Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hungarian Bagpipes and Media Dignity.

When I moved to Hungary in the 1980s, I was already a bagpipe fanatic. I had first heard the Hungarian bagpipe - the duda - on recordings in the 1970s, and it simply grabbed me by the neck and changed what I thought about music. Between the sound of the Hungarian duda and the raw power of the Transylvanian fiddle bands that I heard on Hungarian field recordingsI was hooked. Although I played fiddle in all kinds of bands – bluegrass, country, Greek, Irish and Cajun – I never gave up trying to get that Transylvanian sound, and the search for that sound eventually was the thing that brought me to Hungary in the 1980s. And since I couldn’t get my hands on a Hungarian bagpipe, I wound up playing the somewhat different, but still raw and riveting, Balkan gaida. I actually once put together a Transylvanian string band with some band mates from an African band I played in – a Ghanaian on the kontra fiddle and a Senegalese on the bass. It is a pity we never recorded. By the time I got here in 1980s, the Hungarian bagpipe – the duda – had largely died out, due in part because the shepherds who played it were replaced by electric sheep fences and the simple fact that society preferred more pleasant sounding instruments than the lowly duda.In the 1970s, however, Hungarian folk musicians such as Sándor Csoóri, Juhász Zoltán and Ferenc Tobak (shown above researching Moldavian bagpipes in the 1980s) sought out the last active duda players and learned the technique and most importantly, the manufacture of these instruments. But most of us were convinced that there were no older Hungarian duda players left in Hungary (except for a handful of Croatian ethnic players of the Croatian bagpipes in south Hungary.) Then, in the 1990s, while inquiring about the survival of any memories of duda traditions anthropologist Gergély Agocs and musicologist Juhász Zoltán found Pál Pista, a retired shepherd who had played duda – as well as shepherd’s flute - in his youth but had given up playing.Alone after the death of his wife and son, Uncle Pista was surprised to find that anybody would be interested in him, but encouraged by the younger musicians and armed with a new and functional bagpipe made for him, Pál Pista became an active performer at folk festivals and dance houses. The “discovery” of Uncle Pista was also important in that it gave a whole generation of young Hungarian bagpipe enthusiasts a living link to the old traditions, a face to face teacher and transmitter of the old aesthetic of the shepherd. And Uncle Pista took to his new role avidly – he still loves to give performances to schools and cultural clubs, but he is now 91 and over the last few years he has been slowing down a bit. His hearing is going, but he will still rise to the occasion if asked to appear to play his pipe and tell a few stories to the students and schoolchildren he adores so much.And now it gets ugly. Surfing around the net I came across this clip from Hungary’s “who’s got talent” reality show ‘Megasztar.’ Last May the show contacted Uncle Pal Pista, and asked him to appear on their “talent show.” Uncle Pista had no idea what the Megasztar show is, and thought he was being asked to demonstrate his traditional bagpipes for TV, which the only reason he ever gets called in by any TV station. Dressed in his traditional clothes – which appear funny and outlandish in the Megasztar context, especially with a ridiculous contestant number attached to his hat, Pal wanted to play his bagpipe. But backstage the show’s assistants asked him to play his flute, and then onstage they asked him to just sing a song for them. Onstage, however, celebrity talk show host and contest judge Sandor Frederikusz requested that Uncle Pista play a cowherd’s song (called a ‘gulyas nota’ – these are usually known to be obscene ditties.) And Uncle Pisti refuses and wants to sing a patriotic Hussar song instead.This clip takes the cake for bad taste – trying to get cheap laughs from an old man who just happens to be a cultural icon of Hungarian culture. The other contestants know what they are in for when they go on a cheap Gong Show knock off like Megasztar – Uncle Pista did not. Watching this, I can feel my stomach churning. I can understand why people talk of the need to protect “dignity” in broadcast media. I can’t understand the need, however, to legislate it.Which brings us to the new Media law and the concept of decency in broadcasting. Hungary is in the international spotlight these days because of its adoption of a new law governing press and media freedom and regulating fines for broadcast or published “assaults on human dignity” and “public morals.” What one must understand is that Hungarian TV offers some of the most invasive, hideous and downright scratch-my-eyeballs-out horrible television to be seen anywhere west of Azerbaijan (which has some truly unique bad TV of its own.) The best protection from such assaults is to simply turn the damn TV off. We had our cable company shut our TV off two years ago because of all the 50 or so channels, we were reduced to watching the Animal Channel, the desperate Hungarian cooking channel PaprikaTV, and BBC news until they took it off the cable service as well. Instead we chose to repurpose our TV more productively as a stand for potted plants. In truth, the new media law won’t be used to protect people like Uncle Pista from the indignities of broadcasting. It will be used to protect governing politicians when their mouths move and – as so often happens when their mouths move – lies and fabrications come out. It will be used to go after the media and press that report that simple fact and cause embarrassment to those politicians. The law is not there to protect us, but to control us.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Shrimp in Budapest? Shrimp?

