Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hutsul Lunch: A Pál utcai fiúk

The Técsői Banda, a Hutsul folk band from the western Ukraine village of Tjaciv (Técső in Hungarian) is in Budapest again this week, playing concerts and doing the rounds of springtime folk festivals and new Budapest "ruin" bars. I'm working on a project that should see the Técsői Banda playing in New York City in September in cooperation with the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York, so I had to drop in and explain some of the visa procedures the guys will have to deal with. But first things first: lunch. When musicians are on the road, meal times are one of the few periods of normality that band members can expect. Among east European musicians, eating in restaurants is something you do when the owner throws in a meal as part of the gig, otherwise you feed yourself.
So, at two in the afternoon, Joska, Yura and Ivan lay out the Hutsul lunch spread they have brought with them from home: dark bread, Ukrainian salami, cucumbers, sheep cheese, red pepper ajvar, and home made orda - an unsweetened white sheep cheese eaten in Transylvania that I have never seen elsewhere. And of course a bottle of Ukrainian vodka. What's a light lunch without a few shots of vodka to wash it down? The French may have their wine... the Germans beer... the Hutsuls drink vodka. While staying in Budapest the Técsői Banda stays at the home of our friend Imre Keszthelyi and his family.
Imre has done the folk music show on Tilos Radio for years, and been a part of the dance house scene since its early years in the 1970s. Imre lives in the house on Pal utca in Pest that was made famous by the Ferenc Molnár novel A Pál utcai fiúk (The Boys of Pal Street.)Published in 1906, the story tells of competing groups of children fighting increasingly serious turf wars amidst the court yards and connected warrens of the building. There is even a plaque on the building and groups of tourists show up regularly with no idea that this is not some kind of memorial to Ernő Nemecsek but still a functioning place to live. A lot of the tourists are Danes and Italians: the Boys of Pal Street was adapted to film four times - as "No Greater glory" by American director Frank Borzage in 1934, as I ragazzi della via Paal, by Italian film director Alberto Mondadori and Mario Monicelli in 1935, and by Hungarian director Geza Fábri in 1969.A few years ago the entrance was switched to the Pal street side, and the courtyards are no longer connected, but the place is much the same as it was when Molnar used it as a backdrop. While it looks like a tenement from the outside, the apartments inside are huge. Imre has enough space to be able to offer the guys from the band a room when they are on tour - a rare luxury in crowded Budapest.
Tim Meyen was in Budapest on his way to Romania. Tim is an Australian who studied the traditonal music of Hungary and Romania and specializes in cimbalom. Tim specializes in finding players of the small, portable folk cimbalom that he can find, so he had some time to check out the Hutsul tsymbay and its tuning, which is markedly different than the straight Hungarian tuning.Still... you have to be careful with playing in an apartment. Since it was in the middle of the day the guys got out their instruments, but drummer Yura Chernavets chose a less booming perussion option: a chest of drawers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Zuglo Local Life: Pantlika and Dürer-Kert

We've had a week of nasty weather in Hungary - cold, rain, tree-toppling winds, with catastrophic flooding in Northern Hungary. The weather that seems more like early March than the wonderful spring days that we have been enjoying this year. We've hardly left the house this week, so I'm happy that at least one good indoor option exists to hear good music near my Zuglo neighborhood: the Wednsday night Dance House at the Dürer-Kert. The Dürer-Kert is the coffeehouse of the ELTE University campus on Ajtosi Dürer Sor, and a couple of years ago it underwent an expansion into one of the city's better summer garden bars, but since it focused on heavy metal music and DJ sets (yawn) I never put it on my list of places to visit during our weekend nocturnal outdoor bar pub crawls.
This year I've grown fond of the Pantlika, a retro bar evocative of the 1970s in the back end of the city park. Ft 400 fröccs and Ft700 bean gulyás, and they often have wonderfully cheesy Gypsy bands playing relentlessly unfashionable violin music at night. What's not to love.
Unlike a lot of my fellow dance house enthusiasts, I actually like cheesy Gyspy orchestra nóta played with cimbalom and cheez-o-matic electric keyboards. It is pretty difficult to find anyplace in Budapest anymore where you can hear the stereotypically Hungarian Gypsy violin bands except for tourist bus events at catered goulash parties. Hungarians simply do not patronize this music anymore, to the extent that it has become something rare and "retro." The musicians are still here - its just the gigs that have dissappeared. Not so for the folk string bands, which can be found almost any night of the week playing for less formal dance houses. Soós András' band was playing at Dürer-Kert the night we went, but the last couple of weeks there were no Transylvanian bands to be heard... but that may just be temporary.The Dürer-Kert dance house is organized by the folks that used to do the big Almassy ter dances - two bands, one playing for Transylvanian style dancing in one room, another playing for Csángó dancing in the other, and no entrance fee ensures a enthusiastic - and young - crowd. Not only local students and folk dancers, either. Last time we were there we sat and had drinks with a construction crew of Csángó guys from Moldavia who come to work as laborers in Budapest because it pays better than travelling for work to Bucharest. These guys could dance up a storm.The music at Csángó dances is less self-consciously "authentic" than at most Transylvanian dances. While the instrumentation is "archaic" - flutes, drum, and koboz with fiddle - the bands allow themselves to play more modern repetoires since Moldavian music is such a mix of Romanian, Hungarian, and pan-balkan dance styles and repetoires. The music may even switch into a free form "mahalleasca" dance, the post-1990 Romanian version of a čoček or Balkan belly dance.
If you need to know how to find a dance house, check the listings - in Hungarian - by clicking on the "FOLKNAPTÁR" tab on the on the Folk Radio website. The FolkRadio site is worth a listen in any case - 24 hour internet streaming Hungarian and Carpathian basin folk music. And if anyone is visiting during the summer months, the regular Dance Houses often close down during the summer as bands go on tour and the universities that provide the venues close down. The ones to look out for in the summer are the Dürer-Kert in Pest and the Kobuci kert, located in Obuda.