Monday, November 19, 2018

Moravian Wine and Klezmer in Mikulov, Czech Republic

Moravia! Just the sound of those melodious syllables conjures images of pristine beaches, swaying palm trees, and evening breezes filled with the scent of ... burcak. OK, I lied about the beaches and trees, but burcak in Moravia in the fall is very real and very, very good. Burcak is the Czech term for new wine that has just begun to ferment.

Burcak served fresh on the streets of Mikulov
For a few weeks in the fall - between being harvested and being bottled - burcak is available in the Moravian wine country of in the south part of the Czech Republic. The Moravian countryside becomes a magnet for city dwellers of Prague and Brno who flock to wine country towns like Mikulov to stroll around getting a mild buzz from burcak stands set along the streets selling this fizzy, slightly alcoholic elixir which serves as the national standard for Czech daytime drinking. With a flavor profile someplace between pineapple juice and champagne, you don't get sloppy drunk on burcak, but don't drive a car after a couple of glasses either.

Synagogue in Mikulov
While Czech beer is rightly famous, Moravia is wine country, and we were lucky to visit the town of Mikulov, one of the Czech wine producing centers, in the middle of the autumn burcak season. Mikulov was known in Yiddish as Nikolsburg back when Moravia was a safe haven for Jews in the Hapsburg Empire, with laws established that provided legal rights to the refugee Jews who would get expelled from Vienna every time the Kaiser farted.

The Nikolsburger Shul
Mikulov grew to be one of the largest Jewish communities in Moravia. The Holocaust left virtually no Jews in the town, and those that did survive coalesced into orthodox Hasidic communities in Monsey, NY, Brooklyn, and Israel. The Mikulov synagogue, however, has been restored and the old Jewish cemetery maintained as heritage sites which have made Mikulov a focal point for Jewish culture in the Czech Republic. I was invited to Mikulov for a Klezmer workshop weekend led by Vojtech Pestuka, who plays with the Prague Yiddish Kapelye. My co-teacher was the amazing Amit Weisberger. Amit - a fiddler, singer, dancer, actor, and clown school dropout - is a committed Yiddishist, rare for somebody who was born in Israel (but now based in France) 

Vojtech, Amit, and Optimus Prime. 
Amit is also a researcher of Klezmer history and Yiddish culture, who can be every bit as pedantic and hide bound as myself when it comes to historical accuracy in Yiddish music. He is also a magnetic performer, dancer, and teacher. Which is a good thing when one has to work with Czech students of klezmer. In my experience, teaching a Klezmer workshop in Europe means coaching a dozen or so kids from the high school violin class, a retired dixieland clarinetist or two, and the massed saxophone section of a local football marching band. In Mikulov, however, the students not only knew their music inside out, they often knew it better than me, including things they had learned from recordings of me. 

They play me better than me play me.. 
It was almost scary: when I mentioned an extremely obscure document about the deeply obscure Orkestra Rumunska Bel'fa - a klezmer band that recorded in 1911 in Lviv - the clarinet "student" (also named Votech... who knew there were so many Vojtechs in Klezmer?) reached into his case and produced a xerox copy of that very same obscure document... that he simply carries around with him. The mandolin player Jan didn't simply know who Andy Statman was - he had visited him in the USA. The flute players in the band were the finest I had ever heard in Klezmer music - and I hate flutes. The fiddlers had bow strokes coordinated in heaven. These folks had internalized the music down to the roots. Thank god for burcak.

Drowning my anxieties in half fermented wine.
Because burcak is not considered as dangerously intoxicating, and because it was being sold from every street corner, the teachers and participants of the music workshop were generally under the influence of the magical beverage. The burcak season traditionally ends in November 11 on Saint Martin's day. Saint Martin was a local - born in Pannonia in AD 316 before it was overrun with Hungarians - and his Catholic feast day is the occasion for opening the first bottles of finished wine and for eating goose. Apparently, St. Martin hid in a barn when the local Church wanted to appoint him as Bishop, but the geese honking gave him away, so we eat the geese in revenge. I didn't have any geese in the Czech Republic, but I did have duck.
Duck 'n' dumplings.
Czech food is not going to win awards for exotic spicing, but if you like good, honest, meaty food, you don't have to go far to find it. It is an old style of European cooking, much like the German style of cooking before the Germans discovered doner kebab and frozen yoghurt. When I travel in Germany or Austria I have to carry a bottle of El Yucateco Kubil-Ik Hot Sauce with me, just to make it through a Teutonic lunch. I put it on shnitzels, bratwurst, anything, and I plumb do not care if the waiter is standing over me horrified... but not in the Czech Republic. I like their food.

