Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Smallest Fiddler in Palatka

After playing the festival in Sighet we suffered an unpleasant surprise: we had no place to stay for the night after our concert, a day we had expected to be a free day with accomodations. When you are traveling with a band abroad, this is one of the worst nightmares - the local promoter who strands you with eight people on a shoestring budget. Luckily, when Di Nayes get into a pickle like this in Transylvania, we are covered. We have a safe haven. Puma made a call, we met fiddler Florin Codoba in Cluj, and an hour later we were at his uncle Lőrincz' house in in Palatka.
Palatka - written as Palatca in Romanian - is a village in the deep middle of the Transylvanian plains, the Mezőség, home to one of the most deeply stirring music and dance tradtions that I ever encountered anywhere. I have written about Palatka here, here, and here, but this is the music that I heard at the age of fifteen and something went click in my soul and I had found my sound for life. This is what made me buy my first fiddle. It is the sound that brought me to Europe twenty years ago, and is one of the main reasons I remain here.I can't live far from the persistant audial addiction I have to the music of the Palatka Gypsy Band. The Hungarian folk scene considers the Palatka band to be the most archaic of the Transylvanian string band traditions, and most of the best Hungarian fiddlers have spent time learning to play in the confoundingly asymetrical style. The unique sound of the Mezőség fiddle bands is the use of the three string kontra viola and the highly ornamented and often dissonant fiddle style.Modal melodies - ones that might be harmonized using minor chords - are harmonized using major chords on the kontra and bass. Like most Mezőség villages it is ethnically mixed, about 350 of its 1400 residents are Hungarian, with about as many Gypsy. The musicians tend to come from three or four musician Gypsy familes, the Codobas, the Macsingos, the Moldovans and the Radaks. The two Codoba brothers - Béla and Martón - led the band in its glory days between 1970 and 2000, when Béla died of a heart attack on stage at a concert in Veszprém and his place as second lead fiddle was taken over by cousin Lőrincz, who used to play kontra viola in the band.

In this youtube video Béla is playing with a much younger Florin around 1996, when teenage Florin was just starting to learn to play. What is amazing is how closely Florin's bowing exactly matches that of his uncle. That is how the sound and style is inherited. People are always predicting the death of traditional music, a form which is fast losing ground in the modern, digitalized world, but among the Gypsy musician dynasties of Palatka, the younger generation still grows up in a world surrounded by music.
The latest example: the amazing two and a half year old Sebi. Sebi was with his parents at the general store that serves as the Gypsy bar in Palatka when we arrived. While we arranged for the musicians to come down to play, Sebi's uncle produced a tiny, unstrung 1/4 size fiddle and Sebi "played."

This two and a half year old child has all the moves down - even the fiddle bowing hesitations - before he even makes any sound on the instrument. When somebody would enter the bar, Sebi would walk up to shake his hand. He already knows how to dance. Sebi gets to wear a real musician's hat when he plays. When the musicians play, Sebi comes into the circle and plays along. When the musicians take a break and have a shot of palinka, Sebi gets a shot of orange juice and toasts the musicians before knocking it back in one shot, just like the big folks do.He is absolutely the darling of the family and his grandparents dote on him. On this tour we had New York fiddler Jake Shulman-Ment with us. Jake is possibly the best klezmer fiddler on the scene today, but he also has played Hungarian trad fiddle for years and performs for most of the hungarian folk dance events around New York. He's especially attuned to the music of Palatka, and two years ago we were able to get him together with Florin Codoba at the Yiddish Summer workshops in Weimar when Alan Bern's Other Europeans project was in its infancy and the summer workshops theme was the interaction of Jews and Gypsies in European music. Rather than academically belabor the point, we brought along our own Gypsy musician. Florin and Jake just clicked, so it was a stroke of luck that we finally got Jake to Palatka.Right off the bat, Lőrincz handed him the fiddle and said "OK, kid, let's see what you can do." If you are a tradtional fiddler, this is as close as it gets to final exams. And Jake did pretty well. The locals were impressed. (Pardon the dark video, but if you watch closely you will see the amazing Sebi popping in and out of the musicians playing on his tiny fiddle.)

