Saturday, February 17, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mom!

February 18 is my Mother's birthday! Happy Birthday mom! Boldog Születésnapot, Anyukam! My mother, Margit Grosz Cohen, was born in Veszprem, Hungary in 1928. The following photographs should serve as evidence that my mother is one of the cutest chicks in the history of the world. Above, Mom around 1932 with my Aunt Etus. Below is one of my Mom's favorite pictures, in her Hungarian national dress, taken just before WWII.My Mom's family survived WWII intact - an amazing epic story which is worth a book in itself - except that my mother became a refugee in Austria during the war. Thanks to the kindness of an Austrian doctor's widow, Frau Schmidt, my Mom was able to survive a year in Nazi Salzburg and the following years until she was able to emigrate to the US in 1948. After arriving in the states, Mom worked as a governess before finally settling in New York and working as a seamstress. My father met my mother around 1951 in New York. He was a young NY Police officer, and there was a dance set up by the Ladies Garment Workers Union with the New York Jewish Policeman's Association.... the rest is history...Now, I ask you... is that a good looking couple or not? My parents married in 1952.And pretty soon, along came my sister, Pam. And then, on February 18th, 1956... me. Yes, I was my mother's birthday present that year.Still... is this not the Cutest Mom in the World?And fulfilling all expectations, she still is! Nothing makes me happier than to have my parents with us, still healthy and happy after so many years.Happy Birthday, Mom!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Kádár Étkezde

Having eaten Hungarian food all of my life, I don’t consider it the least bit exotic. I’m pretty parochial about what I like – Magyar cuisine is peasant food, and doesn’t stand up well to being “reformed” “fusioned” or “updated.” Hungarians – always class conscious to a fault and desperately eager to be trendy – might debate me about this, but when they go home to Mama’s for Sunday lunch it’s going to be sour cabbage and bacon grease or nothing else for them. Given the proliferation of strange, fusionoid and terrifyingly expensive restaurants that have popped up in Budapest over the last five years, there are few places where I can still find honest old fashioned Hungarian food. Without hesitation, my favorite place is the Kádár Étkezde on Klauzal ter, in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto.If restaurants were rated on the basis of how many uniquely oddball quirks they affect, the Kádár Étkezde would be the Peewee Herman of chow houses. It is only open for lunch. There is no real private seating – you usually share a table with a stranger. There is a seltzer bottle on each table, and you pay by the glass on the honor system. You don’t pay the waitress after your meal – you go to the guy in the white doctor’s coat standing by the door, recite what you ordered, add in how many glasses of seltzer and pieces of bread you had, and then, after paying, return to the dining room and personally slip the waitress a tip. The walls are covered with autographed photos of Hungarian celebrities of yore. It’s been like this for years. The Kádár Étkezde was one of the only private restaurants that existed during communist times, so they had to improvise the basic practicalities of capitalism, like how to pay for a meal.The Kádár serves old fashioned Hungarian food that never shows up on upscale menus - things like spaghetti with powdered sugar and poppy seeds, or goose wings cooked into a huge plate of rice pilaf. They have the classic communist era soft drink “malna” on the menu – a glass of seltzer with raspberry syrup. The best items on the specials list disappear within an hour of opening, and you get limited top the regular menu, such as beef stew with galuska dumplings…Due to the arcane rulings of Hungarian restaurant law, foods must be prepared and served on the day they are cooked – meaning that complex dishes that are best left to sit overnight, like most stuffed cabbage dishes, never appear on Hungarian restaurant menus at all. The Kádár gets round that by digging deep into the old fashioned regional cabbage glossary and coming up with things like “sloppy cabbage” or “Kolozsvar cabbage.” Ground pork, rice, sour cabbage, sour cream and paprika baked into an East European peasant version of lasagna.Kádár is famous for its solet – which is the local, specifically east Hungarian version of the Yiddish cholent. At Kádár it is served only on Friday, and it sells out fast. Kádár solet is served with a piece of smoked pork. Cholent with treyf? Yes. Kádár is ostensibly a Jewish restaurant, located in the heart of the Pest Ghetto, but it accurately reflects its clientele: assimilated Pesti zsidók who aren’t in the least bit kosher but who can’t live without easy access to goose pilaf or matzo ball soup. There is no sense of irony about it. Count how many of the celebrity photos on the wall are posing next to Tony Curtis. No irony at all.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Klezmatics win the Grammy Award!