Roast Duck ... a safe choice among many safe choices.
Wikipedia tells us that the Czech Republic is the 6th safest and most peaceful place to live in the world, is one of the most non-religious places in the world, has tuition-free higher education, and ranks 14th in the Human Capital index. You don't want to fuck with that. If you start adding coriander leaves and hot peppers and mango lime sauce to those statistics then pretty soon there will be drug-funded paramilitaries and sadistic warlords and Bohemian micro-republics and crypto-currencies and dodgy real estate salesmen taking over the government. So let us accept the Czechs as they are - peace, prosperity, brown gravy, bread dumplings and all.

Kde domov můj?

Sunday, September 02, 2018

The Eternal Breakfasts of New Jersey.

We are back home in Budapest, completely jet lagged after a visit to New York. That's a lie, actually. On this trip we spent most of our time just across the river in New Jersey, where my folks live. I am one of the few in my circle unashamed of my connection to The Garden State, although there is a lot to be ashamed about. New Jersey is like the developmentally challenged little brother of New York, a slurry of declining old factory towns, vast bedroom suburbs, tasteless shopping malls, much of it tied together by the supremely unfortunate NJ Route Four.
Route 4 passing through the twerp of Teaneck.
Designed as the main highway to the George Washington Bridge in the 1930s - when car ownership was still rare - it remains today an anachronistic death trap, an ancient, overcrowded, potholed nightmare of a road, where locals who are skilled in the tricks of navigating its abrupt exits and poorly planned interchanges erupt with road rage at the out of towners who simply wanted to cruise into New York but find themselves suddenly dropped into a mortal death race straight out of Mad Max. The world learned of Route 4 when that other icon of gross New Jerseyness, Governor Chris Christie, blocked the access to the GW Bridge in an act of political vengeance against the mayor of Fort Lee, NJ.

Alas... I digress. Route Four is also the road that leads to many of New Jersey's revered diners, those pavilions of 1970s design run by descendants of Greeks who immigrated from the traditional diner producing regions of Thrace and Epirus. The Jersey Diner provides comfort foods, insipid coffee, and a brief refuge for thousands of hungry retail workers and anonymous office suits who scrape a living along the tributaries of the lost river of asphalt that is Route Four. My Dad for example. The man is now 92 and still goes to work each weekday. Nothing stops him. My Dad seems to be made out of pure Bessarabian oak.

Oeufs a l'Américaine, avec ketchup.
At his age my Dad has to follow a lot of dietary restrictions, but I am not sure that includes one that requires he eat a hearty diner breakfast every morning on the way to work. Still... if diner specials haven't done him in by 92, perhaps nothing will. And while we are visiting, there is nothing he likes more than to rally the kids and go out to a diner for that most classic of Jersey meals: the breakfast special. 

Recently closed, allas, but not forgotten.
The classic American breakfast is eggs (any style!) home fried potatoes, and either bacon or breakfast sausage, toast, coffee and orange juice. The addition of ketchup is left to the customer. The rest of the world tends towards a more balanced breakfast of coffee with bread or pastries (Europe,) spaghetti and frankfurters (Dominican republic) or macaroni soup with spam and peanut butter french toast (Hong Kong.) I've been to Greece, where breakfast consists of five cups of coffee and a pack of cigarettes, so I have never figured out how the duty of providing breakfast in America fell into the hands of immigrant Greeks, but they have done a good job of it. I will admit, I get bored of eggs for breakfast, and so, sitting at the New Heritage Diner on River Street in Hackensack, NJ, I decided to spread my wings a bit and ordered french toast, figuring I would get a modest bit of bread fried in egg, and instead of gobs of maple syrup I could just sprinkle a bit of salt on them and eat them as we do bundás kenyér in Hungary. Not a chance. 