Amid the international froofrah that Hungary has stepped in since taking the rotating presidency of the European Union, one burning question has been pushed aside in the tumult: what’s for dinner? Yes, at our house that is the burning daily issue, a struggle between what we can get in the market and what we actually would like to eat in a pleasant and perfect world. Winter in Hungary means… cabbage, carrots, and very expensive imported vegetables. Meat narrows to a choice between pork or chicken. And in our home, we simply get tired of the traditional Hungarian round of stews, soups and veggies-in-sour-cream that make up the winter Magyar diet. And the worst time is around Christmas, when Hungarians go beserk with overproducing the really good stuff, and everybody ends up sending beiglis to each other and sharing wheelbarrows of leftovers, like our friend Judit’s stuffed cabbage cooked by her Mom.The sad fact is that during the winter I tend to put on weight, happy to chow down on a default diet heavy on pasta carbonara and chicken paprikas ladled over mamaliga until, sometime around May, green veggies return to the market. This year I said a firm No! I have basically cut out 95% of all those tasty carbohydrates and have halved the portions I eat. And this gives Fumie an advantage to our daily dinner debate: Hungarian, Italian, or Asian? With Italian food knocked out of the picture, and Hungarian cuisine hobbled by a wintertime starch glut, we eat a lot of Chinese and Japanese food.
The secret to keeping a Japanese garufurendo happy is basically the same as keeping a pet seal happy: they need fish. A lot of fish. Fresh fish, dried fish, canned fish, powdered fish, cute fish, ugly fish, fish, fish, fish. And Hungary is a landlocked country where ‘fish’ usually means one thing: carp. I do not like carp. I agree with the Romanians whose word for carp is the much more indicative “crap.”But somehow we manage. We can occaisonally get frozen sardines. We have learned how to home process frozen fish from the supermarket so that it almost resembles fish again. Fumie makes her own kimchee, (the Korean cabbage and pepper pickle that conquered the world.) We grow fresh herbs like shiso and Thai basil on our terrace. When we returned from the US last fall half of our luggage consisted of canned fish and sauces from the gigantic Mitsuwa Japanese supermarket in Edgewater New Jersey. Luckily, we have some Chinese groceries in Budapest, and Fumie manages to create some semblance of an Asian cuisine in a uniquely McGyverish way. Shrimp wonton soup a la Budapest, anyone?Not everything the Japanese eat is fresh and healthy and prepared with Zen-like sense of purity and balance. The Japanese have an amazing appetite for snacks and junk foods and glow-in-the-dark candies and weird soft drinks like the fabled "Cowpiss." These are stored in big boxes in our Budapest pantry for days when the garufurendo has a nostalgic snack attack. And most of you have not eaten Japanese school food. Fumie gets very nostalgic for school lunch menus, and then it is time for the dreaded Japanese curry! She's stocked enough boxes of Japanese karē sauce in our pantry to survive anything short of a nuclear attack. Now, if you haven't tried it, Japanese curry is a sweet, curry powder flavored glop that is an acquired taste at best. I have simply never acquired it.Japanese love to see how far westerners will go with heir food: can you eat sushi? Seaweed? I have gone as far as eating raw sea squirts and sea cucumbers, and I have even munched on a bit of TV snack package jellyfish. But for me karē is my Japanese Maginot line. No problem... but it means I do not get to warm up any shnitzel leftovers. Katsu karē for lunch! But the most significant event of the last half decade in Hungary has been the arrival of shrimp. Since Hungary entered the EU imported foods became a bit more widespread: shrimp appeared. Once only available at five star hotel buffets, Hungarians have acquired enough of a taste for shrimp so that one can now find relatively affordable frozen shrimp. I have absolutely no idea what Hungarians do with shrimp – batter-fry them with mayonnaise sauce Orly modra? Stew with paprika and sour cream? Crush them with poppy seeds and sugar and serve on noodles? But as long as we can wrap them in rice skins with a little ground meat, cellophane noodles, and mint we are happy with Vietnamese chả giò.This isn’t to say we have sworn off western food entirely. No way! One lucky side effect of the Hungarian holiday feast-a-thon is that butchers still have a glut of leftover duck and goose. Duck breast is actually easy to prepare, and given the absence of decent beef in Hungary, duck breast is the closest thing we have to steak, albeit with feathers.Served with a nice Hungarian sweet and sour red cabbage (I use apples for the sweetness) and some cauliflower gratin, this actually fits into the diet plan quite well. Now, if I could only stop dreaming about spaghetti carbonara…

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Happy New Year! Boldog új évet mindenkinek! La mulţi ani!