One of the other fiddlers on hand was an old buddy of mine, Ignac Macsingo, whose nickname "Naci" is pronounced in English as "Nazi." I'll never be able to get Naci any gigs at Klezmer festivals. Its a shame - he's a great musician, stunning singer, and dancer.Naci's father, Gheorghe Macsingo - the fiddler in the nearby village of Barai - was the fiddler I first learned with when I came to Romania with Puma in 1988 during the worst times of the Ceaucescu period. We first went to Barai to find him, but Gheorghe wasn't home and the family spoke no Hungarian. Speaking in Romani, I asked his wife were we could find him, and she told us to drive back to Cluj where he would be catching a bus to the village later on after his factory job let out. We did, and met him at the bus station. He got in the car and said not a word until we got to Barai. When he saw his wife he was elated. Apparently, when we met him at the bus station he thought we were Romanian Securitate agents sent to arrest him.

Gheorghe's wife, on the other hand, thought that we were rich Gypsies from Bucharest who wanted to hire him to play at a wedding. In any case, Nazi eventually left miniscule Barai and moved to Palatka where he leads the second tier band that plays in the village and also plays the regular weekend gigs at the Gypsy bar.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Săpânţa: The Happy Cemetery

Săpânţa is a village about 15 kms west of Sighet, smack up against the Tisa river in the far north of Romania. When I first came to Maramureş in 1990, the streets in this village were lined with cearga - furry raw sheep wool blankets - for sale, hanging from every house' fence along the road that leads to Sighet. Within weeks of the end of Communism, these villagers were doing business big time. In 1990, right after the fall of Ceaucescu and the Communist Party in Romania, the peasants of Săpânţa had their own reading on freedom. After annoucement of a federal tax on home brewed brandy - the ţuica so central to Maramureş existence - the villagers of Săpânţa blockaded the main road to Sighet and effectively revolted in defense of their beloved tax-free home brew.After a couple of weeks the government backed down, and the villager's favorite hooch was safe. Yes, Maramureş folk - the moroşani - love to drink. And yes, they may even drink themselves to death, and how well they know it. Presently the most unique attraction in Săpânţa is the "Happy Cemetery." Originally begun by a peasant grave carver named Stan Petras in the 1930s, and carried on today by the Pop family, the cemetery has become one of the most popular tourism attractions in rural Romania, with tour buses pulling up and unloading foreigners hourly. We were lucky - we visited on a religious holiday just as the villagers were coming from a Church service.The grave markers in the cemetery in Săpânţa are carved and painted with scenes of the deceased accompanied by a poem describing their fate in Maramureş dialect. About half of them have two painted sides - one showing the deceased as they were in life, and the other showing either the way they died or illustrating some quirk that made them the talk of the village. A good woman is celebrated on side A:
But everybody in the village knows about her B side... she obviously made an impression on the village that would not go away even after she had left this mortal coil...
The most interesting of the carved grave markers celebrate the fickle nature of death: machines just happen to blow up, planes accidentally fall out of the sky, cars just naturally tend to hit people:
And drink. The poetry of the grave markers is wry and reflects the way village opinion saw the deceased during their lives. People in Maramureş drink a lot of home brew, and some drink more than others. It's a hard country with few pleasures, and from the few fruits they can coax from the poor mountain soil they brew plum and apple brandy.
Tavern keepers are also well represented in the other side. This one apparently drank himself to a deathly white paleness on his road to the afterlife. Or else the artist had run out of beige paint.Trains are a particular danger. After a walk around the cemetery you simply don't want to go near a train. They kill in all sorts of ways. You can get all dressed up to go out and still manage to find yourself slammed by a locomotive:
From the evidence on some of the grave markers it seems that Romanians have been experimenting with the notion of extreme sports long before the arrival of cable television. Note to self: definitely do not try roller skating along the railroad tracks. Ever.
