Friday, February 26, 2010

Backstage with the Musicians

Tommorow we travel to Solingen, Germany for a concert. People often have romantic notions about a musician's life - the truth is most of what we do is travel. Getting to the gig is what occupies our time - standing on stage doing what we do well is hardly a problem. I have no problem playing century old Moldavian Jewish violin pieces on stage in front of hundreds of people. It is what I do. Getting to the stage is the problem. So tomorrow we fly on GermanWings airlines - a cheaper alternative to renting a mini bus and driving eighteen hours. Except that we can't take our violins on board as hand luggage unless they are in soft cases. Who the heck carries a violin in a soft case? OK... we get to airport, take violins out and carry them in moldavian bags on board, stick our cases into a duffel bag and hope for the best. This is why it pays to work with cheap violins. In Germany we are playing with Jake Shulmen-Ment, one of the best Klezmer violinists. He can never travel on German wings - his violin is worth about... enough to buy a car. Mine can buy a pair of sneakers on sale. My violin, however, is louder and has yikhes. Speaking of fiddlers, we played a gig in Budapest last weekend at the Fono club.
It was a concert of some of the Hungarian folk bands who were at the center of the Dance House movement in the late eighties and nineties - Téka, Őkrős, Béla Halmos and Ferenc Sebő, singer András Berecz, and others - to add some "where are they now?" footage for a DVD series derived from the old Hungarian TV folk music program. With musicians, the concert is not the actual exciting part of these events - it is hanging around backstage with your friends that defines a good experience. This was the best: a while back Texas bassist and all around mensch Mark Rubin talked about how the hang is central to a musician's experience. For Hungarian music, this was a hang to end all hangs. First of all, the backstage jamming is what a musician wants to hear - the stuff on stage is always too polite and... rehearsed. And onstage you never get to hear the interesting bits - like Ferenc Sebő, who with Béla Halmos kick started the whole trad music movement in Hungary in the 1970s - diddling around with french hurdy gurdy melodies.
And typically for Hungarian gigs, there was virtually nothing to eat, so we know enough to bring our own. OK... they had pogacsa, dry bread biscuits... but bad backstage food is usually enough to make any musician blow his stack abroad... but not here. We are used to it. Flute playing genius Róbi Kerényi pulled out a sack of bacon, onions, and bread and quickly became quite popular with the crowd. Yes, this really is what Hungarian males like to eat - hunks of sliced, raw bacon with onions.I have never seen Róbi eat any other meal in the twenty years I have known him. He is a serious bacon connosieur. And a monster flute player. Since the participants in the concert were from bands that had been fluidly interchanging members for thirty years, it was a chance for some of the guys from Di Nayes to play Transylvanian music with their old buddies from former bands.
Feri got to show off his cimbalom chops playing some Bonchida material with Pali from Táka. And since I don't actually go to formal concerts as much as I used to - in the Dance House scene we always got the best music sitting around a table at the bar during dances - I haven't been seeing a lot of my old buddy András Berecz. András is one of the last of the generation to have learned his singing from older village singers - outside of Transylvania you don't find many young men singing in the old style. And he's loud. Loud but exquisitely controlled, as you can see in the videos I posted of backstage rehearsing and jamming during the break.
That last slow tune has a special significance to me. It comes from Ördöngösfüzes, a village in the northern plains region of Transylvania. When I first bought a boxed three LP set entitled "Hungarian Folk Music" in 1972, there was a recording of the village band playing this piece. It was my first experience of the slow, majestic, powerful screaming fiddle music characteristic of Transylvanian folk bands. So what am I doing here in Hungary? Still chasing after this sound. This one.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Happy Birthday Mom!

