Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Táncháztalálkozó: The Hungarian National Folk Festival. My Insane Rant. About it.

Good festivals, like good food, have a sell by date. At some point you need to go out and get a fresh one because the one in your fridge has grown a bit moldy and starts to taste like everything else in your fridge. And unfortunately, such is the case with Hungary's national folk festival, the Országos Táncháztalálkozó és Kirakodóvásár, which is possibly the longest and most unpronouncable name ever given to a folk festival anywhere. It has been going strong since 1982, when it was first held at the Budapest sport Arena at Nepstadion metro ("People's Stadium" renamed two years ago (!) as simply "Stadium") as part of the Budapest Spring Festival.
It used to be one of the most exciting traditional music festivals in the world. During the early 1990s, when eastern European borders first opened and amature folk collectors began to scour the neighboring regions for unknown village bands the Táncháztalálkozó was a place to make real discoveries and real friends. Today it is, basically a commercial market for the folk dance business, a staged show for the TV sponsors, and a showcase for provincial school folk dance troupes with a jam session in a bus station parking lot.
It is a folk festival in an indoor sports arena, fer chrissakes, not the most amenable venue in the world for traditional culture. Now, a lot of my friends work very hard organizing this festival and they do a great job with the limited resources they have (meaning the stadium provided by the city of Budapest for the event) but the truth is this is not really my cup of tea anymore when it comes to hearing live traditional music. Rather than just rag on the whole thing, I'll just rag on a few small points. The best features of the original festival were the jam sessions - especialy the opportunity to play with traditional bands from Transylvania - and the crafts sellers who came from villages to sell authentic folk costumes, pottery, and all manner of folky weavings and carvings - this is where you go to buy a year's worth of birthday gifts.
The main area of the festival has become commercialized into a souvenir market, while the traditional crafts are now packed into a backstage room, instead of spread out around the venue as they used to be. At the old festival the atmosphere was like a village fair, and you could make friends while browsing somebody's old laundry while sampling their home brewed palinka. Not any more. Now it is like post-holiday shopping in a crowded subway car.The peasants from the village of Szek are there in force - the women dressed as they always are in red skirts and kerchiefs - although it is always good to see some of the Transylvanian Gabor Gypsies have caught onto the advantage of selling folk costmes in Budapest.
The main arena is dedicated to huge pageants of mass folkery... dance teaching on a basketball court can get little beyond teaching people to hop in a circle in rythym. The pageants feature strings of revival bands taking the stage to provide music one after the other with hardly any rest, with unfortunate sound system results blasting out into the arena. The stage pageants are not worth watching unless you are the parent of one of the unfortunate high schoolers bussed in to provide heritage footage for the ever present TV cameras funding the main events. The actual music occurs in four smaller rooms located at opposite ends of the horseshoe shaped arena - meaning you can only reach them by walking a few kilometers around the arena after climbing upstairs one or two levels. The dance room is about as unacceptable a space as possible for dancing: low ceilinged and carpeted.
Not exactly prime space for the events that the festival is dedicated to, namely folk dance. Of course, those who attend love it anyway. But why expect them to accept second best? How about the outdoor "folk tavern" area? In real life, this is the lower level of the Stadium bus station parking lot, a dimly lit, cement echo chamber. This, however, is where the best music can be found: I got there to see the Palatka Band from central Transylvania warming up at lunchtime.My biggest complaint is that over the years fewer and fewer traditional bands from the countryside appear at the festival, which is more and more focused on the revival folk music movement. It is not that there are no longer any village based trad bands to hire, there are. And for young Hungarian folk musicians who don't live in Budapest the chance to sit in and jam with musicians like the Palatka band is the dream of a lifetime, the reason many of them come to the festival. The bands and the fans deserve a better atmosphere than a bus parking lot.On the positive side, this year featured an exhibit of photographs of "Fathers and Sons" in Hungarian folk music. And there was our own Puma, whose son "Little Puma" has turned into one of the leading kontra fiddlers for the younger generation of dance bands...
