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Csárdás! The Tango of East -- Budapest Ensemble - Budapest Táncegyüttes Tour - Full Reviews

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  Bringing Hungarian Village Music to the World Stage
By Peter Anick
Posted on: 16th January, 2004, By: Webmaster

A Conversation with Members of the Budapest Folk Ensemble Orchestra

This interview appears courtesy of Fiddler Magazine, a quarterly publication covering all aspects of fiddle music. Upcoming issues feature the Budapest Ensemble (Summer 2000) and Gypsy fiddling (Fall 2000). For more information, contact P.O. Box 101, North Sydney, N.S., Canada B2A 3M1; phone: (902) 794-2558; email: fiddlermagazine@ns.sympatico.ca; web: http://www.fiddle.com.

Contributor Peter Anick is co-author of Mel Bay's "Old Time Fiddling Across America" and performs with the Massachusetts-based bands WayStation and Acoustic Planet.

Just as the American folk music revival of the 1960’s renewed urban Americans’ interest in their country’s folk heritage, the Hungarian "dance house" movement of the 1970’s reacquainted urban Hungarians with the traditional music and dances of the Hungarian villages. Through instruction at dance houses and music camps, a new generation of Hungarians has learned to dance the csárdás, the spirited couple dance which was at the height of fashion some two hundred years ago. To provide authentic live music for the dance houses, many urban musicians have learned to play the traditional string music that accompanies the romantic and fiery dances. The Budapest Ensemble, under the leadership of artistic director Zoltán Zsuráfszki, has now brought the dance house to the stage with its production of "Csárdás! The Tango of the East". Remaining true to folk traditions, the production presents a dazzling selection of music and dance from Central Europe through a series of play-party games that relate a story. There’s a men’s dance competition, a romantic courtship duet, a quest through the Carpathian Basin for the abducted bride, a wedding - all accompanied by some of the wildest fiddling that has ever been heard outside Hungary. The "village orchestra" in the production features two violins, a viola, cymbalom (dulcimer) and double bass, along with an occasional clarinet, bagpipes, jaw harp, drum, and an odd cello-shaped stringed instrument beat with a stick!

I caught this Hungarian "Riverdance" when their world tour came to Boston’s Symphony Hall. After the show, I chatted with members of the orchestra about Hungarian folk fiddle styles, the dance houses, and village traditions. The conversation included first violinist István Papp Gázsa, second violinist Álmos Gáspár, violist Péter Árendás and company manager Gusztáv Takách. Péter and Gusztáv kindly took on the role of translators.


Péter: We play traditional Hungarian folk music. So the main goal is to play as traditional as possible. We learned this style of music in the villages with all the Gypsy musicians that live in the villages in Hungary. By "Hungary", we mean the Hungary as it was before the First World War. It was larger then, and many Hungarian people live outside today’s Hungary. This includes Slovakia and Transylvania. For example, Gázsa and Álmos, they are from Transylvania. So if we wanted to learn this music, we had to find people in villages not only in Hungary but all around Hungary. In Transylvania, the tradition has survived up till now. If tomorrow you would go to Transylvania, you would find old musicians, old fiddle players, old viola players or double bass players who learned this music not from notes, but from his father, from his grandfather and his great grandfather, and so on. We want to try to get this style of music. In this style, the violin players play the melody. They are improvising, meaning that we learn many many melodies and now we use them. For example, "Csárdás! The Tango of the East" was a program of fixed melodies, but if we played elsewhere, he (the first violin player) would improvise one melody after another, as he wanted. He is the boss of the group.

The viola playing is a different style than in classical music. I use only three strings, and the three strings are in one level (i.e., the bridge is flat). This is why I can play chords. I play only chords and keep rhythm with my instrument. I don’t play melody. There are many different styles among west, east or middle Hungary. There are parts of Transylvania, for example, where they only use major chords and that’s a very old style. Other parts use major chords, minor chords, seventh chords.

Do you play all three strings at the same time?

Yes. Or if I play the other viola, the four string viola, I play either two or three strings together.

Is the bridge flat on that one too?

Not as much. It’s less curved than in classical music.

What are the notes of the strings?

The four-string viola is the same as in classical music. So the deepest is C, then D and G and A. The three-string viola, I miss the C. So I have only G, D and A, and the A is an octave lower. I play chords and give the rhythm, together with the bass.

Now we are going to place a piece from middle Transylvania. It’s a very old style. In the village, the music goes with the dance. So the musicians play, and mostly they start with some slow music and after, faster and faster. There are couple dances for a man and a woman, a boy and a girl, but there are other dances for only the men. There is a suite of dances, most of the time.

Who decides when to change the speed of the dance?

The violin player, or the dancers. Somebody comes and says, "I want to do it faster!" And he gives the rhythm, just like in the show. There is constant communication between dancers and the violinist.