Or you can simply be walking along the tracks and suddenly find yourself crushed to death. The look on this poor fellow's face says it all. Oops!The poem accompanying this gravestone said something along the lines "And now my children are in the hands of God / Which is probably better than being in my hands" The laws of Darwinsim are always a bitter pill to take. And speaking of bitter pills: the Romanian attitude towards visiting the hospital:Ever notice how many people go to the hospital and then die? Lesson: Don't go to the hospital! Some of the markers date back to earlier times and reflect historical realities. This one is of a shepherd cruelly killed and beheaded by Hungarian Gendarmes during WWII.
Friendly fire incidents among the Border Guards are also a nuisance.
And many of the graves show the happier moments of village life, with poems declaring sentiments like "In my life I loved to sing / And always bought a round / And paid the fiddler well/ But now i'm dead and gone"
In Maramureş the concept of being "oamnenii bunii" - good folks - is the motto for the approved behavior. And this means being a hard worker and a hard partier: drinking, singing, dancing, dying.
This is the soul of the Maramures region. The peasants up here have held off all of the twentieth century's interlopers - they maintain their Greek-Orthodox church traditions, their thick country dialect, their bewildering fiddle music, their hard drinking ways, and their tradition-bound ideas about life and death. They are some of the toughest, most moral people you will find in Europe today. Let them lift a glass or two in peace. Like the song says Aşa beau oamenii buni "That's how the good folk drink/ They drink from Saturday until Monday."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Maramures Jewish Festival: Sighet

Sighetu-Marmatiei, also known as Sighet (Sziget in Hungarian, Siget in Yiddish, Si'het in Ruthenian) is a small town in the Maramures region of Romania, smack dab on the river Tisza border with the Ukraine to the north. If known at all in the West, it is usually because of the fact that writer Elie Wiesel was born there, for Sighet was once one of the most Jewish of all cities in Europe.Before WWII a third of the city was Jewish, and Jews uncharacteristically worked the land as peasant farmers in the countryside. The culture of Maramures, and of Sighet in particular, resonates with the influence of Yiddish in the local dialect, the local food, and the music of Maramures. Of all the cities in east Europe that I have visited, Sighet most strongly acknowledges the losses of the Holocaust: immediately after the end of WWII the bars of soap made from Jewish corpses in Auschwitz were buried here, and today a monument prominently marks the spot.Di Nayes were invited to play a festival of Jewish Culture in Sighet, and so we crossed the border at Satu Mare and headed east up into the mountains. Satu Mare was another town and region that should be familiar to folks involved in Jewish culture: as Satmar, the hasids of this region continue to maintain their faith and customs, but in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and NY suburbs like Monsey instead of the Carpathian mountains. When I began visiting the town and region to collect Jewish folklore in the early 1990s, there were about 200 Jews left in the Maramures region - before 1989 there were almost 3,000. As soon as the Communist regime ended, most emigrated to Israel or the USA. Today there are hardly enough Jews to keep a minyan of 10 going at the refurbished Synagogue. The festival was mainly dedicated to fostering education about Sighet's Jewish heritage and providing a meeting for many of the Sighet Jews who visit their home town from Israel each summer. One thing that Maramures will always be cherished for among Jews is the memory of its home brewed fruit brandy: palinka, tsuica, or horinca, as the thrice-brewed top quality stuff is known around these parts.
You can get it - bottled in plastic soft drink bottles - from the cheese sellers in the marketplace. I don't believe the EU cares for the practice of selling home brewed white lightning, but screw them. At 10 Romanian New Lei a liter (about $3) you can be sure of no hangovers and you are drinking the stuff that fueled hundreds of hasidic l'chayims over the centuries. In Maramures they drink a lot of horinca. Every social situation calls for a toast, and little plastic bottles of clear liquid appear out of nowhere to make any occasion. We also stocked up on straw hats in the market.
