The first phrase to learn in Budapest has to be “Maga sokkal jobban tud angolul, mint én magyarul”, or “Your English is far better than my Hungarian.” On the way to the airport, my fiancé turns to me: “What did we forget?” “Nothing,” I assure her, though fear creeps into my throat. It was not until we arrived in Budapest that I realized our three guidebooks remained on our bookshelves.
No problem. If that did not happen, I would have never found Budapest: A Critical Guide by András Török, perhaps the best travel book of any country I’ve ever read. The reality is, we barely used it, instead relying on tips from locals (who definitely spoke better English than our Magyar). This may have been my first visit to the land of my ancestors, but I quickly surmised that I’m far enough removed from the place to have no idea what to make of any street sign or sidewalk conversation, a language considered by many—Hungarians included—to be the most challenging on the planet to understand.
I’d spent a lifetime hearing my father repeat his name—Ferenc—to people who had no idea what he was saying. In Hungary, Ferenc pretty much equals Joe Smith. Every third street and some of the money is named Ferenc
Besides heading out to hang in the land of my forebears, there were three things calling us to Budapest: public baths, pastries, and music. Being that the subject matter of this column is music, I’ll focus on that experience here, and write in passing that anyone traveling to Budapest for public baths and/or pastries should know they’ll be in exceptional hands.
Perhaps the most well known Hungarian name in the world is Béla Bartók, born in a region of Romania before Romania became Romania. Cited as a founder of ethnomusicology, Bartók was a student of one of Franz Liszt’s students—that name being perhaps the second most well known name.
Bred into the Western classical canon, Bartók traveled to local villages to study folk music, then viewed as a disgraceful thing to do. He didn’t just borrow the music he heard — he stole it. The result of this cultural theft, if you will, are musical anthologies which offer Hungary an identity it was not even aware it had. Bartók’s work focuses just after the ‘golden period’ of the country, which historian John Lukacs placed at the turn of the 20th century. Of course, a couple of world wars and a serious plague of communism swept Hungary, and it wasn’t until 1956 that the nation reassembled its scattered pieces. Hungary has long suffered numerous identity crises, battered like a lone billiard ball no one can quite get in the pocket.
Bartók realized that Hungarian folk music, previously written off as a simple peasant sound, was based on Oriental and Russian music — a notable claim at the time. This blending of musical cultures is part of the reason (along with the Danube River) why Hungary was claimed to be a meeting point of East and West. Balkan music is based on Turkish rhythms which originated in Indian rhythms which is further complicated because of the influence of British armies dominating trade in India for some time.
Origins are always complicated. Easier to dissect are transformations, which rely on transportation, making the trade route along the Danube an important conduit for not only goods like tea and paprika, but for music and philosophy, as well. Again, Bartók understood that good art borrow, — but great art steals. Thus, he merrily transcribed and reconfigured melodies, as he did with the 80 pieces of For Children. Village folk music is not what made Bartók a legend in the Western classical pantheon; his work in this area did, however, force people to acknowledge the serious study of global folk music forms. Some might argue that thsi work at least partially united a very divided region, as well.
I seek out many things while traveling. First and foremost is music. My brand of ethnomusicology is, fortunately for me, much simpler than men like Bartók and Paul Bowles endured. That does not make it easy, however. I have the Internet on my side, from which I can easily download field recordings from around the world in a matter of minutes. Alan Lomax would have blushed with envy. Then again, this process misses the adventure of personal contact with the actual musicians, not to mention one could ‘travel the world’ via the Internet, so to speak, without once stepping on the land that birthed the music. So maybe while he’s blushing, he’s also sniggering, too.
Serbian trumpeter Boban Markovic is highly respected in Hungary, hardly the case in New York: in 2004 he played to roughly 75 people at Joe’s Pub. In Serbia he has played to over 300,000. In Budapest, where I happened to catch his live performance, the beautiful new theater, the Palace of Arts, held at least 2,000.
During his second set, he ripped into a series of Magyar music that he recorded after performing here for the first time a decade ago, on the album Srce Cigansko, which featured Hungarian violinist Laiko Félix. His team of nine brass players, including his 20-year-old son, Marko, and three drummers, is so diverse you’d never imagine that on stage there is only brass and drums.
Most impressive about the man, aside from his musicianship, is his humility. He started touring with his son when Marko was only 14. I caught the youngster blowing away at 15, and that cat could howl. Of course he was young and rambunctious. Just because Pops acts like Scarface with his teamsters doesn’t mean he’s going to tame it down.
When I sat backstage with Boban in 2004, his responses to my questions were factual, as well as punctual and complete: he said what he had to and no more. It was not an easy interview, as the man didn’t really smile and didn’t really talk. Yet on stage he lights up like a Christmas reindeer on a suburban lawn. In Budapest, he played for a half-hour before introducing his son, and then respectfully took a back seat while Marko dominated the show.
Boban has seen that, done this, all of it; he can sit back on his throne and watch his prodigal offspring run the laps. Most men age and refuse to become the phoenix. They never rise again because they burn out without bowing out. Boban knows something about evolution that many cannot fathom. He sincerely looked awed by his son, and for good reason. Marko’s voice is more diverse, though Boban’s is more commanding. Marko flails and dances and hypes the audience; he’s the Flavor Flav to Boban’s Chuck D.
I listened to Srce Cigansko over and over when I returned from Hungary, which made a great counterpart to his latest, Devla: Blown Away to Dancefloor Heaven, recently released on Piranha. It’s listed, as all his albums now are, under Boban i Marko Markovic. There’s definitely more of a “dance” feel than their older albums, purposefully so, and admittedly, sometimes to their detriment. “Udri Mile” sounds cheap; the beat is unnecessary. Let those horns charge the crowd. In Budapest, people could not stop dancing, hopping around their seats with giddy joy. The sad moments—some of these songs are dirges, remember—let one sink and reflect.
Marko’s little hip-hop antics wouldn’t have gone over in New York, but here they were just fine. Whatever moves people, move. Like their live show, Devla heats up as the album progresses.
We hopped into a cab en route back to Le Meridian from the concert. While my fiancée and I are both walkers, I’m not the most exacting cartographer—bridges just don’t appear that far apart on paper. By the time we got back to our room her feet were blistered, my hamstrings shot, yet as always, the music was worth the experience. Nothing some Bejgli and espresso couldn’t cure.
Admittedly, Boban Markovic is not a Hungarian musician, though his music is wildly popular there. I did get to pick up a number of albums, only the 5,000-6,000 forints ($27-$32) sticker price kept me from buying more. Here’s what I brought back. I recommend them all.
Palya Bea: Álom-Álom, Kitalálom (Gryllus)
Beata Palya: Adieu les complexes (Sony)
Beata Palya: EgyszálÉnek (Sony)
Olah Vince & Earth Wheel Sky Band: From India to Ibiza (Hangveto)
Parno Graszt: Ez A ViláG Nekem Való (Podium)
Boban Marković Orkestar: Srce Cigansko (X Produkcio)
Csík Zenekar: Ez A Vonat, Ha Elindult, Hadd Menjen… (Fono)
Béla Bartók: Hungarian Peasant Songs/Mikrokosmos (Naxos)
Béla Bartók: 44 Duos – Hungarian Folksongs (Naxos)
Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dances for Violin and Piano (Naxos)