This morning my Yiddish heart soars like an odler (eagle) to hear the news: The Klezmatics have won the Grammy Award (albeit in category 73 for best contemporary World Music Recording (beating out Salif Keita and Ladysmith Black Mambazo) for their recent release Woody Guthrie's Wonder Wheel. This is probably the first time a recording of Klezmer-based anything has ever won a commercial award on this scale. (I’m pretty sure Naftule Brandwein never won a Grammy.) (Photos by Fumie Suzuki)More about the CD from the Woody Guthrie site. “Guthrie’s Jewish lyrics can be traced to the unusual collaborative relationship he had with his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, a prominent Yiddish poet who lived across from Guthrie and his family in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Guthrie – the Oklahoma troubadour – and Greenblatt – the Jewish wordsmith – often discussed their artistic projects and critiqued each other’s works, finding common ground in their shared love of culture and social justice, despite very different backgrounds… Woody Guthrie’s Jewish lyrics came as a surprise to Nora Guthrie, director of the Woody Guthrie Archives and Woody’s daughter. She became aware of his connection to Judaism only recently, in a chance encounter with the Klezmatics and Itzhak Perlman.All I can say is that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer crew of musicians than the Klezmatics, who have been slaving away for over twenty years popularizing Jewish music as a contemporary expression. They know their traditional Jewish music, they are masters of modern music, they’ve put in their sleepless nights and their road time, and they are not faking it. They deserve to come out of the shadows of the alternative scene and get the mainstream attention they really deserve. Frank London and Matt Dariau, in particular, are old buddies of mine from our days in the musical salt mines of Boston, Mass, in the 1980s. Having just read Michael Wex’sBorn To Kvetch” I would have to add - in the spirit of Yiddish paracommunication - that the Grammy Awards themselves are a bit of dumb fluff in general… just to kvetch. OK, the Dixie Chicks took Best Song... And the Native Ameerican category the Northern Cree were in the running - it is always good to see the Northern Cree beating out anybody... but… There is no category for “Jewish Music” while there are lots of different categories for Hispanic music including “Best Banda Recording” “Best Tejano recording” and “Best Norteno Recording” (what? No “Best Vallenato Recording?") But then again, Wex - who has also written Yiddish lyrics for the Klezmatics - is no longer living in his usual and accustomed state of abject heart-rending penury since “Born to Kvetch” hit the NY Times bestsellers list, so it has been a good year in general for modern Yiddish culture. Even The Rootless Cosmopolitan finds room to kvetch regarding the similarities between the Klezmatics and former Grammy Award winners Milli Vanilli…

Friday, February 09, 2007

Mihailo Csernavec, Hutsul Tsymbaly player, 1947-2007.