Tommorow, February 18, has always been a Big Day in our family. For one thing, it's my Mother's birthday: Happy Birthday Mom! And also, because on my Mom's birthday 54 years ago, she had me. Yes, my Mom and I share a birthday. She's still healthy and gets around, still rides nine miles a week on her bike when weather permits, and she still cooks a mean lecso. It's a birthday we share with Paris Hilton, Michael Jordan, and Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage, my possums...). Buying birthday presents when I was a kid always seemed real - one for Mom, and one for me? It led to a tradition where I would buy birthday gifts for everybody in my family on my birthday and it eventually became a general holiday representing birthdays of all shapes and sizes. I asked her about what it was like having a baby on her birthday. She said it was like passing a cinder block. She wasn't lying. I was a big baby.When I was back in New York during the winter I went through boxes of old papers and books tossing out about 75% of all the stuff I stored at my parent's house - I mean, who needs to have my old research materials on Yoruba linguistics and my friend's bound MA thesis about Togolese talking drumming? A decade's worth of anthropology dertitrus? Five cardboard boxes of air-check cassette tapes dating from my ten years as DJ on Boston radio station WMFO? I felt a lot better after dumping a lot of my old acquisitions, but of course I kept a few choice mementos, photos, and stuff I never even knew I had. In one box of old school books I found a couple of old black marble patterned notebooks dating to my first and second grade classes in school. I must have been about six or seven at the time. I actually remember the classes when we were being taught to write. It was kind of an aha! moment when I figured this out. I never knew I would end up becoming a writer and not a fireman or a dinosaur scientist, but there you have it. My first attempts at prose already showed a curiosity towards the elusive nature of existence:"Why do tin bands keep cats and squirrels from climbing up the trees? Becase they would slide down." I keep wondering what context that would have played in my early education. At the time I can remember packing to evacuate New York during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I can clearly remember the day President Kennedy was shot... but somehow my school notebooks remain firmly focused on animal pest control. I went to P.S. 71 in the East Tremont section of the Bronx. It was located next door to the old storage library of the Heye Foundation Museum of the American Indian. I grew up thinking that the sight of old buffalo skin tipis and bark wigwams were a normal thing to see out the window every morning as you had your cookies and milk in school. Which may, perhaps, explain this passage from my second grade notebook:Now, as anybody who knows me can attest, I have never sold any of my children, so obviously it was a lesson well taught. Obvioulsy we had read some kind of cowboy and Indian story and it is an answer to a quiz. But it sheds an interesting light on how cultural outlooks were spread in New York City schools back in the 1960s: "Because white men don't sell their Children." I really wish I knew what the question to that answer was. Another page jumped out at me for being strongly prophetic:
I play a fiddle, and I forgot a word. That pretty much sums up my life over the last 54 years. (It only tells part of the story. I play a Macedonian gaida, a Black Sea Turkish kemence, and a metal bodied resonator guitar too, and I forgot how to speak several languages that I was once conversant in, including Greek, Zulu, and Quechua pretty well completely. And iron is still very hard. Another page presents what may be the first documented case of blogging in my writing career.
Dated April 22, 1964 and signed by my Dad (for homework purposes, obviously) this one describes my visit to the 1964 New York World's Fair in Queens: "The World's Fair has many different pavilions. Some of them are like the future. Some of them show things from different lands. the Worlds Fair has 168 pavilions. the New York pavilion is the largest pavilion. The Tower Of Light is the second largest. The Tower Of Light has a 1 billion candle power beam." Some of them are like the future... well, from where I am sitting, the version of the future we got seems to have lowered the bar on futures in general. I am still waiting for my jet pack, and for the car from the Ford pavilion that was pre-programmed to go wherever you wanted it to go without any driving skills whatsoever. OK... we finally got video-phones (thanks Skype!) but I and many of my generation still harbor some resentment from having been cheated out of our jet packs.They promised us jet packs, damn it! But instead, we got pop culture. I remember the buzz the week the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan show - we kids weren't allowed to watch the show the first night out of a fear - voiced by the Italian Moms on our block - that they might wiggle their hips in the scandalous way Elvis had when he first appeared on Ed Sullivan. It didn't happen, and the next week we were allowed to watch the Fab Four. It obviously made an impression.