Maramures peasants traditionally wear small little hats called clop (visible hanging in the background) while city folk wear more normal hats, but everybody wears a hat. Nowhere in Europe does traditional dress persevere as in Maramures. One reason has its origins in the persecution of the Communist years. Maramures has always had a social structuire in which certain villagers were considered "noble" - not by wealth, but by status. When the Communists tried to punish this class - by closing churches and redistributing their land - the response of the local Maramures peasants - the morosani - was to retreat into the fortress of their traditions.Wearing a furry vest and a tiny straw hat became a mark of defiance that persists to this day. In Maramures, local identity is proudly maintained: to be oameni bunii,, "good people" is the goal of any morosan. That means earning a wage at hard work - often abroad on construction sites in France and Italy - and being as self sufficient as possible at home. It means being a devout church going Orthodox or Greco-Orthodox believer: I've never met a morosan atheist. Another key identity symbol is the local musical style of Maramures fiddle and guitar music.
This is what was on offer at the CD stand in the marketplace. No place else in Romania offers this much of its regional folk music on a commercial level - and there are still loads of fiddlers "ceterasi" in all the villages. In Maramures most of the commercial recording are of peasant or trained musicians - the Gypsy clans (mostly families named Covaci and Baranyi) that provide music rarely make recordings. Most musician families don't like being called "Roma" at all - that is reserved for the Kalderash clans that speak Romani and do business in the marketplaces.
Typically, Transylvanian Gypsy musicians refer to themselves as "Gypsies" - "cigány" in Hungarian and "ţigan" in Romanian, which irks outsiders who have convinced themselves that Roma is the only proper term for Gypsies. When speaking to musician Gypsies in Romani, however, they will say "Rom" referring to themselves, but outside of their dialect they would see the term restricted to the more "classic" Kalderash and Lovara Roma. While we were in Sighet we were put up at the very classy Perla Sigheteana Hotel, the same hotel where we played for the wedding of the owner's daughter about eight years ago. They served the best tripe soup - ciorba de burta - that I have ever had in Romania. I ate this stuff twice a day: believe me, this is the Romanian breakfast of champions. They served it with some fantastic home baked crusty bread and the classic ciorba accompaniments of sour cream and hot peppers. The sour cream was a thick, luscious cream from the milk of water buffalos, so thick you could spread it on bread and eat it like cheese or clotted cream. And everybody proceeded to do just that.
I really enjoyed the Hotel Perla Sigheteana where we stayed - they have a beautiful garden area for outdoor lunches and if you are ever staying in Sighet this is the place to stop. We played for the festival reception dinner the night we arrived, and although the festival as such was tiny and not entirely a festival, it ended up becoming a miniature workshop for players of the small cimbalom, with Australian Tim Meyen in attendance alongside Shaun Williams, an American teaching English in the Ukraine while learning Hutsul cimbalom music, the Tecso Band's Vasile Hudak on Hutsul tsymbaly, and our cimbalom player Feri - who used my small hora cimbalom on this tour because he had transportation troubles with his big cimbalom. Here's a taste of Tim Meyen jamming with Ivan Popovich:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Zalaba, Slovakia: The Best Mayor in the World.

Although the last post about Prague was the opening gig of the recent band tour, this post is about the last concert we did at a small village festival in Slovakia on July 4th. Zalaba is a tiny village just nborth of the Hungarian border in Slovakia, about 7 km north of the town of Parkány (Sturovo in Slovakian.)It is only about an hour's drive north of Budapest but as soon as you leave the border town of Parkany and enter the hilly countryside you could be in Transylvania. The villages are small and unspoiled, with well kept old peasant houses, working farms, vineyards, twisting country roads. Eventually, we reached the small village of Zalaba - population 170, of which 85% are Hungarian, 15 % Slovak. Everybody speaks Hungarian as well as Slovak here, and the festival we played at was named after the brook which runs through the village: the Szikince. As soon as we arrived the Mayor of Zalaba, Michlianová Etelka, introduced herself by making sure we were fed. First we got a basket of home made pogacsa (biscuits - seen above) made by Mayor Michlianová herself, as well as sandwiches made from goat cheese from Mayor Michlianová own goats. The Mayor poured us a round of excellent quality palinka and then laid out her specialty: Zalaba retes ('strudel'.)
