Monday, December 27, 2010

The Demise of Press Freedom in Hungary.

The New York Times, which rarely takes notice of anything happening in our little corner of the Carpathian basin, ran a story today that just about tells it all: Hungary Waves Off Criticism Over Media Law.Prime Minister Viktor Orban, poised to take over presidency of the European Union is fighting back against criticism from Germany and other countries over a new Hungarian law that some fear could be used to curb press freedom.” That’s putting it very, very lightly. As of January 1, Hungary’s new media law goes into effect, which literally means that the State – embodied in the Ruling Party, FIDESZ – has carte blanche to fine any media reporting that it deems “unbalanced” or offensive to “human dignity.” Particularly the dignity of politicians.
And our new FIDESZ overlords are likely to use it in precisely the Orwellian manner we expect, with statements warning bloggers of the dangers of “unlicensed and irresponsible journalism” and calls for more Hungarian-only content in the Hungarian broadcast media. The Washington Post put it grimly today in an editorial entitled “The Putinization of Hungary:The right-wing Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban won 53 percent of the popular vote in an election this year but gained 66 percent of the seats in parliament - enough to change the constitution. It proceeded to take over or attack the authority of every institution it did not control, including the presidency, the Supreme Court and the state audit office; the central bank is now under its assault… Meanwhile, Mr. Orban has overseen passage of two media laws that will put Hungary in a league with Russia and Belarus on press freedom. One puts FIDESZ in control of all state television channels and other public media outlets. The second approved by Parliament on Tuesday creates a powerful Media Council with the authority to regulate newspapers, television, radio and the Internet. The council may issue decrees and impose heavy fines - up to $950,000 - for news coverage it considers "unbalanced" or offensive to "human dignity." Journalists can be forced to reveal their sources, and the council can search editorial offices and require that publishers reveal confidential business informationNow, my little corner of the blogosphere is hardly the kind of publication that I expect will attract much attention from our Illustrious Leaders. First of all, it is in English, and devotes a lot of focus on pastrami sandwiches, Gypsies playing Maramures Jewish music, and Turkish grilled meat. Secondly I already censor myself severely. If any of you know me you know that I also write about Hungarian and regional political matters for publication. Just not here. Why? Others do that better and more efficiently. And others often pay me for it, something I never do for myself. And I sincerely do not want to be identified as somebody who writes only about Hungarian issues. The crux of the media law is that 75% of Hungarians are monolingual. If a party can control the information reaching them, you can forget about the impact that foreign news and opinion have on the 25% who can and do use the internet and foreign sources of info. And now we have MTI - the old centralized News Agency of Commnist times - once agin delegated as the State official news agency, who will compose all the major TV evening news broadcasts centrally so that all us little Magyars can recieve news carefully vetted and positive and devoid of all possible embrassment to our Beloved Leaders. MTI has already begin self censoring international news. Today over at Hungarian Spectrum, Eva Balogh looks at how a news story can be re-translated and edited by MTI to mean something very different from what the original intended. And for all those Hungarians who live as writers and journalists this is a time traveling journey back into the days of Goulash Communism. An essay a few days ago by Imre Para-Kovacs in the online news portal Hírszerző: Egy hatalmas, szocialista segget látunk, barátaim, a tökéletes kádárizmus Kádár nélküli valagát, és nem lehet hibázni: vagy nyaljuk, vagy éhen halunk, nincs középút, hiába vagyunk tehetségesek, hiába vagyunk zsenik, akkor is itt kell élnünk, mert Magyarország a szeretett hazánk, a hely, ahol szívhatunk “We’re seeing a giant, socialist ass, my friends, a form of perfect Kadarism without Kadar, and make no mistake: either we kiss that ass or we starve to death. There is no middle of the road, our talents are worthless, our genius in vain. Because we still have to live here, since Hungary is our beloved homeland, the place where we can suck on it.”The new law takes effect on January 1. I'll still be here. Sucking on it.
(Above: parody of the poster anouncing "National Unity" which FIDESZ requested be posted in all public places in Hungary. The text of the original can be found here in PDF form in English. Hurry up, the lines for your quarter loaf of black bread is starting...)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas in Budapest - or Yambol?

Looks like we are staying in Budapest for Christmas this year. Somehow I have managed to be out of Hungary for most of the last few years at this time of year, and I am pretty grateful for it. Hungary shuts down for Christmas like no other country I have ever seen – although I have heard this is true of other Central European countries like Austria and the Czech Republic.
Starting on Dec. 24th families cocoon themselves at home, speaking to no outside, making no telephone calls, going to no parties. They stuff themselves on carp (yes, carp) and light actual candles in desiccating fir trees in their living rooms. And on Christmas Eve Hungarian children open their gifts, which do not come from Santa's workshops at the North Pole. They come straight from the Baby Jesus his own self! Contact with anybody outside of the family is strictly off limits in the home for at least three days. If you are not a participating member of a Hungarian family, you get to wander empty streets that look like a scene from some post-apocalyptic movie … where are all the people? What happened here?… The options are narrow – the traditional Jewish Christmas at a Chinese Restaurant (some stay open, and I'm not telling which) or dinner at Uncle Tom’s Annual Orphan Xmas Dinner.