Yes, its the "Beatles Sinfenie Ocrestre! Conducted by Paul McArtini." As for my birthday... tomorrow is the Hungarian celebration of "Torkos Thursday" - a day when many of the restaurants in Budapest cut their menu prices in half for the day (or part of it.) We're heading to the new Master Wang's for Chinese food, which is probably similar to what my Mom will have on her birthday. And, as I hit the cusp of 54, I still have two beautiful women to look after me. That's better than luck. Take, Ikh bin a zeyr mazeldike Yid.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Mangalica Pig Festival, Budapest. Special Treyf Edition!

I’ve been home in Budapest for a week, busy rewriting and editing my mysterious Transylvanian masterpiece… and suffering from a knockout common cold, so I haven’t really gone out at all since I arrived. Budapest is blanketed in a thick layer of snow and the going is slow. But this weekend is the annual Mangalica Pig Festival in the city park near my house, so with a dose of freshly imported Nyquil and an extra sweater, I dragged myself into the wintery park to gawk at pork. Hungarians love pork.
No, that’s an understatement. Hungarians adore pork. Hungarians worship pork. Pork is what Hungarian heaven is made out of. Hungarians are top quality smoked bacon transformed into Human flesh. Having just spent two months in the health conscious USA where I could feast on beef and fish and lamb, I haven’t been all that happy about my meat choices on the old homestead. Pork, pork, chicken, and pork. I have not quite been able to make the transition yet. I still want greens in the winter, salads, and other illogical choices in a land where people still eat according to the seasons. And it is now bacon season.
Now, as a non-observant Jew, that shouldn’t bother me. I eat pork. I eat cheeseburgers. I recently ate raw sea cucumber and sea squirts, so something that even has a spinal cord should not faze me no matter how treyf it is. I did, in fact, pick up an ample supply of high quality oinkerie while I was laid over in Rome, but I needed some kind of special jolt to get me back into the Hungarian Way of Meat, and the Mangalica festival was just the thing. Mangalica is a particular local breed of wooly haired pig known for its luxuriant fat, a factor that goes a long way in Hungary, where lard, bacon, and salami are staples consumed daily, and in many cases, hourly.Just when Hungary entered the EU, it took the EU patent on a number of locally produced products that henceforth could only be labeled as Hungarian produced products, such as Tokaj wine (screwing the producers of Italy’s Friuli wine region, who produced their own form of Tokaj but are no longer allowed to use the name) and generally known in Hungary as “Hungaricum.” Mangalica as a pig breed was originally Hungarian, but fell victim to the use of industrial strength porkers during the communist years and almost went extinct, until the breed was revived during the 1990s by bio farmers in Hungary and Austria – thus it gets the Hungaricum label but not the EU protection. No matter, it’s just a pig with curly hair and grainy fat.
Good grainy fat. Fumie and I had a mangalica meat cook-off last year with middling results: it’s a bacon and lard pig, not really a meat porker. But that doesn’t stop the Hungarian producers from promoting the hell out of it, and well they should – good mangalica salami, bacon, or crackling is a thing of beauty. I was pleased to see the homies from my Mom’s town of Veszprem representin’...
There is nothing a Hungarian needs in the middle of winter more than a good outdoor festival to get the blues out of the air. The normally dour Magyar soul opens up at festivals, especially around things that Hungarians are familiar with - bacon, fiddle music, and palinka are a good starting point. People were laughing and singing and dancing… I came up on some of my oldest friends playing Transylvanian folk music in the courtyard of the Agricultural Museum.