This was a mixture of meat, sour cream, and curd cheese rolled and baked into a kind of über-burek, a savory strudel the likes of which you would never see in Budapest a mere hour's drive to the south. The fresh, meaty strudel was just what we needed after the long day's drive in from the Romanian border. This was the kind of old fashioned strudel that you can't find in many modern Hungarian homes - not only was the pastry hand stretched, it was hand stretched by the Mayor! How many Mayors bake strudel for their festival guests? Does NY Mayor Bloomberg bake cookies when a klezmer band comes to NY? No. He does not. Zalaba thus beats New York by a strudel length. Etelke, you win the award, you are the Best Mayor in the World.
We played our set, and got everybody up and dancing a basic freylakhs led by Sue Foy. As soon as we were finished, Mayor Etelke met us at the side of the stage with another bottle of palinka. Now that's hospitality. And just before we left she gave Fumie a couple of liters of excellent local wine - grown around these parts only for local consumption, and unavailable in bottles. Given that it is releatively easy to get to Esztergom by train from Budapest, cross the bridge to Parkány, and bike up to Zalaba... I have a feeling there may be a few bicycle trips to Zalaba in the future.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Prague: Bread Dumplings, Beer, and No Parking Fines!

Our recent travels began with a gig in Prague, which is a wonderful city for tourists in the summer but definately not if you are a band trying to park a Ford Transit mini-bus anywhere near the downtown. None of the underground garages can accomodate a van, since Prague was spared the destuctive bombing and destruction of World War II and thus its city center lacks the kind of blemished urban open spaces that make parking in Budapest, Warsaw or Berlin such a joy of post-war European experience. Still... Prague is stunning. We played as part of the Nine Gates Festival in the Wallenstein gardens of the Czech Senate.
This was our third time playing the Nine Gates festival, and each time the organizing has gotten ever better... there has been a lot of fine tuning going on in the Prague World music scene over the last few years. Although inteneded as a Klezmer Festival, this year's festival was co-sponsored by the Prague Romanian Culture Institute, so things were a bit relaxed on the semito-authenticity front. There was some great Romanian Jazz when we were there.
The opening band was a local Czech Gypsy band, whose Jewish content seemed limited to having a guy in a tuxedo singing a medley from "Fiddler on the Roof"... which is fine, I suppose... I mean, that's what most folks expect. What I was expecting was this:Fresh Pilsner beer, the dark variety. Yeah... I've been on a diet... haven't had a beer since February, but heck, I'm in Prague, and the Czech's don't have any sense of a light summer cuisine. Bread and potato dumplings everywhere. And I mean everywhere.
Duck with knedly dumplings. Essentially, knedly is steamed bread. Not exactly the thing for Mr. Low-Carb, but this is the Czech Republic, after all, and that is duck, so... There are other forms of knedly mixing white and dark breads, and the dumps go well with any kind of gravy or sauce, although I really wish the Czechs would look at their calendars and say "Ah. Summer. Maybe time to lighten up."
We didn't see a single vegetable - with the exception of sauerkraut - during our entire stay in Prague. Did that bother us? No. But, since the national food is beer, and food at beer halls is filling and a lot cheaper than anything in a downtown restaurant, it remains a knedly-fest weekend for us. In fact, the first big carbo-load I had eaten in months was this:
Potato dumplings stuffed with smoked non-kosher meat served with the mild, cumin tinged sour cabbage that Czech serve with almost every dumpling dish. Eat thgis and you won;t be hungry anymore. The same goes for these stereotypical Good Soldier Svejk weenies which are pushed all over town to the teeming touristic masses.