Since there is no public transport on Christmas Eve in Budapest, and very few taxis, we are hoping for mild weather so we can bike to the Annual Ex-Pat Orphan’s Xmas Dinner, but Budapest has been covered in snow for the last few weeks and Christmas is no time for extreme sports. And to think that a few weeks ago I suggested to Fumie that we spend Christmas in… Yambol, Bulgaria.Yes, Yambol. Why? Because they have the most vibrant koledar tradtion in the Balkans. The Koledar are dancers who perform publicly at Christmas – their name, Koleda, is synonymous with Christmas carol – but they have roots in even more ancient martial dance traditions closely related to Morris dance.
The term “Morris” dance refers to “Moorish” and throughout Europe there are dance traditions of men performing with swords and figures of the Fool, the Mute, and the “troupe.” Usually there is one per town or village, but in Bulgaria you can find several in any area, and in Yambol it resembles something like the social organization of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tribes, in which very macho guys get together during the year to sew costumes and practice their precision steps.
And in Yambol, a good proportion of the guys are Gypsy, albeit Gypsies who no longer speak Romani. But the macho thing is there in good dose, especially when expressed as a willingness to perform the most erotic possible belly dances “cocek” for admiring women. there is a part during one of the Koleda dance routines in which two guys face off inside the circle of marching Koledars and do a pantomime fight dance based on belly dance moves.Every now and then the guys shout out short verses to which the amswer is "YAMBOL!" so I can pretty closely guess what the questions are - Who is the coolest? YAMBOL! Who is the slickest? YAMBOL! And these guys wear some pretty serious bayonets in their boots and also sport spurs for the clinking effect as the dance. You don't want to mess with these guys.The groups portrayed here were Yambol groups who performed last summer in Koprivshitisa, during the festival. We hung out with them for several hours, since they were the ones with the best gaida bagpipe players and they were in constant party mode before their scheduled stage performances, guzzling beer and dancing in the fields and generally having a good time. I found a few videos on Youtube, including this one of some the dancers pictured here - in fact, if you know my straw hat you can see me for a second in the audience. The good stuff starts around 2:30.To get an idea of what the Yambol Koleda looks like while marching around the streets of a provincial Bulgarian town, try this out. Sure beats singing for figgy pudding,anyday.Ah, to be in Yambol at Christmas time!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Chanukah: Why no Jewish Mandolin Orchestras?

Chanukah is on this year in Budapest, with much spinning of dreydles, lighting of candles, and a pretty extensive culture festival in Budapest’s 7th and 6th districts (the historical Jewish Ghetto) sponsored by the city council and the alternative Jewish culture club Siraly. No, my band isn’t playing – foreign based bands are on the menu this year. But that raises a good question: where is all the good Chanukah music? Answer: there isn’t much. Compared to other Jewish holidays, Chanukah lacks any catchy musical traditions (heck, we get to play percussion at Purim!) The few songs we use at this time of year are either recent compositions or songs we borrow from other Jewish musical traditions (everybody sings “La Nonya” Flory Jagoda’s Bosnian Ladino Chanukah song “Ocho Candelikas.” Which is cool in the USA where you have bands like Hip Hop Judeos, but here in Hungary it means it is just another song that nobody understands the lyrics to.)If there was any special Chanukah music tradition, my guess is that it should have mandolins in it. Chanukah is probably the most publicly visible Jewish celebration, the one known to non Jewish communities the best, probably because it falls close to Christmas and has developed into a kind of “Jewish Christmas.” That is kind of natural – as Jews assimilated and found acceptance in the secular worlds of the 20th century, Chanukah became the holiday focused on children. The custom of giving “Chanukah gelt” morphed into a tradition of giving children gifts (and the pseudo theological challenges faced by eight year olds debating with their parents whether the Talmud demands a new gift for each of the eight nights of Chanukah.) The fact is that Chanukah is a relatively low level holiday on the Jewish calendar. The Big Fun One is Purim, which usually pops up around March – Purim is the one with parties, costume plays, fun music, and tasty food. And mandolin orchestras!A post at Tablet Magazine about Avner Yonai's discovery of the Ger Mandolin Orchestra and his attempts to revive their sound and repetoire inspired me to poke around the archives. While I have almost 100 90 minute casettes of recorded Jewish music almost none of it is mandolin, yet mandolin orchestras were ubiquitous in Jewish communities. Like a lot of the music we play in Di Nayes, this was music that was outside of the realm of commercial recordings. And, although the idea is wonderful, the experience of a large mandoln orchestra is, as any jaunt through the possibilites offered at youtube will show... somewhat underwhelming. A dozen eager string tremolos is only as