Make America Great Again!
These babies sported a small mountain of strawberries and whipped cream, and yes, I did add a bit of maple syrup. And I would do it again! Finally, in an effort to find an alternative breakfast within the confines of New Jersey, my big sister and I took Dad to Istanbul Borek and Kebab, in Cliffside Park, just south of Fort Lee. Cliffside Park has become a destination for the upper classes of Istanbul to settle (while Paterson has more Turks, they are a bit folkier and more...errr... Anatolian hillbilly than the Sisli / Nisantasi crowd in Cliffside Park.) Turks take their breakfast very seriously - there is a saying in Turkish that "Lunch is for your friends, dinner is for your family, but breakfast is for you." The Istanbul Borek and Kebab is a bakery and restaurant combined, specializing in some of the best Turkish borek pastry I have found outside of Istanbul (and this includes many breakfast bureks in Berlin) but the place really comes alive on weekend mornings, when families pack in for full Turkish breakfast A.K.A kahvalti. This place is a transported a slice of Istanbul flown to New Jersey: the furniture is the real heavy wooden style you would find in a classy joint in Galata, and even the wait staff behave with the crisp, precise style that you find with professional service all over Turkey. Of course, the Turkish community paper available at the door is pointedly pro-Erdogan, but who cares when they have su borek and kazan dibi made fresh daily. 

Cohens in their natural habitat. 
Oh, and we did have to get Dad some eggs. the waiter brought our menemen, which is a loose scramble of eggs, tomatoes, and pepper eaten with bread which caused my Dad a slight shock, but pretty soon he had composed himself and was happy to slurp it all down. Without ketchup.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

An Immigrant Feast in Trumpland: Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, Queens

Woodside, Queens
New York City is a big place, so the best way to see it is to break it down into manageable pieces and chip away at it street by street. The Elmhurst section of Queens is, perhaps, New York's most diverse area, which is saying a lot in one of the most diverse cities in the world. With a population of ninety thousand Elmhurst has one of the newest Chinatowns in the city, a large community of Mexicans, various South Americans, Indians, Thai, Vietnamese, and even Istro-Romanians (there are possibly more speakers of this Croatian Vlach dialect in Queens than in Croatia.)

Chinese retirees waiting in line for the Casino bus.
What there aren't is a lot of white folks, checking in at less than 6%. This may be surprising since Queens has always been New York's Whitest borough - home to Archie Bunker (actor Carroll O'Conner grew up here) and - although not in Elmhurst - El Trumpito himself. Yes, the Orange Narcissist in the Oval Office is from Queens, and his psychological makeup shows it - an inferiority complex about not being suave enough for Manhattan, smart enough for Brooklyn, or tough enough for the Bronx, We New Yorkers have known and despised El Trumpito for a long time - we are familiar with his real estate con man's style picked up from mobsters working with his racist father. Trumpito has been part of our lives for decades, and we New Yorkers always express surprise that the average American can't spot the screaming clues that mark him (and his shyster lawyers) as a bunch of  con-men and grifters. Today, a visit to Queens is a visit to Trump's nightmare: happy, successful immigrant communities on the way to becoming a new majority within the American dream.

 How New Yorkers drive: Bob Godfried navigating traffic. 
Our guide to Elmhurst was our old buddy Bob Godfried, accordion repairman, ethnomusicologist, NYC public school teacher, crusading socialist, and the eminence gris behind much of New York's ethnic community culture. The Indonesian community in Queens holds monthly get together food festivals (Next one: August 25!) in a Church in Elmhurst, and Bob was going just to touch base with community organizers and look into the possibility of finding traditional music in the expatriate Indonesian community. We didn't find any music, but we did find a lot of families having a good time, eating, socializing, and just enjoying a rainy day in a Church rec room.

With over a thousand islands and hundreds of local cultures and languages, there is no single Indonesian cuisine, but a lot of the vendors here were serving food from Sunda and Sulawesi, not as spicy as some Indonesian cuisines but just hot enough to keep things interesting. There was a lot of beef rendang dishes - spiced meat stewed so long it had turned black and tender. Fried chicken was all over the place. Lots of satay meat and peanut sauces - be thankful there are no closeup photos of the peanut sauce. It doesn't photograph well.

Fish skin and fish logs, fried crisp and spicy.
Fumie ordered a selection of fish balls with noodle. Fish balls are one of those Asian foods that westerners never get excited about: basically fish meat baloney, a processed goo of grey fish meat formed into logs or balls, and in this case, deep fried until crispy. But add some lime-soy-pepper sauce and noodles and things perk up considerably. We barely missed out on the spicy squid, but Bob tried the next vendor and got what must have been New York's best value in seafood platters.

We then stopped off at a Chinese supermarket and picked up a few things for Budapest. Chinese mega-supermarkets are one of the great benefits of chain immigration (even better than Melania's parents getting citizenship!) A 99 Ranch market has just opened up in nearby Hackensack which means that we can take out from their food court at a moment's notice. It isn't amazing food, but it is authentic Chinese. For some reason New Jersey has never had any good Chinese restaurants. Jersey has lots of Chinese people, but they traditionally took Grandma to nearby New York for Chinatown shopping on weekends, What we do have are some of the worst Chinese take out places imaginable: orange duck sauce over starchy brown gloopy stuff finished with fortune cookies. But over in Queens... people are a bit more demanding. Just west of Elmhurst is Jackson Heights, which is home to one of the larger Indian communities in New York. And that means a lot of vegetarians. Indian cuisine is the only cuisine in which I do not require a gory chunk of bad-karma laden animal flesh to make me feel like I have eaten well. 

