasons why we didn't catch anything... but since both of us are pretty militant catch-and-release fly fishermen, it didn't really matter. It was wonderful to be out mucking about in the Slovak mountains for a weekend with our own lumberjack tavern only a few meters away. We met a few local fly fishermen, and saw two fish, one of which was a huge grayling. The Slovaks are not big on releasing fish - all of them carry creels for taking home their catch. The locals want meat. Personally, I just want to annoy the fish, say hello, and let them go. They are too valuable to me as they are - alive - and in a small stream like the Revuca, which supports a population of wild fish and in which fishing with bait is forbidden, too much pressure can easily destroy the fishery. Most locals near Ruzemberok, however, fish on the Vag, a much larger river which supports trout the size and shape of Volkswagens. Wading in big rivers can get pretty hairy, and requires a set of hip waders, so we prefer the calm and comfort of the small streams.
Usually, by mid september fishing picks up on trout streams, as the trout start feeding before going into breeding mode later in the fall - and like most salmonids, trout don't feed during their breeding periods, when the season is closed to fishing for them anyway.
I tried just about everything... I had tied a load of Fumie's favorite fly concoctions, which she calls the "Dancing Queen" a hybrid beadheaded red-tag nymph in size fourteen... even my bright green caddis flies, usually a sure bet on the Revuca, did nothing. After a few hours on the stream, clambering about the rocks and casting to uncooperative trout, it felt mighty nice to get back to the Bodega for a few of those 70 cent shots of mountain gin. We'll be back, probably in June next year, when conditions are better and the river is higher. At least, on our way out of Ruzemberok, we could get our favorite breakfast at the train station self-serve cafeteria: noodle soup with cowboy coffee!And some things never change (nor should they!) You know you are in east Europe when you see a sign like this:

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Slovakia. It's Next to Alaska.

I'll be away for a few days in Slovakia. We have a gig in Sala (Hungarian Vagsellye) with the Pressburger Klezmer Band and then I'm taking some time off to go trout fishing with Fumie near Ruzemberok. So If I am quiet for a few days don't worry - I am still busy processing a lot of things, not the least of which is the American political system... I just want to say thankyou! to the US Republican Party for being such dumb fuckwit blockheads that they have just handed the presidency to Our Man Barak Obama on a gleaming silver platter! Go GOP Fuckwits! For those of you who are US citizens living abroad, I register to vote overseas, and I urge you to do the same. Remember: the GOP is not above stealing an election. I also wholeheartedly support the candidacy of Barak Obama, which is rather easy to do after a week of Republican monkey shines that make me laugh at the idea that these clowns could ever handle a real emergency if one were to come down the pike. Like the last time they tried. Hurricane Katrina. Heckuva Job, George.