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.