As regards the parking problem... we did get a parking ticket on the mini-bus when we parked it in a public overnight space near the Malostranska Church. Like a good citizen of the EU that I am I marched down to the local police station to pay up (our van rental service travels to Prague quite a lot, after all...) and the local cops took down my info, asked if we were with the Festival, smiled, and told us to go our merry way. No fine! And that's fine with me.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Mici for the Masses: Oradea, Romania

The band just got back from a tour in which we hit Prague, Romania, and Slovakia in ten days, driving along in our rented mini-bus for whole days to make it to gigs and eating at both the high and low ends of the trough as we went. Yesterday the meat du jour was Romanian mici.While I love cevapcici and will crawl barechested over a field of broken glass to get some, there are times in this cruel and deceptive world when you simply can't get any. There are spots on the planet where there simply are no displaced Bosnians available to grill cevapi for you, and this is a sad fact that we all must learn to deal with. So you lower your standards, grit your teeth, and man up to face whatever ground meat wad the locals throw at you. Yesterday it was mici, (pronounced meech) the Romanian version of the pan-Balkan meat-dispensed-in-a-tube-form which is also known as mititei. We started our day in Oradea, (known in Hungarian as Nagyvárad) located on the border with Hungary, having done a concert in town at the Posticum, a modest jazz-oriented culture center.In the morning we were up early to hit the flea market. The Oradea flea market is a huge, sprawling sun baked celebration of free market capitalism, selling everything from used autos to accordions. In eastern Europe the flea market is where most folks do their home appliance shopping - while you can get everything new and shiny at the new malls, people trust the second hand stalls to offer things at a more affordable price.
The Pet Market was fascinating blend of animals that could be either made into lovely home companions or just eaten outright with potatoes and peppers. Pigeons and chickens were on sale alongside puppies and parakeets. There was one rabbit for sale that was the size of a German shepherd.
Now that rabbit will either be a wonderful garden pet named Fluffy or a hearty stew named "Eat me!" Which will it be? I'm betting on the stew. Even having a pet area in a flea market, fer chrissakes, is a bit disturbing. Marketing "Flea" and "Pet" in the same sentence? If you are used to hygenic, EU-conforming pet shops, perhaps the flea market in Ordea is not for you. It seems to be struggling with an identity issue: "Am I a pet shop or a Supermarket meat section? I just can't seem to decide!" But there's no need to eat the pets here - just saunter over to the mici stands.The Oradea flea market has the most grilled meat stands of any single market I have ever seen in Romania. Big sellers are grilled kolbasz, pork chops, chicken legs, and at every stand.... mici. Considering that the market opens at 6 am, that makes mici the breakfast of champions. Most market mici I have eaten have been miserable, charred, raw in the center blobs of fat and gristle, the mici I breakfasted on here were superb.
Mici have been slowly modernizing over the last decade. Refigeration - once an exotic luxury in rural Romanian parking lots but now quite commonplace - had made the mici business safer and allowed for a better quality ground meat experience. As with Yugoslav cevap, the ground meat in mici has to be mixed with salt and kneaded into a paste to which a small amount of soda bicarbonate is added. The salted ground meat needs to be cold in order to form an emulsion or else wou end up with a simple tubular hamburger wad. Modern mici are thin and long when put on the grill, but blow up as the bicarbonate heats up and expands, which also adds a nice smooth grilled crust to the meat. Another adavantage of mici is that they are cheap. very cheap. Laughably cheap.
At the present exchange of 4.2 Romanian lei to one Euro, this is meat for the masses at Euro 25 cents a piece. Served with a hunk of bread and the traditionally crappy thin mustard, four mici is a hefty meal.