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Heavy metal? Weighty brass…

My high school girlfriend was the child of first-generation Hungarian immigrants. Her parents moved from Budapest to Danbury, CT, after the anti-communist uprising in 1956. She grew up bilingual, speaking Hungarian in the home and English at school, and spending summers at camp where she learned folk dancing and riflery, preparing for the moment where exiled Hungarian patriots would dance and shoot their way back into communist Hungary.

When we sat in her basement living room, we listened to Tears for Fears and Depeche Mode. But when we drove in her Ford Escort, the soundtrack was patriotic Hungarian rock operas. Heavy metal rock operas. Really, really bad heavy metal rock operas.

I’d assumed that heavy metal was still the music of choice in Central Europe, primarily because there are some threadbare British metal bands that seem to march through the region on an annual basis. (Indeed, Cradle of Filth seems to be a frequent visitor, recording an album with the Budapest Film Orchestra and Choir…)

But heavy metal is not what the Budapest hipsters were listening to last night. They were rocking out to weighty brass. (Yes, that’s a Bloom County reference. Congratulations to all who got it.)

Picture this: five hundred students in their trendy best, studded with the occasional sharp-suited mafiosi, packed cheek to jowl in a dark space, belowdecks on a boat anchored on the Buda side of the Danube river. A man takes the stage alone and starts a winding, minor solo on alto sax. Four men appear from behind a curtain and flank him. Two are carrying euphoniums; two are wearing sousaphones. They break into four-part hocket behind the sax player. The boat rocks, and the crowd goes wild.

This is Fanfara Ciocarlia, an eleven-piece wedding band from Zece Prajini, a Roma village in eastern Romania, on the Moldovan border. They’re an unlikely success in the universe of world music – they alternate between global concert tours and playing for weddings and celebrations in their hometown. The band members were farmers and factory workers before becoming international stars.

And they’re amazingly popular here in Hungary. The crowd has hands and glasses of beer in the air, and are dancing as best as they can figure to the frantic polyrythms. The vibe is as far as possible from the reverent, yard-long stare you see at world music concerts in the US. It’s closer to the battered-but-happy vibe of a punk show – move the crowd to a Dropkick Murphys show in Boston, and I’m not sure anyone would notice.

I dug the Romanians, but I think I may have liked the opening act even better. Adje Bracó are a Hungarian band which plays Balkan and gypsy music at a frenetic pace and with a take no prisoners attitude. The energy comes from a brilliant accordian player and a pair of drummers, who do an amazing job of making 7/8 rhythms danceable and funky. No albums out, but there are a few tracks on their website for the curious

How is it possible for a folk music concert to pack a trendy rock and jazz club in this cosmopolitan city? A friend speculates that this may be a reflection of a social trend we’ve been discussing all week at the OSI board meeting – the resurgence of nationalism in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. While there’s lots of good reasons to be worried about nationalism – especially its role in the recent Budapest protests – the ability to pack a hall with fans of indigenous music to rock out to sousaphones is something worth celebrating.

9 thoughts on “Heavy metal? Weighty brass…”

  1. ez, i think its broader than that– there were at least 2 romani/gypsy/brass concerts in Chicago with high hipster quotients, this summer; bands like the balkan beat box have been rocking manhattan for awhile now. I think it comes down to the brass, which has spread far and wide and appeals to many ears. I’ll try to follow with some proper links, but the films of Kusturica is a good place to start.

  2. The rock opera in the Ford Escort might be the ‘Istvan, a kiraly’ – Stephen, the King. It was released in the 80’s and activeted the nationalist attitude in the mass of people when the ‘communist cosmopolitism’ was becoming out of fashioned. Those who ‘protested’ in Budapest recently, still live in the world of Stephen, the King.
    …but Hungary is blooming at least!

  3. In other words, JB, you’re positing a global hipster-brass band alliance, with a possible central Europe epicenter, but ripples throughout trendy neighborhoods in the US? Someone alert the Village Voice!

  4. dizil, you’re absolutely right – that’s the opera that tormented me in the car rides of my youth. Now looking forward to researching it and learning more about it…

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  6. I’m so pleased that you dug up links to these folks. And now I don’t have to try to describe my surreal last evening in Hungary; I can point people to your post, instead… :-)

  7. You got to see Fanfare Ciocarlia live? *jealous*

    This is part of a longtime slow burn of Roma (gypsy) influenced brass music with traditional roots throughout eastern Europe and the rest of the world.

    We’re at a point now, though, where it’s really hitting the mainstream. Gypsy brass is in the Borat soundtrack, which is evidently selling well. Lots of brass street bands in the US, which are heavily gypsy influenced, are getting really popular (there was even a festival of US/Canada street brass bands in October in Davis Square, Honkfest).

    So yeah, there’s definitely this neat thing going on where the traditional musical cultures are melding with the urban hipster. Especially cool is that it seems to be happening with a great deal of respect by the hipster component for the cultural roots of the music they’re playing or taking inspiration from.

    Anyway, if you want to see any of this kind of stuff back home in MA, we’ve got it. There’s a ton in NYC too, including regular club gigs at places like Maia Meyhane and Barbes. There’s also a massive yearly festival on MLK weekend, Golden Fest. Brass is a huge component of the music/dance camp I go to every summer, which is in the Catskills and usually has its evening parties open to the public. Plus of course more but I won’t bombard you. In any case, this stuff is alive and flourishing here.

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