Some of the best Indian and Bangladeshi food in the city can be found in modest lunch counters located in the back of supermarkets here. There are dozens of places on each block. And not only Indian. The Himalayan community of New York is centered in Jackson Heights. Yes, Nepalis, Tibetans, Gurkhas, and various para-national tribal people who hold jobs on Wall Street. And everybody has got to eat. In the Himalayas, that means momos: stuffed dumplings served with spicy sauce. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Look Upon My Weird Trumpet Fiddle, Oh Ye Mighty, and Despair!

So last week I was tooling around Northern Romania with Mitia Kramtsov, Mitia is the fiddler and lead singer for the Russian klezmer band Dobranotch, based in Sankt Petersburg, and we met some years ago while we were both teaching fiddle at Klez Kanada, and we clicked. Ahh.. we are the scratchy fiddlers... the neo-geezers... the ones who failed the conservatory entrance exam and sit in the back smoking reefer with the tuba players... And this all happened during a historic event involving our two countries. Just as Vladimir and Donnie were trading secrets in Helsinki, Mitia and I traded fiddle tunes in a farmhouse in Ieud. And for ten days we did not talk single word about any politics at all. We were Jewish fiddlers on a mission: to find fiddlers in Maramures. Old style fiddlers. Geezers, really.

The ""Happy Cemetery in Sapanta
Maramures fiddling went through a change of style in the 1960s, which outshadowed the older fiddle and viola-kontra non commercial style. The old repertoire is richer and and the modern guitar-fiddle-drum ensembles of today rarely include any Carpathian Jewish tunes. For the last twenty years I have been "stealing" those tunes from older fiddlers in the Iza Valley - mainly from the various branches of the musician Gypsy Covaci family, especially Gheorghe Ioannei in Ieud, and his brother Nicolae in Dragomiresti. Basically, I wanted to see who was still alive. Guys who learned to play the fiddle when there were still Jews around rural Romania to learn from are getting thin on the ground.

Nicolae and Viiktor Covaci
On this trip, we arrived in Dragomiresti to find that Nicolae Covaci had passed away last December. Nicolae was a wonderful, gentle soul, a great fiddler, and  someone who dearly loved lying about everything - his age, his travels, his kinfolk, just about anything he could think of. Needless to say, he was not the world's best source of ethnographic data. Lying is a cherished personal quirk among Maramures fiddlers. At times Nicolae would give his age as 74, or 82, or 92, so lets just say he was old. One time we visited and Nicolae told us he had just returned from doing two years of contract farm work, picking apples in Israel. I was fuming... Who the hell would hire an 89 year old Romanian peasant to do farmwork in the Negev desert? Later Ioan Pop told me that Nicolae was lying. He had been at home in Dragomiresti the whole time. And he wasn't 89.

Nicolae is gone now but his half brother Viktor is alive and kicking and living down the street, so we spent the afternoon with him enjoying tunes at the village bar. Viktor knows a lot of the older style tunes, but without Nicolae as lead fiddler, those rare Yiddish melodies don't come to mind readily.  Viktor is about 72, but he plays like his older brothers did - the rock steady rhythm and simple lines of the older, less ornamented Romanian mountain style of Maramures. Think of it as American old time Appalachian fiddle versus bluegrass fiddle.

Don't miss the food court at the Dragomiresti Plaza!
Monday is also market day in Dragomiresti. Think of it as going to the shopping mall, except in a field and with lots of cows and pigs squealing in boxes ánd people wearing furry vests and only one Asian girl in the entire mall - Fumie. As usual, horse wagons pack the parking lot, and tents set up as temporary bars selling home brewed plum brandy. The really big market is on a Thursday once a month in Bogdan Voda, but the Dragomiresti market had all you could wish for: farm tools, skirts in Maramures style, sheep, and the traditional leather opinci, the medieval moccasin worn by Romanian peasants of old, and still used up in these mountains.

