Gypsy Music in Budapest: From Restaurants Gypsy Schmaltz To Roma Folk & Jazz Musicians

Many tourists enjoy going to restaurants in Budapest where live Gypsy music is performed. If you are one of them, you will find several restaurants worth considering (usually indicated on a board outside the restaurant that Gypsy music is played). Some of the restaurants that advertise their Gypsy music are, for instance, Mátyás Pince, Százéves Étterem, Márvány Menyasszony, Nádor Étterem, etc. etc.

It is good to know that, as Frommer’s Guide writes,

“what you find in restaurants is not authentic Gypsy music, but an ersatz pop variety. If a member of the band plays a number at your table, good manners dictate that you give a tip; the appropriate amount varies with the price category of the restaurant itself (1,000 Ft-2,000 Ft/$4.50-$9 is a fair starting point). It is perfectly acceptable, however, for you to politely decline his or her offer to play for you.”

Wandering or settled Gypsies, Roma people had all kinds of jobs from trading horses, blacksmithing, through basket weaving, rope and broom making, to fortune telling, theft, faith healing, begging and even gold washing (in Transylvania). However, in all probability, the most prestigious job was being a musician for a Roma person. And this was precisely the most in demand (especially as technical development reduced the need for blacksmith jobs). Luckily, the musician life-style gave ample scope for the restless legs to wander, and Roma musicians travelled all over their regions to play for money at big family events, esp. weddings.

Old Hungarian films between the two world wars often pictured Hungarian Romas as playing the lone guest’s favourite tune in the restaurant or inn. The somewhat legendary concept of these films – featuring the Hungarian actor and sex symbol Pál Jávor – was that Hungarians enjoy themselves crying/ sobbing (“sírva vígad a magyar”) while obviously singing to the tunes of the accompanying Gypsy violin soloist (and feverishly sweating with deep emotions, occasionally pounding the candle lit table covered with red and white checked table, – or something like that). Needless to say, the mandatory part of emotional peaks was the Roma musician opening up your broken heart in love to catharsis. Here’s a cheerful version in video that may give you a hint (a scene from the All Men are Mad film):

Now you won’t see these heartbroken Hungarian lovers singing with Gypsy bands any more (if there were any), or, at least very rarely in films again, but you can still enjoy your meal while having professional Roma musicians playing for you.

If you really like Gypsy music – not just at restaurants – you may be interested in the concerts given by the Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra (the 100-member Roma Orchestra in literal translation from the Hungarian ‘100 Tagú Cigányzenekar’). They play Strauss (senior and junior), Brahms, Monti Czardas, etc. See them playing in Hősök Tere (Heroes’ Square) in Budapest.

Or you can listen to excellent contemporary (Gypsy and non-Gypsy) jazz by Béla Szakcsi Lakatos (Liszt-prize winner) and the New Hungarian Gypsy Jazz Band.

More authentic Gypsy tunes are played by Bea Palya, Kalyi Jag, and Ando Drom. Here’s a song performed by the fabulous and talented Bea Palya at a popular Hungarian TV show:

And here is Kalyi Jag:

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Sources:
1, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Research Institute of Ethnic and National Minorities, Roma Report 2000 by Erno Kallai
2, The Gypsies During the Second World War by Karola Fings, Donald Kenrick

Comments

  1. Very good article, but at the end when you talk about Roma music naming Bea Palya (who doesn’t sign gipsy music, only sometimes, she’s a hungarian world music singer!!)Kalyi Jag and Ando Drom still exist but in a totally other formation than what you show,and not good anymore and now the new groups you can see performing this kind of music are Romano Drom (Balkan Beats each month at the Gödör Klub), Szilvasi Gypsy Band, Ternipe, Khamoro, Karavan Famili and a few others . You can mostly find this music at the Gödör klub and Fono! Best, Marina

    • Well, one won’t find the singers or their ilk recommended by Anna in any Hungarian restaurant. Wonder why? The Hungarian Gypsy music she refers to as heartbroken are the vocal songs called Hallgato “to listen to” of the Golden Age. These were sad indeed, and considering the miserable life, child mortality before the advent of penicillin, discrimination, one can understand why.
      A lot of these songs, besides being beautifully mournful, are about death, separation, parents, etc. They bring tears to my eyes when listening to them at home. But then there are also the merry, lively songs like the csardas, the ‘friss (fresh) csardas’ and the Andalgo – kind of “nice song. Disappointingly, you won’t hear these in tourist restaurants.

      A few recommended classic singers one may find on youtube are Kovacs Apollonia, Vöröss Sári, Kiss Kaoly, Solti Karoly, the Lakatos Sandor orchestra.

      Finally, without wanting to sound chauvinistic, one has to be born Hungarian to understand and really appreciate the real version of this music.

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