Friday, June 28, 2019

Ökrös Csaba 1960-2019.

Ökrös Csaba, my fiddle teacher and good friend, passed away on Wednesday night,  two days ago. Csaba was, perhaps, the definitive fiddler of the Hungarian folk music revival after the late Béla Halmos. He was a band leader, a teacher, a field collector in the tradition of Béla Bartok, an arranger of music for theater and films. In a word, he was generally acknowledged as the best damn fiddler in the Hungarian folk scene. The shock wasn’t so much that he was young - he was 59 – but he seemed indestructible. Csaba was an absolute original, and on the fiddle he was a genius.

Ökrös Csaba was in high school he first heard Béla Halmos - the father of the Hungarian folk music revival. Halmos provided the teenage Csabi with the address of folklorist Zoltan Kallos in Transylvania. Csaba hopped on a train and was soon off with Kallos to the village of Bonchida and being introduced to the world of the archaic instrumental tradition of Transylvania. 

The fact that Csaba was exposed to the real thing at an early age was what made his approach to the music special: he learned it at the age a local musician would, he played it naturally. Csaba could articulate the subtle differences that define style in Hungarian and Transylvanian folk fiddle in a way that older fiddlers, working backwards from notated music, could not. He also had a talent for teaching: he would break down a piece into its most basic parts, showing the simplicity of what, to the modern, urban ear, sounded like some incredibly difficult deluge of bow slurs and trills. When he formed the band Ujstilus with Antal Fekete, Adorjan Pityu, and Géza Pénzes they were the first to perform the different repertoires of folk music in the local styles – Kalotaszeg, Mezoseg, Gyimes - before Ujstilus people simply fiddled up a generalized, trill filled “Transylvanian” fiddle. Csaba took the specifics of each village style and translated them into a form young non-villagers could understand.

I first heard the sound of Transylvanian village string bands while visiting Hungary in the early 1970s, and while I played old-time Appalachian fiddle in the New York area old time scene I could never quite make my instrument phrase and play in a way that even came close to the original recordings of music from Transylvania which I had brought back from Hungary as a kid. Then, in 1983 in Boston, Ökrös and Ujstilus showed up America to teach workshops in Hungarian folk fiddle with Ujstilus. Hungarian-American dancer Eva Kish arranged for the band to spend a month in the USA based at her home in Medford, Mass. They gave a workshop at MIT in Cambridge, Mass, and when Csaba asked if anybody could play Hungarian music I stepped up and played some tunes I had learned from a recording from Szék. From then on we were buddies.  

The workshop led to a small tour with the band staying in Boston for a couple of weeks. At the time I was involved with a lot of African music, specifically Yoruba Juju music (I studied Yoruba language for several years.) and had been playing fiddle with Demola Adepoju, the pedal steel guitar player of Sunny Ade’s African Beats. Demola got an invite to play a recording session in New York for Paul Simon and wanted me to come along. I told him, sorry, there is this Hungarian band in Boston this week, so I ain’t going anywhere, have fun with Paul Simon and try and get a copy of whatever you guys record because obviously it will never be released commercially. Sometimes I make regrettable life choices. (Demola can be heard playing pedal steel on Paul Simon’s “Graceland”) Csaba went on to form his own band, the Ökrös group, and also spent a lot of the 1990s as a guest fiddler with Muzsikas.

A few years later I moved to Budapest, ostensibly to learn more fiddle, covertly to do linguistics fieldwork in Transylvania, and overtly to teach English in the ELTE Law school. I lived around the corner from Csaba in Buda and became his least accomplished student. There was perhaps, too much partying. In his earlier years Csaba was the embodiment of a Dionysiac madman: he loved music, parties, women, and drink, preferably all at the same time and in large quantities. Especially women and drink. He was a small guy – and yet he could out-drink anybody he met. Not that this was ever a good thing. I’m just saying. I have seen it. I once took him out to an R&B club in Boston where he jammed with the band on stage, then decided he was going to jump ship and stay and become an R&B star and play rock and roll in America for the rest of his life. That phase lasted about an hour. At other times he would get melancholic in that classic Hungarian way and muse about the losses of Trianon and the unfairness of communism and end up smashing things, including several of his (less valuable) violins. He often punched close friends in the nose during arguments (not me!) Just about everybody in the old guard of the Dance House scene has a few wild “Csaba stories.” And yes, he pissed me off as well, but I always considered him my friend. 