You won't find these babies on
Maramures was once of the last places where the local peasant and Gypsy fiddlers maintained a knowledge of Jewish instrumental music after the Second World War. Those fiddlers were my link to the music of the past. There are still a lot of fiddlers in Maramures, but the old style tunes and the old Jewish repertoire has just about hit the end of the road. Maramures folk tradition maintained the Jewish melodies long after the Jews themselves were gone - I mean it is 2018... Maramures used to be home to thousands of Jews - peasant Jews who actually worked the land - but 75 years have passed since the Holocaust up here, and cultures eventually do fade away. Moroseni people now play electric fiddles, compose tunes based on a newer style, everybody has a family member working in France or Italy.... we are nearing, and maybe already at, the end of the road for any continuity of the klezmer tradition in the Carpathians.

In Maramures all fiddle matters lead to Ioan Pop, the leader of the Iza group and one of the most sought after wedding performers in the region. Ioan is a leading traditionalist - he lives as a peasant farmer during the week and plays weddings on the weekend. (He has wedding gigs every single day of the week this August.) We caught him at home in Hoteni after a 23 hour gig, but he was still up for some tunes. I asked Ioan who was left playing the old style Maramures fiddle? "You and me" he said.

Ioan Pop at home with "vioara cu goarne"
When Ioan pulled out his own home made "vioara cu goarne" Mitia immediately fell in love with it. And when Mitia wants something, he WANTS something. The vioara cu goarne (violin with horn) is played in the area of Bihor - not exactly near to Maramures - and although I knew two of the best makers of the instrument, Dorel Kordoban from Lazuri and Mircea Rostos from Bratca, both have passed away. You cant just walk into a store and buy one of these monstrosities. You have to know someone. . But I found a connection to a maker near Oradea, and we left the next day to find him. All I knew was a name - Marius Mihut - and a village, Cihei. Luckily, Cihei is just outside of Oradea. We drove to Cihei and I simply asked anybody I met on the street where Domnul Mihut lived. Everybody knew him.

Marius is one of the last makers of vioara cu goarne - there are a few more, but it is getting increasingly hard to find the materials to make the fiddle. The resonators are home made - the frame being from auto parts and the resonator disc is made from various sheet metal. Dorel used mica for some of his and Coca Cola cans for most of the others, while Mircea Rostas used beer cans but then decided that metal discs cut from cans of energy drinks such as Red Bull was, naturally, more energetic. Marius used special alloy sheet metals and actually tunes his resonators. 

The resonator attaches to the foot of the bridge via a mechanism cannibalized from the tone arm of an old gramophone record player - you know, the wind up kind that plays 78 RPM records? Sourcing old 78 record players is the hardest part of maintaining the vioara making tradition. Marius makes his deluxe models using old Czech Supraphone gramophone record players that he orders on ebay.

The difference is mainly in the richer sound and louder volume of the Supraphone resonator fiddles. All of these fiddles are loud - but the Supraphone resonator really makes a difference. Marius' Supraphone fiddles are pricier than his simple fiddles, but local fiddlers, especially the ones who play professionally at weddings, prefer these. Like many metal resonator instruments, its a mystery only the player can relate to. I play old fashioned blues guitar on a Style O resonator guitar made by the Johnson company (marketed  today under the Recording King trademark) and if you compare it to a new American made National Guitar style O... you'll want the National.... if you have the significantly extra cash, which I do not. As it is, I get a resonator sound only slightly less loud than the national. 

I had not planned on traipsing around the back end of Oradea last week, but I am really glad I did. As European vacations go, it was unique - "Hey! We're off to fabulous Oradea for our summer holidays!" is not something you will hear at many office water coolers. We had a great time with Marius, who was a generous host and showed us around his workshop, even smelting a couple of resonators fresh for Mitia. Mitia bought a great fiddle. I don't personally sell these instruments - and I get a lot of mail from folks who want one. If you do ask me, I can send you a contact for Marius - his sister speaks English and handles his email and they have shipped these abroad. And now... Mitia Kramtsov himself:

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Yuri Chernavets: 1948 - 2018.

Yura Chernavets, my good friend passed away this month at his home in Tyachiv, Ukraine at age of 69. Yuri was the drummer, singer, and plonka player from the Manyo band (known in Hungary as the Técsői Banda) and he was - without any shadow of doubt or danger of hyperbole - the best damn traditional drummer in European folk music, a natural talent who developed a an amazing level of expressiveness and virtuosity on an instrument that is usually considered an afterthought.