Each village has its own dance habits, but mostly it begins with a slow part and it goes ever faster.

Would every village have its own tunes?

Yes. And sometimes they have the same melodies in the same region, but every village has its own version. Different ways of ornamenting.

(Gázsa and Péter play a suite of dance tunes from the middle Transylvanian village of Magyarszovát.)

That can last for hours. The people in the village want to dance. The music starts, a very slow dance, it lasts a quarter hour. They are singing. Everybody dances a slow dance. After a little, faster music, they start dancing faster and faster. It lasts one hour, one and a half hours.

For one dance?

Yes. They call it a couple dance. It’s always the same couple that dances together in this suite. They don’t switch partners. It’s not like the Turks or Romanians or Bulgarians. They dance in circles or in lines. The Hungarians dance in couples. Or the men alone.

It lasts one hour. After a little break, some men’s dance. They dance alone, to show off. Then another couple dance, and so on. A wedding lasts two days, without sleeping for the musicians. Non-stop music. The dancers can drink and sleep, no problem. The musicians don’t stop.

Can you play in your sleep?

Yes! (laughter) And the musicians in the villages, or, for example, us, we learned many hundreds of melodies and we use these melodies. What we just played now, I didn’t know what he (the violinist) will play. He started, I listened to him. We’ve played for many years together, so just one or two notes is enough for me to know what he is playing. That was an old style from Transylvania, and we will now play another style from Hungary, a new style.

Gusztáv: Now he is going to play on the four-string viola and you’ll see the difference in accompaniment.

Now would that first tune be considered a csárdás or not?

It was a slow csárdás. A csárda is an inn, a village inn. And every dance which they danced in the inn was called a csárdás, a pub dance. There are thousands of melodies.

Péter: Okay, now we’ll play another style. It’s not so old. It’s from the eighteenth century. The other one was much older, the melody and style of playing. This one’s from the northeast part of Hungary, called Szatmár.

Gusztáv: This part was not so isolated during the history. It was much more open, open to influences. The bands played not only for the peasants but also for nobles. There were more influences, not only from geography but also social.

Would the influences come from classical music?

Yes. From the cities. The villages were so isolated even thirty years ago. There was no radio, television, no influence from outside. That’s why it could survive so long. No electricity.

Did people refer to the songs by name?

Most of them have texts, lyrics. The band would begin to play and most of the people would sing. It’s very complicated. We have the rhythm of each song, we have six syllables or seven or nine, and we have a family of lyrics. And whichever matches with the number of syllables, you can use it and sing to this song.

So you can sing the same words to different melodies?

You can improvise, again, with the lyrics. Most of the people in the village know many many lyrics. Most of them have stories, like a ballad. Most of them are love songs, they can sing about soldier’s lives, recruiting songs, a variety of lyrics.

Songs for recruiting for the army?

Yes, two hundred years ago it was a new policy to recruit soldiers for the Austria-Hungarian army. This was by playing music and drinking wine. The recruiting official came with a band of musicians and that was the way they recruited the peasants into the army. It was a big deal because once they agreed, they went into the army for three, or ten, or twenty years.

(Gázsa and Péter, now joined by Álmos on second violin, play a slow and fast csárdás from the Szatmár region of northeast Hungary.)

This is a "new" style csárdás. New style means two hundred years old!

So it is harmonically more complex. And the second violin is playing a counterpoint?

Álmos: We are playing in thirds, but not always. When I want to play, when it’s most beautiful.

Do you improvise your accompaniment or do you have it worked out?

Gusztáv: He improvises. Gázsa is the leading violinist and he invents, just as he is playing. So this is always a creative work. They can also switch and then he (Álmos) leads.

Do you improvise during the show?

Péter: In the show, the roles are fixed. But for weddings, and dance houses… Do you know about dance houses?

Please talk a little about dance houses.

Many people come together and enjoy dance houses, but not for pop music, for folk music. They know the Hungarian folk dances and musicians know Hungarian folk music and we enjoy it together. And, for example, some dancers come and say, "Oh please now play for us some Transylvanian music." So they call out some region, western part of Hungary or east part. And now we start and play for an hour and they dance.

Gusztáv: The musicians are prepared for these different kinds of requests. So if they are asked to play Transylvanian music from middle Transylvania, they play this kind of music. But if they are asked to play Gyimes, this requires the "hit gardon". (The hit gardon is a cello-shaped percussion instrument with two thick strings that are beat with a stick, and a thin string which is plucked.) They have this instrument there and for this particular dance, they use this instrument. Or the bagpipe for western Hungary. The most popular band is the strings - the violin, viola, and double bass. You can find it almost all around Hungary. But there are special instruments in special parts. For the very east part of Hungary, the Gyimes, they know only the violin and the "hit gardon". The north part is the bagpipe, or the west part. Those parts where the people are very poor, they have no money to pay three, four, five musicians. If they have less money, they only have one bagpiper. That was enough. Other parts, where the people were not so poor, they can pay five musicians - two violin players, viola, cymbalom, and double bass. So it depends on the money.