And a proud Daniel Hamar from Muzsikas, posed in front of a line of his grown sons.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Signs of Spring: Chinese Food!

Obviously, March is not a month that inspires an awful lot of comment. Now, February... that's what I call a month! Stepping out of our building we saw the first of spring's kolbasz buds on a tree in the back yard. Really... I am not sure whether my neighbor was saving this for an outdoor snack or whether there is some folky reason to stick sausage on a tree branch, but it stayed there for several weeks. My birthday was adequately celebrated by a trip to the new Chinese restaurant in my neigborhood, Master Wang's. Chef Wang was the original chef at the Lanzhou Restaurant on Luther Utca, and this is his fourth Budapest locale. Why get excited about a Chinese restaurant? Well, Budapest has a lot of them, but by and large they are mediocre, overpriced, or unspeakably bad. That last category is aimed at the numerous "Chinese Buffet" joints polluting our gastronomic scene, offering up cheap plates of faux-sinitic stew on rice. Due to a quirk in Hungarian immigration law, any ethnic restaurant has the right to sponsor a residence permit for its cooking staff. So the Chinese folks cooking your fried rice and aromatic duck at the corner take out in Budapest are far more likely to have graduated from business or even medical school than culinary school. And they are far more likely to come from Northern China than from better known culinary regions like Szechuan or Canton.There are some Chinese banquet restaurants dotting the back neighborhoods of the city, places where the local Chinese go to celebrate a business deal or a family holiday with an off the menu hot-pot party or dim sum blast, but these are constantly changing and none has ever stayed in one locality for very long. Chef Wang Qiang comes from Lanzhou, a region west of Beijing with a significant Hui muslim population. The Lanzhou always had a special Chinese language only menu offering various mutton dishes for errant Hui in Budapest, but at the new Master Wang on they go all out with a great spicy cumin lamb dish.Since I had recently stretched my boundaries of icky food by eating sea cucumber and sea squirts at the a Korean Restaurant in the States, I also went for the Hundred Day Eggs. I had heard they were good, I had watched Chinese diners at the Lanzhou order them, but... black eggs? Eggs pickled in clay and salt for a few months until they turn black and gelatinous? And surprise! They were delicious. Run, don't walk, to your local Chinese banquet hall and order these today. Wang's were served with chopped tofu and peppers. Not smelly, not slimey, not really anything I had ever related to eggs before. I want more.
Fumie was laughing at me for never having tried them before, but then, I had never seen Fumie order them either. And yes, I have already looked at the wikipedia entry on Century Eggs with a perverse mind to making them myself at home, and just as quickly discarded the idea. Chef Wangs is only a few blocks away(off the 7 bus along Thőkőly út at Gizella út 46) so why bother? And they serve one of my favorite Chinese beer snack plates: spicy mixed offal salad. Who says a salad need to be wholesome to be good? Sliced tripe, toungue, heart, and kidney in a firey red pepper oil sauce topped with chopped garlic and chile pepper. It is almost enough to make me like beer.
What's that? Not liking beer? That's right. I am not a fan of beer. I drink it mainly because when I go out it is the cheapest way to keep a drink in my hand for the longest period of time - because I don't really like drinking it. Yes, it quenches thirst, but so does lemonade, and beer tastes like sucking on old sneakers. But last month we did a concert in Solingen, Germany, and yes, I drank beer. That is what you do in Germany. And in fact, Germany does a pretty good beer - so does the Czech republic, and when I am travelling I like to drink what the locals drink, and so it was beer. The gig itself was a lot of fun - German audiences really know how to show their appreciation, and since we were essentially a string band for this concert we got to perform a lot of Transylvanian style music as well. This being Solingen, we were surrounded by knife factories - in fact the concert hall housed a knife museum and shop featuring a selection of Solingen's best... including this interesting knife: it is the biggest one in the window, and it is labeled "kindermesser" - children's knife.What kind of kid needs a Bowie knife?