Yura was a member of the traditional folk band known in the Ukraine as Manyo, consisting of the sons of the Hutsul fiddler Manyo Chernavets, based in the small town of Tyachiv in the western Ukraine, just across the Tisa river from the Maramures region of Romania. Manyo play a mix of native Hutsul / Ruthenian music, a heady mixture of Ukrainian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Gypsy music with a healthy dose of Russian and Jewish songs thrown in for good measure. I met them around 2000 when record producer Ferenc Kiss and Imre Keszthelyi began to tour them around Hungary, showcasing their multiethnic repertoire.

Greenwich Village, New York, 2010

When I heard them play a medley of Carpathian Jewish dance tunes I arranged to visit them at Imre's sprawling 8th district flat, where they usually stayed in Budapest, with Australian cimbalom player Tim Meyen and fiddler Pip Thompson. We ended up recording a huge amount of music, much of it Jewish, but the day cemented a personal relationship that grew over the years. During that afternoon we were warned to keep the music down so that the neighbors wouldn't complain: this is Ivan on fiddle and Yura playing on furniture, and you can see the artistry coming through, as well as a few of his dance moves.

I had intended to include some of their tunes on Di Naye Kapelye's third CD for Oriente Records (Traktorist) but had to contend with post touring and studio exhaustion from my own musicians, when the Manyo band suddenly showed up in Budapest. So I simply invited them into the studio to do the songs with me, as well as Michael Alpert's rendition of the traditional tune "Hu Tsa Tsa" sung about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. At the time the band was involved in making Hungarian documentary which became "The Last Kolomeyke" (whole film on Youtube)  That film, sadly, became the story of the loss of their brother Mishka, the cimbalom player, but I allowed the film crew in to the studio to record the session and later we did a live gig at the old Castro Bistro in Budapest.

In the clip from that film you can hear - but not see - one the of Yuri's amazing talents: he was a master of the plonka, The plonka is a small bit of film - from a slide or an e-ray - held in the mouth and blown as a reed for effect during dances, tweeting like a bird, trilling like screeching brakes, or - for a talented few like Yuri - playing melodies like a crazed oboist on meth. Some of my fondest memories of Yuri are when I went with the band to New York for the Black Sea Roma Festival sponsored by New York city's Center For Traditional Music and Dance in 2010. For the first few days we stayed at my sister Pam's house in New Jersey, where we invited the cream of the New York klezmer scene - Michael Alpert, Sruli Dresdener, Zach Meyer, and Pete Rushevsky among others -  for a BBQ and jammed until the police advised to stop.

Later, the Center for Traditional Music and Dance sponsored a dance party at the Ukrainian Home restaurant on 2nd Ave in the East Village, giving the band the distinct impression that much of New York was inhabited by Ukrainians. While we were in New York ethnomusicologist Shaun Williams - who was teaching English in the Ukraine at the time and studying Hutsul traditional music - served as cimbalom player and translator, and basically, cultural advisor to the band ("no, they don't shoot the chipmunks and eat them here... yes, the coffee samples at Starbucks are for free...") While we were all shopping for fiddle strings at DiBella music in Bergenfield, Shaun pointed out that that Yuri had fallen in love with a three wheeled motorcycle parked behind.

Yuri Chernavets was a lot more than just a folk musician - he was a world class musician and many promoters and producers who heard him live were quick to say so. A couple of years ago I was contacted that a producer in England had seen some of my video clips and wanted to record the band... and it was one of the members of PiL. Another musician wrote to me from Japan asking about Yura and his drum style. For Klezmer musicians, who play the Carpathian poik drum, Yuri was one of the only practitioners of poik who really had a mastery above mediocre levels.

The Hutsul discovery of NY pizza.

Traditional musicians like Yura and his brother Joshka of the Manyo band are one of the reasons I continue to live in this part of the world. They are still here. I am still here. Something bigger than us is still here. Tradition doesn't just mean preserving the past. Tradition is a way of protecting the future. It is a way of giving something that you can't quantify with a price, something you can only have if you work for it, but you can never own it. Yura was a person who worked for everything he had, and shared with everyone he met. We are all better for knowing him,  we will miss him, and Heaven will now be a much livelier and noisier place.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Not All Americans are Assholes: Anthony Bourdain, 1956 - 2018.