Sad new arrived this week. My good friend and musical collaborator, Mihailo Csernavec, known to us as “Misha” passed away at his home in Tjaciv (in Hungarian: Técső) a Hutsul village in the western Ukraine near the Hungarian and Romanian borders along the Tisza river. He was 60 years old. [All photos by Fumie Suzuki.]Misha was the tsymbaly (small cimbalom) player for the Técsői Banda, a traditional Hutsul band that has been playing in Hungary over the last few years through the work of Ferenc Kiss of Etnofon records in Budapest. The Técsői Banda identify themselves as Hutsul or Ruthenian more strongly than as Ukrainian. Their language is closely related to Ukrainian, but for most of their history they lived reather isolated in the higher Carpathian mountains in areas controlled by the Austo-Hungarian empire. Ruthenians in Slovakia, Poland, and Byelorussia call themselves Lemko or Boyko. The Hutsuls live farther south, spilling over into the Romanian regions of Maramures and Bukovina. They were of great interest to me because they are one of the last bands that maintain a repertoire of Jewish tunes from Maramures and Zakarpatia, and are still called to play for the Jewish community in Munkács (Munkachevo, Ukraine.) I’ve known them for about ten years, so when my band recorded our new CD, I invited the Técsői Banda to join me as guests on some of the cuts playing the tunes I had collected from them. The Técsői Banda was formed around the dynasty of the sons of Manyo Csernavec, a gypsy fiddler whose repertoire was broad and archaic, as he was the preferred musician for not only the local Hutsul Ukrainians, but also for the Jews, Romanians, and Hungarians of this multiethnic region. Manyo’s sons, Josika (accordion) Misha (tsymbaly) and Jura (drum and plonka. The plonka is a flexible reed made of negative film – originally bark or a leaf – held in the mouth between the gums and teeth and blown.) Ivan Popovic, originally from Visk, married into the Csernavec family and became the fiddler. Misha was a real gentle soul, a fine musician, and a generous host who generously shared his knowledge with us and our friends such as Tim Meyen and Pip Thompson from Australia. While the Csernavec brother could all speak Hungarian, Ivan the fiddler never learned it, so we would all speak in Romani when we were together, causing Misha to really let loose with his sense of Gypsy humor.Misha was by no means the last player of the small cimbalom. The Hutsuls maintain one of the strongest folk traditions in Europe, and their lives are filled with ritual calendar events that demand the presence of musicians. One of the reasons the Técsői Banda are so good is that they actually earn most of their living as musicians playing for Hutsul weddings. In the western Ukraine, at least, folk musicians are still a necessary part of daily life. Below is a bit of video I made of the band last October at the Fono in Buda - as a trio (with Adam Good of Nikitov sitting in on bass) when Misha was already too ill to travel.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Palatka: As good as it gets...

It's hard to explain where, exactly, a musical passion comes from, but when I was fourteen my uncle Jozsi bought me a record of authentic Hungarian folk music and a fiddle. On that record was a cut of music from the central Transylvanian plains, a cut of music played by a fiddle band which literally jumped out of the vinyl grooves and nested in my psyche... it became my demon, my sound, and I spent years going after it. The music was from the village of Palatka, and eventually, after years of playing all kinds of music in all kinds of bands, I came to Hungary to try and get a grip on how, exactly, this beautiful and ... weird... music was played and... concieved. [First three photographs taken by the fabulous Fumie Suzuki at a wedding in Palatka in April, 2003]The musicians from Palatka hail from a dynasty of Gypsy musicians led by the Kodoba family, particularly the sons of Lolo Kodoba - Bela, Marton, and Lorinc. Bela, was an amazing - and obese - fiddler (as well as the village garbage collector) whose family fame was that he could eat 28 stuffed cabbages in a sitting. He died in 1998 - heart attack, on stage in Hungary. Marton took over leadership of the band, with his son Florin taking the second fiddle role. I struck up a long friendship with Marton after a chance meeting on the street in Cluj, where he had moved after a messy divorce, much like mine. Beer, boiled potatos, and the miseries of newly found singledom bound us. We had several years of fiddling together, during which I finally began to grasp the inner aesthetic of the Palatka style of music - a music in which modal melodies are not harmonized using minor chords at all. It is a style that is archaic by dint of its isolation - nobody ever demanded minor chords. Why use a D minor when an F major would do? The tension inherent in their harmonies is one of the most exciting facets of Transylvanian Gypsy music.
Marton died tragically in 2003 at a folk dance camp in Transylavania, and there was a lot of speculation that the tradition would die along with him. After all, it is getting harder for the village Gypsy bands to get wedding work, when for the same money more modern entertainment, such as a boom-box and some CDs, can be given to the bride and groom as well. But Marton's brother, Lorinc, moved up the ranks from Kontra fiddle to primas, and Florin mastered not only the lead fiddle, but learned Hungarian and English as well in order to reperesent the band in their newer role as international representatives of "Transylvanian folklore." And they do it damn well, as these picture from their monthly gig at the Fono in Budapest attest.I'll be adding bits and pieces of more youtube recordings as I upload them... because really, if you don't actually watch how these guys bow and move together, you can't learn the music. Sarah Alden, the NY fiddler for the Luminescent Orchestrii, asked me how I managed to learn to play the slow table songs from Palatka. I answered... a bit in my cups... "Oh, it's all in the bowing, you just have to hang with them a bit and watch... and listen to the music until you really get it." How long did that take me? asked Sarah. "Hmm... for me, about 30 years..." Puma, who can be seen sitting in on kontra here, has been at it even longer. He's not even considered a revival flk musician in Palatka... he's actually become the real thing.
Pardon the shakey camera work... my little canon digital is the size of a pack of camels... but if you go to my youtube page, I'll be putting up bits of music that that little box of digitality has been stealing as I go.... I 've already added a bunch more cuts from Palatka, with different music to come from wherever I travel...