He seems to have calmed down in later life – getting married and a degree in folk violin pedagogy definitely tamed him. Csaba defined a generation of folk fiddlers Hungary – he was the link between the village fiddlers and the younger city kids trying to wrap their heads around the soul and technique of the old style Hungarian fiddle tradition. We may miss Csaba but each time we reach for a violin we will always bring him back in spirit.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Gloomy Sunday: The Suicide Song Down the Street.

(all photos by Fumie Suzuki)
Back in the 1980s, Hungary had the world’s highest suicide rate, a sad statistic that has been, happily, dropping over the decades to the present point where Hungary is now in 31th place in World Suicide standings, far behind Russia (#1 for males) and Lithuania (#2) and oddly, Guyana at number three. While Hungary’s standing as the suicide champions of the world is long past, we still have the “Hungarian suicide song” Szomorú vasárnapGloomySunday” to remind us of yore. Composed in 1933 by Rezső Seress (with lyrics added later by poet Ferenc Javor) Szomorú vasárnap is a massively depressing little ditty that eventually became one of the most widely recorded songs to come out of Hungary. A translated version recorded by Billy Holiday proved so traumatizing that the BBC banned it from their airwaves for twenty five years. 

The song is reputed to have inspired a series of suicides, beginning in Hungary where lovelorn youths jumped from the Danube bridges with little white flowers pinned to their lapels, just like in the song, and gained international fame as “The Suicide song.” The song, is, as you may have surmised, quite gloomy.  

Sunday is gloomy,
My hours are slumberless
Dearest the shadows
I live with are numberless
Little white flowers
Will never awaken you
Not where the black coach of
Sorrow has taken you
Angels have no thought
Of ever returning you
Would they be angry
If I thought of joining you?

A Gloomy Sunday on the roof of 46/b Dob utca
Hungarians are famously gloomy. You might not notice this if you are just visiting, at least for the first hour or two, but nobody wants to be caught smiling. And even activities that Hungarians find absolutely delightful, such as drinking wine, telling political jokes, cursing French football (“soccer”) teams, can be done without the simple simian facial communication we call “smiling.” It is not that Hungarians are a dour lot. They most definitely are not. They are loud, raucous, and tend to be almost hyperactive in the pursuit of pleasure, but they rarely smile where you can see it. They might sneak a smile in if they think nobody is watching, but essentially, the Hungarian’s moon is always blue. A deep, dark blue. 

Klauzal Sqare. Nobody smiling in this picture.
Which brings me to the building on the corner of my street. Rezső Serres was born Jewish in 1889 - as Rudolph Spitzer – and like most Hungarian Jews he magyarized his name with an eye to social assimilation. After his initial career as a circus trapeze artist ended in a fall he turned to songwriting. Seress was sent into the forced labor camps during WWI and his mother was deported to Auschwitz. Seress would have died as well if not for a Hungarian officer who recognized him as the famous songwriter and took possession of Seress from a Nazi guard. After the war Seress went back to the 7th district, and spent his days composing songs (he played one finger piano) and evenings drinking and socializing with writers and theater folk in the cafes and bars of the seventh district. He wrote hundreds of popular songs, many of them quite good, in fact, but he is remembered only for “Gloomy Sunday.”
"This house is celebrating" 100 years of history.
Serres lived at #46/b Dob utca in Budapest’s 7th district. Built in 1938 on the northeast corner of Klauzal ter, is an example of the Hungarian Bauhaus era - a unofficial knockoff of the movement that produced some wonderful and quirky architecture. The building housed a series of famous artists: actors, singers, and the young rock idol Gabor Presser, whose memory of Seress is that he would spend each Sunday afternoon seated in his living room with a stack of records of his famous song in different languages, which he would listen to one by one, for hours.

