Monday, August 22, 2011

Sziget Festival: the Klezmatics, Socalled, and some guy named "Prince."

The Sziget Festival ended last Sunday, and oddly for me, I was in attendance for three days of the festival. Oddly, because usually I am never in Hungary in the beginning of August when it takes place, and also oddly, because I don’t really like going to gargantuan rock festivals that host thousands of unwashed party people in rapidly deteriorating states of sobriety for a week of drum and bass lines wafting in from several competing stages all at once. On the other hand, it is fun, if you like that sort of thing. And Sziget is the big one in Europe: from modest beginnings as “Student Island” back in the early 1990s the festival has grown into one of the world’s largest festivals, an uncomfortable marriage of retro-hippie crunchyness meets music industry commodification and has a baby that is drunk and eating dodgy fried foods on an island in the middle of the Danube. But I have to admit. It is fun. It would be a lot more fun if I was 20 years old and thought pouring beer over my head was a viable artistic statement, but, in my own geezerly manner, I had fun.The festival usually lasts a week, with day tickets running around $60, but the first day of the festival was deemed “Zero Day” which meant that if you had a week pass you still needed a special ticket for Zero day unless you were camping on the island. People could gripe about that, but the Big Act was none other than... get ready... Prince. Originally the headliner was to have been Amy Winehouse, but given that Amy checked out of Rehab for good last month, we got Prince. Prince does not do drugs of any kind. Probably a very good thing.The Klezmatics had a good time with their set. Amid the classic Klezmer they did a lot of their recent work based on original compositions and arrangements from their forays into Gospel music and Americana folk. A large number of the audience knew the lyrics to their songs, not surprising given that the ‘Matics (or one of their satellite formations) have played nearly every Sziget Festival for the last twenty years.This was acknowledged later by the US Ambassador to Hungary, Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis giving them an official award for promoting Cultural Diversity. And most importantly, they got me a backstage pass. And the catering backstage far outclassed anything to be eaten elsewhere on the island. Thanks Klezmatics!We also caught a bit of Boban Markovic’ Brass Band from Serbia, another band that plays here nearly every year. Serbian Gypsy brass band has been avidly embraced by the Hungarian festival crowd as the official "We are Nearly Balkan" party music of Hungary. Oh, and there was Prince. Yes, that Prince.After the Klezmatics set I went out with Frank London, Dave Likht, and Lisa Gutkin to check out the Artist Who Previously Was Weird About His Name, along with about 10,000 other concert goers in a huge field. It was pretty damn funky. Frank and Dave went into music analysis mode. Here you had the 53 year old Prince fronting a five piece band, kicking out the jams and almost entirely avoiding the use of sequencers and other electro-digital tricks of modern arena stage acts. Basically, rocking the house with a five piece funk band. Impressive. Very impressive. And he played an hour set with an hour of encore. Not shabby, Prince. Not shabby at all.I was back two days later when the Klezmatics asked me to join them for an impromptu jam set at the US Embassy tent. Given the political atmosphere in Hungary this year, the US Ambassador has been using her influence to try and steer Hungary back on the road to something resembling a democratic state. We wish her the best of luck in her sysiphean task, and each day the Embassy tent featured a different multicultural act playing for whoever stumbled by. For us, it was just a fun day out for jamming and iced coffee.Matt Darriau’s new bride, Katie Down of the UkuLadies even sang a Sephardic Jewish song from Turkey that blew me away, all the more so for being accompanied by ukulele. The Klezmatics had to travel the next day, and wanted to enjoy the fancy hotel that the Embassy had arranged for them, so they left and I wandered over to the Roma tent. As the Sziget has become more commercially oriented, the funkier folk music events of the past have shrunk and what is left of the original Sziget alternativo feel resides at the Gypsy tent.Mixing local Roma bands and up and coming international acts, it’s a cozy atmosphere, with performers hopping off the stage to greet their friends and – besides fried langos - probably the most “Hungarian” experience on the Island for most f the predominantly foreign festival goers. We caught the amazing Roma Rap from Sutka (Suto Orizari, the majority Roma suburb of Skopje, Macedonia.)These guys are the generation of Gypsies that grew up watching rap videos on MTV, and they have it down - including rapping in staccato Balkan Romani and doing it to the accompaniment of a live Macedonian brass wedding band. Some days you can wander into the Gypsy tent and make some amazing discoveries, This was one of them. Also on the bill was our good buddies from Belgrade, Dragan Ristic and KAL.Three days is almost enough for me, but DJ Socalled called, and when Josh Dolgin says so, you got to move. I travelled with Josh on his epic Ukrainian journey in 2007, and worked with him on Geoff Berner’s recording session in Montreal last year, so who was I to say no to comp tickets. The show was booked early in the evening, so the crowd was light (seeing as The National was playing on the main stage at the same time) but everybody loved Socalled's decidely strange stage show. If you have Katie Moore on vocals and Mike Winograd on clarinet, you can get as strange as you want and still pull off a great show. Josh can make klezmer very funky, and his antic way with stage presence – including doing magic tricks, rapping puppets, and working Allen Watsky’s shirt changes into the show, he grabbed he crowd and held them where he wanted them.