On December 31, did we worry ourselves about the state of the Hungarian economy, the wretched new press law that had just come into being administered by a state secretary whose only former publishing experience consisted of publishing the Hungarian franchise edition of Penthouse magazine? Did we stay awake agonizing over the next moves of our pugnacious Great Leader as Hungary prepared to take its revolving seat as President of the EU? Did we watch the new President of Hungary make a travesty of the words to the Hungarian National Anthem as he gave his New Year’s speech? No we most certainly did not. We did what thousands of Hungarians do on December 31. We went to the horse track.I don’t know when the trotting races became a New Year tradition in Budapest, but it is an invisible, almost unnoticed ritual that stays largely hidden from the view of foreigners – which is kind of like Rio de Janeiro keeping Carnival hidden from outsiders. This used to held at the old race track just behind Keleti railway station, but the new park, located in outer Zuglo, suits the crowd just fine as a way of reminding us of the snowy Siberian steppes from which our ancient Ugric-Magyar ancestors fled so many millenia ago to find a brighter future sitting atop horses, a trend that eventually led to horsing our way into the Pannonian plains and eventual membership in the EU and lots of very tasty pastries and cakes.
Thousands of Hungarians bundle up and descend on Budapest’ Kincsem Park in the afternoon to freeze their butts outside while ducking inside every half hour to warm up while making bets and glugging hot spiced wine. It is a sea of Magyars in funny hats, downing all manner of Hungary’s wide selection of cheaper and less delectable liquors in a vain attempt to party in the snow.And Party they did. This was a long-needed antidote to the stereotype of the sad, dour, pessimistic Magyar. If you have never seen a few thousands of Hungarians out for some serious Hungarian fun, try it sometimes. It doesn't happen everyday, and when it does, looks out! We stayed for a few races but I don’t gamble and so it was more a chance to watch Hungarians having fun – something you don’t see very much outside of the Croatian coast these days. Families with kids, teenagers, old grizzled denizens of the horse track life, Chinese immigrants, Gypsy familes, they were all here. And we got a chance to see… Lagzi Lajcsi!
The king of Hungarian Wedding Rock! Singing in full playback mode – a common form of entertainment in these partst in which a performer jumps around stage while a tape of them plays, giving them the chance to talk over their own singing. The crowd loved it and sang along. My own tastes in music allow me only so much Lagzi Lajcsi, so later we were off to the Instant Bar downtown for New Years with the Kocani Orkestar.
About a decade ago, when a lot of cool young Serbs chose to find refuge from the Kosovo War by moving to Budapest, Budapest started to import live music by the simple expedient of calling in Balkan Gypsy brass bands. I mean, after all, they are not located very far away and they have a knack of getting a party going for a lot less of an investment than hiring some name reggae band or risking your party on some local folkies. If you want a party, you hire a Balkan Brass band. This pretty much guaranteed that our New Year's Eve party would not suck. Our Croatian Contingent (Captain and Madame Squid) was along for the party, and Captain Squid hadn’t heard the program specifics beyond “some Macedonian band will be playing.” He was in Yugo-heaven when he saw it would be Kocani – he could never afford to go to see them when he was a kid in the old Yugoslavia. For FT2000 (about $9 USD) that’s not a bad way to go out for some insane Macedonian Gypsy Brass band party music. Of course, it was “a version” of Kocani… apparently, the band had become so successful that they can appear simultaneously in several forms at any given time… but we were fully satisfied with the version we got, full of dented tubas and screaming Gypsy trumpets and a lot more Turkish influence than you usually get from Serbian based Gypsy brass bands. After a midnight set we headed off to be with our friends at the Sixtus Kapolna, one of the seventh districts smaller watering holes where we are “inner circle” and thus we got in for the closed party.And lo and behold, there was a nice warm cauldron of Lentil soup waiting for us - Hungarians, along with Italians, believe that starting the New Year off with a bowl of lentils (which resemble little coins, get it?) ensures that you will see wealth in the upcoming new year. With explanations like that it also explains a lot in terms of economic failure in these two nations as well.