The Wall of Fame, with Gabor Presser sporting an impressive Jewish Afro.
Seress rarely left the Klazuál tér neighborhood: he would visit the Kispipa restaurant on neighboring Akácfa street, and occasionally the Kulács on Osvát utca (sadly, both are now closed) but beyond that, he didn’t travel much outside of the 7th district. His famous song accumulated millions in hard currency royalties but Seress never went to America to claim them. Some say he was simply too scared to fly in an airplane.

Ever want to peek in on the neighbors?
In 1968 the then 78 year old Seress attempted to go the way of his most famous composition. He jumped from the balcony of his flat in a suicide attempt, but since he was only on the second floor he survived the fall with only a broken arm. Seress was taken to the hospital where he managed to strangle himself with one of the wires suspending his cast. He was nothing if not determined.

Open house with historian N. Kosa Judit. 
In early May the Budapest100 society held an open house visit to Seress’ building – five doors down the street from us – so we had to go. Budapest100 comprises local historians and urban activists who sponsor an annual weekend of open houses in historical buildings, with free lectures and visits to some of the urban treasures hidden inside the courtyyards and flats of the city. N. Kosa Judit is a local journalist and historian who specialized in the history of Klauzál tér, and just happens to live in the building. Her knowledge, informed commentary and personal connection made spying on our neighbors buildings just that much more enjoyable..

Friday, May 10, 2019

Iran Cukrászda: Persian Pastries outside our door.

You may have heard a lot about how Hungary is hostile to immigrants, and how badly refugees are treated (declared by the government to be "migrants" and not "refugees" because, hey, linguistics, how do they work?) Hungary wasn't always that way, and even today - perhaps in contrast to the rest of the country - Budapest is still a place where you can see a number of cultures contributing to the whole of city life. Not on a scale that you might see elsewhere in Europe - a topic that causes Hungarian politicians no end of anxiety. Nutcase right wing Hungarian politicos regularly buy up ad space (on Government owned media of course!) declaring urban Hell-holes like Brussels, Vienna, or Manchester to be racial war zones waiting to infect pure, innocent, white Hungary. Living in Budapest's 7th district - the historical Jewish ghetto - I'm happy with the international atmosphere we have here in the 7th. It is sort of like an island of tolerance and cultural sanity - by day at least. (At night it becomes one of the world's worst hypertourism zones.) The 7th (and the 8th... and most of Budapest) has always had a healthy multicultural vibe - I like living near felaful stands, Turkish butchers, pho shops, and Indian groceries. And most of all, I like the Iran Cukrászda , a Persian pastry bakery  that opened in December on Nagydiófa utca 30-32.

Cukrászda means pastry shop. A cookie addict gets her fix.
Apparently, I am not alone in my admiration for the Iran cukrászda - just about every Magyar foodie blog (and there are a lot of them) has discovered this tiny hole in the wall on one of the less traveled side streets of the Ghetto. We were in the USA over the winter, so when we finally discovered this place - dangerously located about four minutes walk from our flat and open from 8am to 10pm)  - we thought it was simply another baklava baker. Wrong (but they do have excellent baklava. Stuffed with pistachios!)

Baklava with pistachio... (note the pan which says "Master Chef Ali)

Fumie began to systematically try out the cookies. Apparently these are typical pasties from the Azeri region of Northwest Iran, typical of what would be sold in Tehran as well, made by a family whose son was a student here - and the father is a master baker. These are flakier, crispier and chewier than other cookies. Many are only half as sweet or not sweet at all, and some are delicately flavored with spices unlike those used in western style baking: cardamom, saffron and ginger.