good as the weakest mandolin player, and there are always a few of those wherever mandolins come out. Most people identify Ashkenazic Jewish music with Klezmer bands. Mandolin orchestras, however, were a part of Jewish musical life throughout the twentieth century in both east Europe and the diasporas.Mandolins were often the instrument of choice in Jewish schools and among Jewish fraternal organizations. Cheap, easy to play, and not given to virtuosity, the Socialists and Unionists who founded the Yiddish school systems considered the humble mandolin to be the perfect “Instrument of the People.” Whenever I play mandolin with my band on stage in cities where the audience includes and significant number of Jews, there are usually a couple of seventy year olds who approach me after the show to say that they or their parents were members of a Jewish mandolin orchestra. There is a lot of nostalgia for the mandolin. A lot of Jewish families had a mandolin lying around – they were the kind of instrument you could play indoors in a Brooklyn tenement without disturbing the neighbors.In Hungary there really is no tradition of mandolin playing. Audiences at our gigs often ask me if I am playing a banjo. (No, I am playing a 1934 Gibson A40, dammit! That was the first year they put F-holes on the A models.) Mandolins are used by Roma bands but usually these are just substituting for the more common tamburica. The tamburica has a string tradition in Serbia and Croatia, and is still quite alive in the southeast of Hungary around Pecs and Mohacs, mostly among Gypsy musicians playing for Gypsy, Sokac, and Bunyevac minorities – you don’t see the tamburica bands outside of local ethnic festivals anymore.Romania has a bit more mandolin mostly along the Black Sea coastal towns for urban music – I have heard it played by a Tatar hotel band in Constanta, and Electrecord records put out an LP of Dobrudja Tatar Grigore Kazim playing classic lautar pieces on mandolin around 1970. The Czech Republic has a strong mando culture – a result of the Czech adoption of American country music as the musical culture of their own “Tramping Hobo” culture in which guys dress up in camo and carry big knives backpacks and go tramping around the fields and roads of Bohemia, stopping at “Hobo Bars” where everybody sings Czech language “tramp songs” that sound suspiciously like reworked Jimmy Rogers ballads. That led to a full blown Czech Bluegrass music scene, and eventually the Czechs produced virtuoso mandolin wizards like Radim Zenkl, who now makes his living on the somewhat more lucrative American mandolin scene.For Jewish mandolin in the US, we have Andy Statman. Andy is a force of nature – without him there would have been no Klezmer revival. I knew Andy through the old time and Appalachian music jam sessions at the Eagle Tavern on 14th street in New York during the 1970s, where every Thursday the overwhelmingly Jewish folk music scene would gather for Jam sessions – fiddles, banjos, and mandolins. Statman was the first musician of the younger generation to work with the great Klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras, who was retired at the time and living in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Statman absorbed not only the klezmer music of Tarras but also a deep respect and faith for the Jewish tradition – he went from being a bushy haired jazz mandolinist to being a pious Orthodox Jewish jazz mandolinist.With ethnomusicologist and cimbalom player Zev Feldman, they recorded one of the first well researched traditional Klezmer LPs “Jewish Klezmer Music” on Shanachie records. Subsequently, Staman went on to record some classic Jewish music with David Grisman (whose indefinable mix of mandolin styles he terms “Dawg music”) producing one of the most ethereal collections of Jewish music for mandolin, 1995’s “Songs of Our Fathers” and the more recent “New Shabbos Waltz” (2006.) My personal favorite is a cassette Statman made in 1991 in Israel with Breslover Rabbi Yaakov Klein and his choir: “Songs of the Breslover Chassidim Today” that is, apparently still available. And all of that is mainly inspired by an interview with Andy Statman at the Mandolin Café web site. Most surprisingly, Andy has traded in his trusty old Gibson oval holed A model mandolin for an F-5 style.Statman opened up a whole field of mandolin music to North American Jewish musicians. Jeff Warschauer started out in Boston as a bluegrass mandolin player who moved into the world of country swing, and eventually took a scholarship to study Yiddish and polished up with the Klezmer Conservatory Band on mandolin and guitar. Although he mostly performs on guitar accompanying his wife, Klezmer violinist and dance teacher Deborah Strauss, he has one of the most distinctive styles in Klezmer mandolin today, not to mention he leads Jewish mandolin orchestras at Klez Camp and occasionally at the New York Arbeiter Ring, making him one of the last of the long chain of mandolin orchestra leaders.Up in Canada, mandolinist Eric Stein leads the Toronto based Beyond the Pale, a klezmer and East European folk band, which just won the Instrumental Group of the Year and the Pushing Boundaries awards from the Canadian Folk Music Association for their third album Postcards. Eric is an old buddy of mine as well as director of the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, and a monster on the cimbalom as well as the mandolin.