Geza (my old bassist from DNK,) Pintyu, and Pubi on lead fiddle had been playing for three days in the snow, pumped with wine, palinka, and plenty of freshly fried mangalica pig skin and bacon which were constantly being offered by the coterie of traditionalist butchers who had hired them to play for their central quarter of the festival. Since they had to play outdoors in the cold and snow, they brought their worst instruments to play outside. But no matter... Pubi plays as well after drinking for three days as he does when he's sober. As we musicians say... he has more chops than a butcher shop. It was perfect – these guys are some of the most accomplished Hungarian folk musicians, they have all played on the world’s best stages, for the State Folk Dance ensembles and for world music festivals, but here they were just having fun in funny hats with brandy and fried pork and and bacon, the way a Magyar is supposed to have fun in the snow. This is music the way I like it: honest, greasy, and freezing its ass off.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Rome: The Eternal City of Airport Transit Hotels

Getting back to Budapest was not the easiest part of my journey. I flew out of Newark on Alitalia, and arrived in Rome at 7 am on Saturday morning with two hours to nose around before connecting to my flight to Budapest. Fumie had flown separately, so her flight was via Lufthansa connecting in Frankfurt. I figured I would grab a chunk of cheese at the duty free, hop on the plane, and be home. Of course, things don’t work like that. Budapest was snowed in with two feet of snow falling the night before and more coming down, and the airport was closed, all flights cancelled. So my day flowed by waiting for another flight, running down to the luggage carousel to collect my bags, rebooking a new flight outside in the public arrivals area, checking in my bags, and going through the security process again… and again… and again throughout the day. The Alitalia staff was helpful in their slightly confused, monolingual way. The representatives of Malev? Non-existent on the ground, they made themselves manifest as telephoned refusals to provide meals for the stranded passengers milling around the terminal. They didn’t have the decency to call the gates to tell the airport personall when a flight was cancelled or delayed.
The Alitalia staff simply shrugged and said “Well, you know… it’s Malev… they never pay” as if anybody who didn’t already know about Malev must have been on some other planet for the last century. Malev… isn’t that short for 'malevolent?' Should any company that ran out of money years ago still be allowed to operate? A company that even Russian oil millionaires seem wary of taking over? Fumie called from Frankfurt, where she was delayed: Lufthansa had issued all passengers a ten Euro meal voucher. As anybody who has flown anywhere via Germany knows, there really is no food in German airports – except wurst. Frankfurters or Bratwurst, not much else, and never very good. Poor Fumie. In Rome, at least, we had wonderful coffee bars and Panini galore… I broke down and ordered a pizza combo.
At Fumicino, the pizza isn’t spectacular, but it did come with real wild porcini mushroom. And I got an Alpine sandwich with speck bacon in the bargain. Not shabby at all. Eventually, after being rebooked three times through the day, our final chance of catching a final five pm flight fell through. With no idea of what to do, and expecting to sleep curled up in a corner of the baggage claim area, I went to the Alitalia ticket counter to rebook my flight yet again and was told that Alitalia would be sending me to a hotel to spend the night. Since my flight had been booked through Alitalia I was lucky: those passengers who booked through Malev were only offered a room at a special airline refugee rate. I hauled my bags to the overnight baggage guard room and hopped on the shuttle bus. So at the very least I get to see some of Rome… or at least Ostia, the beachside suburb near the airport (although it actually is a part of the municipality of Rome.) I was in a good mood when I arrived… Here is the view from my balcony:
While Budapest sat under two feet of snow, I had palm trees and balmy spring mediterranean weather. I had dinner and went for a walk. The food at the Hotel Satellite was buffet style and quite possibly the worst I have ever eaten in Italy, but then that alone made it special and, after all, it was free. My favorite thing to do in Italy, however, is visit the supermarkets and I had just enough time to run down the street to a “Simply” market. Having run through the security checks so many times, I had a good idea of what I could and couldn’t bring and what to expect, and since I was already passed into the European Union, I could go hog wild, which is what I did.
Italian supermarkets seem like the happiest places on earth. I grabbed a zampone – a smoked pig leg stuffed with cotechino sausage, usually served at New Years with lentils and now on sale – and asked the deli staff how to cook it. They could speak English, surprisingly unlike the airport staff, and soon I had four butchers all trying to find the best way to prepare pig leg.
I grabbed a few cheeses that were half the price of the ones on sale at duty free. I popped in a few jars of anchovies and a couple of salamis. I would have picked up more but there is a limit to how much even I can carry alone… So now I am back... still busy for the next week with writing... but I already miss my folks back in the USA... and can't wait to visit them again.