My wife ate these cookies. All of them.
Personal favorites include: the walnut filled cake rolls.... or the barely sweet flaky biscuits with pistachio on top.... and the soft coconut cookies. also the chickpea flour cookies .... there is no way to choose, so the best option is to buy an assortment: the guy behind the counter speaks English as well and can help you choose. Best of all, these are not expensive, even compared to other local bakeries: you can fill a box assortment for the price of a sandwich.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Klezmer Pioneers Reunited

The View from here.
The last days of winter are on us in the New York area, it would seem. Time to head back to Budapest and watch the spring arrive. First we get the hovirag - tiny crocus flowers - popping up in Klauzal ter, and then, slowly, the arrival of baby cabbages coming in late march. Yes, I would forsake all the gaudy trappings of New York City for one tender Hungarian cabbage. I am a simple man. I haven't been into the NY Urban Megalopolis that much this trip - but we did go into the city to attend the Center for Traditional Music and Dance event at the YIVO Intitute for Jewish Research "Andy Statman and Zev Feldman: Klezmer Pioneers Reunited!" 

Statman and Feldman were among the first musicians to dig into the local roots of Yiddish music back in the 1970s, a period when performing Yiddish instrumental music was in deep decline. They did extensive research with clarinetist Dave Tarras while he was still in his prime, Statman essentially inheriting both the style and, eventually, the clarinets of the great musician. The experience led Zev to a career as a highly respected musicologist - his study of Ottoman classical music is the standard text for the field, while his recent "Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory" is really the most successful attempt to produce a history of the genre. I first knew Statman as a bluegrass mandolinist who would show up at the Eagle Tavern jam sessions on 14th street - he played with the legendary Wretched Refuse String Band. I had bumped into Zev via the Balkan Arts Center Friday dances at St. John the Divine Church near Columbia University. Zev and Andy had been studying Azeri Jewish music with Zebulon Avshalomov and performed at the Balkan Arts Center's 1975 festival.

In 1978 Zev and Andy recorded one of the first "klezmer" records released during the revival period, presenting a traditionalist arrangement of Andy's clarinet or mandolin backed by Zev on tsimbl (small cimbalom.) Only the Berkeley, CA based "The Klezmorim" had produced anything considered "Klezmer" music, and that was based on learning from old 78 rpm recordings. "Jewish Klezmer Music" by Zev and Andy sounded like two young virtuosos coached by living master musicians. The duo performed at a 1978 concert sponsored by the Balkan Arts Center, the predecessor of the modern CMTD at the Casa Galicia, an ethnic club for Spanish immigrants that subsequently became the rock club The Ritz. I was in the audience that day - sitting up on the balcony.

After their set, Tarras himself performed in a trio with accordion and drums. After the concert was over I approached Dave Tarras and told him how much I appreciated his music. He look at me, 19 years old... and said "Are you Jewish? OK.... See those drums? Take them out to the car." Yes, I did meet the legendary Dave Tarras, and yes, he treated me as a dumb kid. Par for the course. (Compare this to my backstage meeting in 1972 with Tom Robinson, a nonagenarian New Orleans trombone player who was the last surviving member of Buddy Bolden's Band. He gave me my first beer.)

I know that both Zev and Andy have busy careers and new musical directions, but it would be wonderful for these two to record a follow up album to Jewish Klezmer Music after nearly forty years. After a concert set on clarinet and tsimbl that some would describe as too fucking short, Prof Mark Slobin joined Statman and Feldman onstage for a discussion. One point they made is that before 1975, nobody used the term "klezmer" to refer to Yiddish instrumental music. Klezmer refers to the caste of professional musicians who play the music, not the musical genre itself, but since "Jewish Klezmer Music" was one of the very first LPs that anybody bought for Jewish music, the name stuck and for the next four decades the question of "what is klezmer music" inspired thousands of improvised and inaccurate answers until finally Zev published "Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory" (I think that now would be a proper time to address the fact that when Blogger spellchecks Klezmer it provides the alternative term "Kleenex" and so in the future all inquiries to me will be addressed regarding Kleenex Music.)