Josh even arranged for Aron to get backstage. Aron, of course, was running off to catch The National at the big stage, but stayed long enough to say hello to the rapping puppet.After the set, we ran off to check out the Gypsy tent again, and the Socalled crew was able to catch the second half of the Tecsoi Band's set with Kiss Ferenc in something called the Karpati Roma Project.

Monday, August 08, 2011

A Gypsy Musician's Funeral in Transylvania

Been a bit too lazy for frequent updates to the blog, folks. Summer seems to have bypassed Europe this year, with cold weather and rain nearly every afternoon. It’s like an endless April that won’t go away, except for the occasional scorching hot day to turn the damp soil into a steamy fermented stink brew that means you can only go out at night. But I was lucky this year: I got to Transylvania early, in May and June. Traveling around with my musical colleagues Jake and Eleonore with Scribbling Mystery Guest in tow, we managed to visit several great old style musicians, both living and dead. When I started traveling around Romania with a tape recorder looking for traditional music in the 1980s, I was convinced that the folk music was on the verge of disappearing. I, very fortunately, was wrong. In some places it has remained, in others it has changed, in some it has gone out of fashion entirely, but it is still there. Every year I meet a few visiting foreign musicians who want to collect folk music in East Europe, asking me for advice. What you need is simple: working knowledge of about three languages that are not taught at your local community college, a recording device, and a pocketful of cash, preferably won at the track or a casino so that you are not too attached to it. Musicians like cash. They like it very, very much. And traditional musicians – particularly professional Gypsy musicians – do not play because they love you and your deep respect for their heritage and want to share with you. Oh no. They play for cash. As Antoine Baptiste says in the TV series Treme “Play for that money, boys. Play for that f***ing money!"While I was in Cluj/Kolozsvar we were set to visit the village band in Sopor, but a phone call to the band leader revealed a small problem. Could we loan him a few hundred Euro? Now, within Roma culture borrowing money is a sign of acceptance within a family or clan. You should be proud that you are so accepted that you are now part of the great economic web that feeds the tradition. However, a loan doesn’t really mean a loan in the accepted sense. Basically, if you lend anybody money east of Vienna, it is a gift. Same problem happened with Palatka – a tour had been cancelled and the band was on high alert for any new source for a float and could we get out to the village as soon as possible with our pockets stuffed full of lovely cash? Er, maybe not. In the end, we lucked out. We went to visit a musician who had no cash flow problems at all. We went to his funeral.

In Cluj I met up with Raoul Weiss, the Alsatian polymath, linguist, and gourmet who also happens to be the Palatka Band’s friend and sometime French manager. Through Raoul we got a hot tip that Iosif Ghemant, the primas (lead violinist) in Gherla (Hungarian Szamosujvar) had passed away and was being buried the next day. Without a clue to where the funeral was taking place (or, in fact, the name of the deceased at the time) we drove forty minutes east to Gherla and started asking around. Nobody knew about a funeral, so we asked where the cemetery was, and drove in that direction. Sure enough, on a near the outskirts of town we saw some musicians in suits turn down a street and followed.A large crowd of Gypsies was gathered in front of a house, and dozens of musicians waited outside. The deceased was Iosif Ghemant, who had led the local folk orchestra and it was time to pay proper musician respect by fiddling the man to his grave. Nobody made any comment about our obviously foreign presence. When musicians slag each other off they often comment “And how many musicians will there be at your funeral, huh?” In the case of Iosif Ghemant, quite a lot. Much respect. And so a few foreigners just adds to the prestige of the event.As people arrived they were ushered into the house to pay last respects to the deceased, and suddenly I found myself escorted inside by the violinist’s son to view the open casket, surrounded by weeping daughters and wife. I excused myself and returned to the yard just as the band began to play.Gherla is smack dab in central Transylvanian plains, the Mezoseg, and the music here is fiddle music, accompanied by the three string kontra viola and bass. Gherla, however, is one of the places that started adding modern instruments after WWII, and saxophones and accordions became accepted in lautar bands here, while in the nearby villages such as Szek and Ordongosfuzes the string bands maintained their primacy.

Ghemant was one of the musicians who played on one of the now-forgotten Argo folk music series recordings that I heard decades ago when I was just beginning to learn about Romanian folk music. He was one of the musicians who straddled the border between tradition and folklorized arrangements, and the musicians who came to play included everybody from the hot younger city fiddlers to village musicians to journeyman musicians who never made the lautar grade.The tune here is the traditional “accompaniment to the grave” song used in Central Transylvania. Unlike a New Orleans funeral, there was no “second line” on the way to or from the graveyard. The procession marched through a run down residential neighborhood about two miles to the new graveyard, and we left before the march had gone very far. But when the day comes and your number gets called, this is one fine way to take that long last road to the cemetery. And to get a taste of Ghemant's sound click on this link. The man was a master of Transylvanian fiddle.