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Palatka Band plays for the table....

We were out at the Fono Music club last Thursday to hear the Palatka Band play. I consider this band to be the Alpha and Omega of fiddle music, at least on the planet known as Earth. This was the music that inspired me to learn to play the violin, and this is the reason I live in Hungary. The band is from Palatka, a village in the central Transylvanian plains about 25 km east of Cluj (it's called Palatca in Romanian.) Palatka is a village with a very mixed population of Hungarians, Romanians, and Gypsies, and the band (who are Gypsy) manage the local styles and repetoires accordingly. Here they are playing slow songs "at the table" for Pal H. of the Teka band and dance teacher Savanyu at around 1 am.... More on Palatka soon... (I just figured out that I can't post a youtube link and photos in the same post...)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Screaming in the Streets... Redux

Sorry for the slow posting... it takes a while to acclimatize my mind to the daily absurdities of life back in Hungary. Apparently Hungary's fractured and fractious right wing is at it again. The wingnuts have decided to stir the political pot again this March, and started early with some demonstrations at the Hungarian parliament this week. (Images from cause this week is the cordon fence erected around the Parliament at Kossuth square after last October's messy and violent anti-government demonstrations. Apparently, Pretender to the Throne of Hungary and former prime minister Viktor Orban - faced with splits in his own FIDESZ party and the possible rise of rival right wing political parties - decided to take the cordon fence down himself. Here we go for our weekly right wing populist putsch attempt!Of course, removing police barriers isn't exactly legal, even for ex-law students turned politicos, so once again we have the beginnings of a great Hungarian Tempest-in-a-Teapot to watch for the next few weeks. Already, walls around Budapest have been spray-painted with the slogan "MUK" which stands for "We'll Start Again in March." This was a slogan used in the winter of 1957 after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Recycling old slogans is very big here. The FIDESZ TV news channel, Hir TV referred to the incident as the "removal of the Iron Curtain."And here we have the néni brigade, the angry aunties, complete with the Arpad-striped flag. It's not just a gaggle of irritating old women screaming at you, it's a gaggle of irritating old women holding flags that hark back to Hungary's Arrow Cross Party, the gang of hoodlums that Adolf Eichmann appointed to exterminate Hungary's Jews even as the Soviet Army was rolling across the Puszta in 1945. The Arpad flag is just one of the more hateful symbols used by the Hungarian right. Above are the... "Goy Motorcyclists"... a motorcycle club that uses their rather expensive touring bikes at right wing rallies to make noise, slow traffic, and intimidate the police. They are called the Goy Motor Club so that nobody will get any idea in their head that they are... well, as they say, "not Hungarian." In Hungary, behind every Right Wing slogan lies an antisemitic sentiment. Well, at least we can all agree on one thing... eat more kolbasz!