Were any of the tunes you played in the concert tonight composed pieces, where the composer is known?

No.

What is the relationship between city music, like the "Csardas of Monte", and the music that you played?

Gusztáv: Nobody knows who invented it, so it goes back hundreds of years. This is the definition of folk music in Hungary - you don’t know the composer. This is why you find one variation in one region and another in another region. They don’t learn it from notes. It goes from one violin to the other. With Monte and Brahms, it is composed music. Monte was an Italian, Brahms a German. They must have heard it somewhere in a village and they composed it for themselves. The urban Gypsies mostly play composed music. They don’t even know this kind of music. As we told you before, in folk music you can switch the lyrics from one song to another, but in composed music it doesn’t work. Once you have composed music, this is the lyrics.

Péter: In traditional Hungarian folk songs, the texts are like very beautiful poems.

Can you talk about the different kinds of ornamentation that you use?

(Gázsa demonstrates by playing a highly ornamented version of a slow dance from Szék, in the Transylvanian Heath. Many notes are decorated with a tight trill. Open strings are occasionally bowed along with a grace note on the string below, fingered so as to produce a note roughly a half step below the open string. Gázsa then plays the same melody as it might be heard in Szatmár. This time, there are no trills. Instead, glissando, typically in the form of downward slides, is liberally applied to the longer melody notes.)

Were most of these tunes played by Gypsies in these regions?

Gusztáv: In ninety percent of the cases, yes. There are peasant musicians as well, although dominantly it is in Gypsy hands. They are fun-loving people and they didn’t like to work. It was easier to earn their living playing music at the weddings and such. The village inhabitant, he had to go to work in the fields. He didn’t have time for playing music and having fun in this way. The Gypsy had time.

So the Gypsy learned the music of the peasant.

Yes. But they played traditional, authentic Hungarian folk music. There is a great difference between village Gypsy and urban Gypsy. The urban Gypsy dresses in red, very sharp. The village Gypsy, it’s very simple.

Péter: Like us in the program. Our clothes are very simple clothes, like village Gypsies.

Do the villagers and Gypsies have a good relationship?

Yes, they are on good terms. This is the village Gypsies’ main job, so it means they have to know everything about the music and about the people in the village. The Gypsy musicians must know what that person’s favorite melody is, and if he comes to dance, they play his favorite melody.

Now we are working with a big program called "The Final Hour". We continuously call these musicians and bands to Budapest and make recordings. For three years, we have recorded more than sixty different groups. It means that in 1999, there are village bands, old musicians that cannot read or write the notes.

Are they passing it down to their children?

Some of them, yes, but mostly it’s the final hour.

Did you yourselves have parents who played?

No. We learned it from the Gypsies in the villages. I met this music when I was fifteen. In the dance houses, I met other urban musicians. I loved it, and afterwards I went to the villages and I learned this music.

Gusztáv: This is a revival.

Are the people in the villages surprised to find people from the cities interested in their music?

In the beginning, yes they were. Now they are used to it, depending upon which region you are in. Sometimes there are funny stories. He went to the northeastern part of Hungary, and he asked some villagers, "Where are the Gypsy musicians?" And they laughed at him. "You are looking for the Gypsies? What for? You are coming from Budapest to us!?" They were surprised. They didn’t know what it was about these Gypsies.

And what kind of music do the Gypsies play for themselves?

They don’t play it on these instruments. They are singing, snapping their fingers, keeping rhythm with two spoons, percussion, like castanets.

But they don’t play the fiddle?

Not for themselves. There was a Gypsy tune in the show, but this was transposed for this show onto the violin. They usually would sing it, snap their fingers, and the guys would vocalize "di, dah, hoh, hey, hoh, chee …." - traditional Gypsy folk music. So, there are three different things. This was traditional Gypsy folk music in villages where mostly Gypsy people live. Others in the city play Gypsy music, but that’s not folk music. They play it in the cafes and the restaurants. And the third, what we play, is the traditional Hungarian folk music, which is for Hungarian people and is played by the Gypsies in the villages, but it is not Gypsy music (laughter)! It’s very complicated. Now we’re completely confused and we can have some beer.

Fiddler Magazine wishes to thank Jessica Norris at World Music and Kálmán Magyar of Centrum Management for their assistance in arranging this interview. For more information on the Budapest Ensemble and other Hungarian musical events, contact the American Hungarian Folklore Centrum at PO Box 262 Bogota, NJ 07603, tel: 201-836-4869, email: magyar@magyar.org, web: http://www.magyar.org. For information on other world string music coming to the Boston area, contact World Music at 720 Mass. Ave. Cambridge, MA 02139, tel: 617-876-4275, web: http://www.worldmusic.org.
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