Upskirt view of some very hot pastrami.
Yiddish culture in New York lurks not only in the ears and heart, but also in the stomach. Before I leave New York I had to make the pilgrimage to Katz's Deli for a pastrami sandwich. Yes, I know it is crazy overpriced. You want a good sandwich at a decent price you go to Loesser's or Liebman's in the Bronx, or Hobby's in Newark. On the Anti side of the equation: the things are now $22 at Katz's. Twenty two fucking dollars for a sandwich. But on the pro side... it is a world class meal, worthy of the best restaurants, better than 97% of anything served at Peter Luger's Steak House... the finest cured meat you will find anywhere that is not located in "Montreal" and you will not walk out of the place hungry, which is more than you can say for most places where you are going to part with $25 for lunch.

Fumie just after shaking hands with Johnny Weir, figure skating champion. 
And now... my life. I don't drive. I used to drive, but I gave it up around the age of twenty, after sensing that The Lord would only allow me to continue living if I gave up automotive transportation. I was working hard to get through college while The Lord was frantically trying to reclaim me to his bosom by throwing other cars at mine, placing huge potholes in my car's way, slamming cars into me while I was parked, or even just crushing my fender often enough to empty my bank account, dooming me to starvation. So I stopped driving. I let my license lapse. I bought a bicycle. I am happy to report that I am still alive, the cars haven't killed me yet.

Why use a picture of a car? Really, we endorse Shake Shack burgers.
One result is that I tend to confine my life to cities. In Europe you can reach almost anywhere using affordable trains and buses, but New Jersey is defined by towns with no commercial center. There are vast,  rolling miles of suburbs that can only be navigated by car. So I decided to apply for a driver's license. I studied the New Jersey drivers manual, I took the online tests over and over again until I felt confident that I could identify driver blind spots or relate how to park a vehicle on an upward sloping street...

The only good reason to drive.
I failed. I failed miserably. And since I will be back in Hungary in a week I will probably not be able to take the test again until the summer, meaning I will have to go through the whole permit application process once again. And get my brother to drive me to the DMV center in Lodi at 7:30 in the AM to stand on line... all to be able to independently drive to get fresh bagels. I'll be spending the next few months with my drivers manual memorizing the reaction times for stopping on wet asphalt and the shape of Yield signs.... I will not fail again!

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Chinese New Year in New York

Happy Year of the Pig!
Gong Hao Fat Choy! Yes, its is time for the annual Chinese New Year's blog post. This is notable because a) I'm not Chinese, and b) this is a blog post. The first factoid should become apparent very soon, but the second merits discussion. I started writing this blog back in 2006 while spending a summer in Istanbul, mainly to show my friends and family the things I was eating.

Henan lamb noodles at Spicy Village near Grand St. subway.
I first read about this newfangled thing called blogging in an article in New Yorker Magazine around 2000. At the time, I had not been active in weekly journalism for a year and I saw blogging as a way to keep my writing chops in shape, push-ups in written form. This blog (purposely misspelled to its dialect form and named after a fiddler I know in Romania whose name means, essentially, 'The Lord' - he tells you what to do and you did it) began in Istanbul in 2006, ostensibly to share photos of food, travel, and music with my friends all over the globe. For a while blogs were the new kid on the internet block, and I was posting a lot, often getting over a thousand hits a day on some story about strange Romanian fiddles, what Turks put in their lamburgers or pizza in The Bronx.
Ioan Pop on vioara cu goarne, and no, I can't get you one.
Blogging was to HTML what the Beatles were to Lawrence Welk. For a couple of years bloggers were celebrities, and some managed to eke out book deals or monetize their blogs into a small fortune. Those days are now long gone... attention spans have shrunk down to Twitter and Instagram and even more imbecilic platforms (Snapchat!) which make blogging look like what it is: a home for aging blowhards to discuss weird ethnic fiddle construction, klezmer history, and Chinese food.
Hungarian-friendly kolbászos sticky rice lo mai gai from Shanghai in Ft. Lee, NJ. 
Which is fine with me. I may be posting a bit less than I used to, but I am not giving up the ghost just yet. My migration pattern often sees me spending a couple of months a year in the New York area - specifically, in Jersey, but close enough that a three dollar Spanish bus gets me into Manhattan and on the A train within a half hour of the old homestead. And after a week of nasty polar vortex during which Fumie dragged my nonathletic ass to watch... Johnny Weir, Olympic figure skating champion at the Bryant Park ice rink. I was very, very, very cold. Oh, the things I do for love.... this sub-antarctic survival test was preceded by a trip to a Vietnamese restaurant in the Bronx with Professor Emeritus Bob Godfried, the Man Who Knows the Bronx Better than Anybody.