Back in the early days of blogging, before twitter and instagram and snapchat I wrote a post "Anthony Bourdain does Romania: National Scandal Ensues" which remains the single most visited page on this blog. Last Friday afternoon Fumie looked up from her tablet and quietly announced "Anthony Bourdain has died." The news that the host of CNN Parts Unknown had taken his own life in an Alsatian hotel was, perhaps, the only time a celebrity obit ever shocked me. I don't put much emotional value in celebrity passings, but Bourdain was in a different category. He may have had the most popular show on CNN, but he was no celebrity. He may have been the most recognized kitchen worker on TV, but he would be the first to reject the label celebrity chef. Bourdain was a normal guy... maybe hyper-normal. He was... a mensch. It is a type we know well in New Jersey... raised in the 1970s within walking distance of the George Washington Bridge, close enough to New York to catch the late shows at CBGB's but far enough to lack any street cred. It is a kind of massive chip to carry on your shoulder, and Bourdain carried it with a vengeance. In the suburbs either you got a Phd or you became a line cook. All my friends got Phds. I got a job as a garbage man for the Hackensack Sanitation Department. (My brother became a line cook. My sister, however, is a doctor.) So when I watched or read Anthony Bourdain's stuff, it felt awfully close to home. You could almost smell the Meadowlands stench on it, just aching to get to the toll booth at the GW Bridge and cross those rusting steel beams to the city of dreams.

Bourdain was raised in Leonia, NJ, about three miles from where I lived in Teaneck when I went to High School. We were both born in the same year. His local new Jersey hot dog stand was Hiram's in Fort Lee - ours was Callahan's, across the street. We both hung out at the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie NY at the same time in the 1970s with about the same amount of commitment. At least I was not enrolled - I played blues fiddle with the near legendary Chops McCoy's band in the CIA pub on weekends. I can't claim to have ever really met Bourdain, but I remember Chops once taking me off campus to buy a baggie of pot from a dodgy off campus guy who may well have been Bourdain - all I remember is that the guy was an asshole and the pot was... as Chops McCoy put  it "You don't smoke it, you season lamb with it."  Bourdain also partook of one major dirty, delicious secret that I am also guilty of: Popeye's fried chicken.

Bourdain was a competent chef - his specialty at Les Halles in New York was the bog standard French steak frites - but his real talent was storytelling. Bourdain loved food, but his real skill was describing the people who made it, from producers to dishwashers to chefs. Bourdain had no fear of words, no writer's block, and a knack for that wry twist that only comes from somebody who has puked tequila and beer at a Ramones gig. (As such he was a story editor's dream.)  He read widely and idolized  William S. Boroughs, Hunter Thompson, George Orwell, and Joan Didion among others. He read with an editor's eye, but he wrote as if he were talking to a table full of close friends at an after hours bar. At the age of 44, an article he had written "Don't Eat before Reading This" made it to The New Yorker, and from there to a publisher who reworked it as Kitchen Confidential. My brother - who has never held any job in his life that did not require holding an onion in one hand and a knife in the other - posted this on Facebook: "Before that book I could tell people what I did for a living and it was as if I was speaking in tongues. After "Confidential" people knew what we did and they respected it. I always wanted to thank Anthony for that. He made being what I was when I woke up, and what I was when passed out and absolutely everything between acceptable, even desirable."

Kitchen Confidential led to a successful career on television. Bourdain's style was unique - he didn't conform to the stereotypes expected by the Food Network or the Travel Channel, he smoked, he drank, he had opinions, he told stories of his drug days, and occasionally rolled one up and inhaled on camera. Some shows worked, some did not (Romania stands out in this regard.) but the viewer always knew that Bourdain was trying to show something honest and real: Truth in television rarely intrudes on travel or food shows. He eventually came to roost at staid CNN with Parts Unknown at a time when, in hindsight, we needed him the most. Anthony Bourdain taught Americans that they did not have to be afraid of the world. Sitting with iranian families sharing a meal, talking to regular folk in Gaza, knocking back a beer with Obama at a bun cha stand in Hanoi, or chowing down on greasy megashnitzels at Budapest's obscure and beautifully grungy Pleh Csarda, Anthony Bourdain showed the world that there actually were Americans who were not assholes. He used his airtime to describe the lives of normal people in places like Gaza, Laos, Armenia, and Beirut to Americans and others who, like him, did not want to be assholes. At a time when the United States of America is identified with one of the most repulsive assholes to ever hold public office, Anthony Bourdain presented an hour each week of tolerance, decency, and a willingness to listen to and learn from people not like himself. Anthony Bourdain touched a lot of people, and will be sorely missed. We needed that hour each week of learning to not fear people. Now more than ever. Now more than ever. 

