It has been said that all a Hungarian needs to get drunk are a glass of water and a Gypsy fiddler. Like many stereotypes of Hungary, it is one that dies hard. But one stereotype has been disappearing with alarming speed: the Gypsy violinist, strolling amongst the tables of fine restaurants laden with grand history. These musicians are fast becoming a thing of the past, victims of changing tastes, lost somewhere on Hungary's headlong charge on the road towards Europe.
Contrary to popular misinformation, Hungary is not the "home" of the Gypsies, but rather one crucible in which Gypsy culture developed and spread to many other lands. The Gypsies are Hungary's largest ethnic minority group. Historians and linguists trace their origin to north India, from which they fled in the eighth century due to war or famine. By the tenth century the Persian poet Firdusi records them as nomadic musicians, and by the 11th century they had reached Europe. In their own language they refer to themselves as Rom, and their language as Romanes. In Hungary there are two main groups - the so called Musician Gypsies, and the Vlach Gypsies, distinguished by dialect and traditional occupation.
Gypsy musical prowess has long been noted, and families of musicians tended to settle down in areas where the demand for their art was greatest. While preserving the percussive and vocal music of their own folklore, Gypsies adopted the instruments and repertoire of the non-Gypsy majority to make a living. In Hungary, this meant following fashions of the gentry. While Hungarian peasants sang and danced to the music of the bagpipe, flute, and hurdy-gurdy, Gypsy musicians were often hired by nobility and provided with the more fashionable violins, violas, and cellos - considered emblematic of western musical culture. To these instruments was added the cimbalom, an instrument with a long tradition in Asia. By the end of the 18th century, Gypsy orchestras were an established features of Hungarian entertainment.
As the urban areas of Hungary developed, so did Hungarian national consciousness and literature. One result was a form of composed popular song based on folk roots - the nota - which swept Hungary in the middle of the nineteenth century, and remains the backbone of the repertoire to this day. At the same time, the fast and rhythmic verbunk, (originally a recruiting dance) became an instrumental showpiece in the hands of virtuostic primas, or lead fiddlers, such as the famous Janos Bihari. The csardas, a peasant two-step far removed from the staid dances of the Hapsburg court, became a veritable dance craze, its popularity rivaling that of other ethnic dance crazes of the time - the waltz and the polka.
Large professional orchestras comprised of Gypsy musicians began to appear in the first half of the nineteenth century. History records the popularity of those led by the famed Czinka Panna, Ferenc Patikarus, Laci Racz, and the semi-mythical Czermak. Band members were often related, giving rise to family dynasties of Gypsy musicians which endure to this day, such as the Balogh, Berki and Lakatos families, many of whom have branched into jazz, winning international recognition.
The lot of the professional cafe bands held firmly during this century. Fifty years ago Budapest was the vacation center for the high society of Europe, and the presence of Gypsy fiddlers in cafes and restaurants was an essential ingredient.
Before WWII bands with vast repertoires of notas and csardas were a feature of the city's grand restaurants. The primas of the Margit Island Park orchestra, Imre Magyari, was treated like a king in high class Budapest society, while the famed Pista Danko was known for his repertoire of songs favored by Budapest's theater elite at the old Mikado Gardens. Turn of the century students from the university frequented the Champagne Flask, on Magyar street, to hear the ancient cimbalom player from Bihari's original band. Famous Gypsy orchestras were a major attraction at the Wampetics Gardens (now the Gundel) in the City Park, and even today older Budapest residents reminisce how young lovers would stroll in the park to listen to the music wafting out of this elegant restaurant. Of course, none of the better hotels would be without at least two orchestras.
As the gaiety of Budapest nightlife declined following the devastation of the Second World War, so to did the demand for musicians. Bands found it less lucrative playing to empty restaurants. The talented youth went to conservatories, often graduating into the Rajko Gypsy orchestra, a Party sponsored troupe featuring young Gypsy musicians. Even the gray gloom of communism could not entirely wipe out Budapest's need for Gypsy music to accompany wine. Many of the old songs had been banned, and poor indeed was the primas who did not have an encyclopedic command of outlaw repertoire.
Finding a good Gypsy band in a restaurant is getting harder today. The Kulacs, on Dohany utca, comes close to the original spirit of the classic restaurants, as does the Matyas Pince, host to the Lakatos family dynasty's orchestra. The Gellert Hotel preserves the real atmosphere of the grand old days when the band strikes up an after dinner tune. Many first time diners are surprised when the violinist approaches the table to play. If you don't want to have a violin in your soup course politely decline. An after dinner bottle of wine, however, is the classic time to call over the band. Why not ask for "your song?" Discretely slip the primas a five hundred forint note (western currencies gladly accepted) and make a request. Suggest the classic Monte Csardas, or the emotional Hullamzo Balaton Tetejen ("On the Waves of the Balaton") or the sentimental Csak Egy Kislany Van A Vilagon ("There's Only One Girl In the World"). Most band leaders have an inexhaustible repertoire.
The fashion of an evening of Gypsy violinists accompanying wine and nota, hardy enough to withstand two centuries of Hungary's turbulent history, has had a hard time maintaining itself among the young generation. Many younger Hungarians are more likely to dine on pizza and then slip out to discos. The Gypsy bands are no longer a ubiquitous part of the Hungarian cultural landscape. One has to hunt them out, preferably in countryside inns where tastes have not gone over to the cheesy sounds of the Casio organ and saxophone, or the all purpose cassette deck. The music is still out there, and now as ever, still worth the search.
Dork Zygotian is a Hungarian, an anthropologist and a damn fine fiddler.
© The Hungary Report, Nr. 2.05, July 22, 1996