Rice Pancake at Com Tan inh Kieu. 
Located along Jerome Avenue south of Kingsbridge, the Com Tan Ninh Kieu has upgraded itself from a cheap grubby local lunch space into a cheap and sleek restaurant that draws wary outsiders up the #4 subway to the Bronx for excellent Vietnamese pho and regional style Viet food. I love Vietnamese cuisine - and it is not that widespread in the New York area. I had a Vietnamese room mate in college... which very quickly grew to having 12 Vietnamese room mates in our two bed dorm room, so I know of what I speak. Chinatown is really the only part of Manhattan left that is of any interest to me, since the rest of the island seems to have turned into a Trump branded mall selling fashion sneakers and avocado toast to NYU students. While the city's main Chinese neighborhoods have migrated eastward to Flushing and Sunset Park, Manhattan's old neighborhood has remained staunchly Cantonese, and the old fashioned elaborate Chinese writing used in signage down here is nearly unintelligible to many mainland Mandarin speakers. And I like Cantonese food... it is what I grew up with, and when I was a wee teenager I was already familiar with the offerings of the Chinese tea shops down here, when I could stuff myself for a dollar on pork buns and rice rolls. My love for Cantonese wonton noodle soups leads me to systematically try every noodle shop in the city.

One of the last old time dim sum tea shop bakeries is the Mei Li Wah on Bayard street. For starters its cheap. And small. And dingy. It makes no concession to trendiness or, for that matter, hygiene. If authenticity is what you are after, yeah, it is authentic in an old New York meets Hong Kong way. If you want retro hipster old style Chinatown with a menu set up for non-Chinese, go to nearby Nom Wah. If you want to eat in an old Jackie Chan movie set, try Mei Li Wah. For starters their pork buns are the best in New York - huge, stuffed full of roasted pork and sauce, almost a full meal for a buck fifty.

There are crowds at the door buying the pork buns as fast as they came out of the kitchen, but we managed to grab a booth and enjoy a sit down meal. Buns to start, of course, but their shiu mai are also great (at least if you like big meaty noodly shiu mai) I like to come here for some of the items I usually only see in dim sum parlors, like cheung fan rice rolls. Here you can get a plate of them rolled into little carpets supporting a stew of beef navel (stomach) meat and ginger... lots of chewy tendon and and connecting tissue on fluffy rolled rice noodle. This is what I miss living in Europe...

Beef Navel Rice Roll... 
The Mei Li Wah has a short little menu, but the real dishes are displayed in photos taped around the walls of the room - this is how Fumie discovered the Sticky Rice Egg Thing. We know that is what you call it because that is what neighboring Chinese diners at Mei Li Wah called it when pointing at Fumie's plate asking to order that "Sticky Rice Egg Thing." When Chinese customers point at your plate for the waiter, you are doing something right.

The Egg Thing, however, reveals itself to be an edible Chinese style Clown Volkswagen: compressed inside a wad of sticky rice is a vast molten sea of meat, cabbage and Chinese chives.