In Memoriam: Anthony Bourdain visits my home town, the Bronx:

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Spring comes to Budapest's Party District

We want to come and live underneath your bedroom window !
...and thus ends the longest hiatus in the history of this blog! We haven't posted since that New Years day in icy Paterson, New Jersey. There are a lot of reasons for that. One is the simple realization that my daily life in Budapest is simply not that exotic, and how many more posts do we need about spring vegetables in the local market, or recipes for liver sausage? Of course, if you don't live here you may think it is exotic. My neighborhood - the historic Jewish Ghetto of Budapest's 7th district - is fast becoming the center of Budapest's drunk and loud nighttime tourism flood. This is not the yacht crowd, or even the seasoned backpacker crowd you may find in a Nepali mountain hut. Think "accounting department of a property management company in Liverpool stag party" meets "football fans from Lyons  on a crazy weekend getaway" with beer one quarter the price of what it is in Olde Blighty. It gets noisy. And messy.

"Le Grand Rue du Bad Restaurants"
Half the flats in my building have turned into Air B&B rentals or semi legal hostels, indeed half the residences in my neighborhood have become budget rentals for fly-in weekenders and Hungarian flatlanders who flock here for the rebranded bulinegyed or "Party Quarter." Ten years ago there were about four really good pubs in the area - and there were about three "ruin bars" - alternative spaces set up in abandoned or condemned housing. Today the real "Ruin Bars" are all gone, replaced by pricey courtyard garden bistros or by lots of cheap "Eight shots for a five bucks" tourist bars. Then there is the Godzsu Udvar, an uber-kitsch testament to bad taste and disastrous city planning which turned a unique piece of urban history into the food court of a sad mall. The majority of these places are owned by families and companies with close funding ties to the Ruling Party That Rules Everything. The Szimpla, which was one of the original ruin bars, is now a self conscious tourist magnet for those who want to visit something of the alternative past - sort of a hipster ride at Disneyland - but so crowded with tourists at night that they actually have a velvet rope and doormen to face check you as you enter.
The Szimpla Kert in the quiet moment before it becomes an Australian backpacker meat market..
Still, the Szimpla - as the oldest and probably the last of the original ruin bars - does keep a sense of community, at least, hosting an organic farmer market on sunday mornings, periodic bicycle markets, and dance houses on some weekday nights. I used to maintain a live and let live attitude towards the changes that were engulfing the 7th district: after all, it maintains its daytime character as the Jewish district and a place where you can get a shoe fixed or a zipper replaced at the corner tailor shop, plus we have an Indian grocery, a cevapcici diner, and a decent cheap Bengali place for cheap take out biryani. But this summer the pressure is building. Local residents are growing angry at the noise levels and the nighty trashing of the streets - on Sunday morning the sidewalks are literally covered in vomit, broken bottles, and yes, excrement. A few days ago I had drunken people - tourists, unless Hungarian drunks have switched to French and Mancunian after midnight - howling beneath my bedroom window until 4 in the morning.

On a lighter note - Hungarian Dance House Day held its annual festival on Ferenc Liszt square and I dropped in for a set by Muzsikas. Muzsikas still top the list of my favorite trad folk bands in Hungary, still kicking after four decades of playing together. The festival was originally the brainchild of Bela Halmos, the fiddler and musicologist who ignited the revival of Hungarian traditional music back in 1971, starting an alternative youth movement that became a way of life.

Bela Halmos: a good friend, a great musician.
Sadly, Bela passed away a few weeks after I last saw him playing at Tanchaz Napaja in 2013. Since then the event has been held in his honor. Another simple reason for my lack of posts has been technical. My usual digital Nikon coolpix camera has gone insane. Taking photos with it is extremely hit or miss: will it turn on or will it not turn on? How about if I remove the battery? How about if I hit it? Aha! that did it.... so most of the time I use my Nexus tablet , which is not exactly the best option for photography and definitely not convenient. (See the photos above? The nice night time bar photos? Fumie's.) Most people simply tell me to get a smart phone... my answer is no. I am not a smart phone person. I'm not entirely a luddite or technophobe, but I see all those people walking around in the streets with their eyes glued to their little square phones and I know that could easily happen to me.... I could become one of them in a microsecond. Instant internet access. 24 hour Google maps. Apps for everything. Nope. Ain't gonna happen. At least not anytime soon. So we will see if the blog regains its graphic splendor. It all depends on a Nikon Coolpix with mental disorders.

FIDESZ 2010. We do not forget easily. 
Oh, and we survived the Hungarian election in April. FIDESZ won. FIDESZ always wins. And the poster above tells you why: a photo of George Soros with the words "Don't let Soros have the last laugh!" graffitied - as most were - with the words "Stinking Jew!" So helpful. Thanks FIDESZ. Enjoy your victory.