Thursday, July 25, 2013

Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Endangered Language Speakers Just Want to Have Fun.

Yiddish fiddler and folklorist Michael Alpert described participating in the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival as  being in "Bob Heaven" and he wasn't far off the mark. Aside from the Hungarian folk tradition focus, the festival also featured areas on Black American dress and adornment in "The Will to Adorn" theme area, and on endangered language groups in the "One World, Many Voices" focus of the festival. Having worked with language revival linguistics for many years, it was an amazing experience to wake up and have breakfast with some of the last 20 speakers of Bolivian Kallawaya languge,
Kallawaya women
or with a dozen of the speakers of Passamaquoddy, a Wabanaki language from Maine, while comparing breakfast choices among several groups of native peoples from Columbia (they like fruit for breakfast) and the Transylvanians (who decided that the low fat skinless turkey sausages were "breakfast mici.") Istvan Jambor "Dumnezo" and Dezso neni often shared a table with me (yes, he is the fiddler who inspired the name of this blog.
The original "Dumnezo"
It means "The Lord" in Romanian, and aptly describes his job as bandleader in Szaszcsavas: he tells you what to do, and you do it.) Then everybody heads out to the air conditioned shuttle buses to get to the festival site on the national Mall. Washington DC was in the midst of a heat wave, which meant nothing to the Waayu indians from Columbia, who were always dressed for the heat.
How to beat the heat, Waayu style.
The Hungarians tended to wilt a bit in the heat, not surprising given that many were dressed in heavy embroidery or even wool shepherds cloaks, but luckily the festival set out iced water and huge fans backstage in most of the participant areas. In one program, the Will To Adorn area sent over a designer of African American ladies' hats to discuss fashion. Her talk was as much a carefully honed sales pitch as folkloric event: "Ladies, this hat is called a fascinator... you can wear it anywhere... to church, to a social... it works fabulously in any color... wear it everywhere and everyone will take notice!" to which her panel companion, a maker of Hungarian shepherd hats balanced the discussion with "I make hats. My father made hats. My Uncle makes hats. My Grandfather made hats..."
Not actually a fascinator.
Among the groups I found the most engaging were the Garifuna, also known as the Black Caribs. Two emigrant groups of Garifuna from the Bronx and from LA took part in the festival. The Garifuna are the descendants of Africans who were either shipwrecked or escaped to the Island of Saint Vincent in the 1600s, merging with the indigenous Carib people and adopting much of their language and culture, while retaining elements of African culture, such drumming and religion.
Garifuna drummers.
They were transported by the British in the late 1780s to the coast of Central America where they have settlements in Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala, from whence they have emigrated to North American cities for work. Most are trilingual in Garifuna, English, and Spanish, and being on the bus with these guys was a blast: imagine being on a bus full of Jamaicans who suddenly speak Arawak (Garifuna is a mixed language with a predominance of Arawak vocabulary, since Carib was the men's language and Arawak the women's. Ruben Reyes, a Garifuna language activist, spent a lot of time with the Columbian Arhuacos making comparative Arawak word lists and even gave me a lesson in basic Garifuna verb morphology.
Garifuna party band.
Like I said: Bob heaven.) Among the endangered language groups who were represented at the festival were native American groups like the Wabanaki, represented by mostly Passamaquoddy people from Sipayik (Pleasant Point, Maine.) Passamaquoddy was at the point where the language was still spoken by the older generation but was not being learned by children, until a project was begun to introduce immersion schooling and produce a Wabanaki dictionary. The language is now beginning to produce new competent speakers among the younger generation who will  have the opportunity to learn from those who actually grew up in the language.
Blanche Sockbasin, Passamaquody speaker and basket weaver.
While I have done a lot of reading on Eastern Algonkian languages, until I sat on a bus surrounded by the Passamaquoddy I had never heard it spoken. Another language presented was the Siletz Dee-ni language of Oregon and northern California. When the Siletz tribe's reservation and federal Indian status was terminated by the US government, members of the community worked to preserve what they could of its language and culture. With recognition by the BIA, they began a language revival program which is beginning to produce a new generation of competent speakers.
Siletz Dee-ni members
Since there was no generation of older speakers to mentor them, however, the younger users of Siletz Dee-ni found new contexts in which to communicate in their language: they begin to send text messages to each other in it. Closer to (my) home, Yiddish language and culture was represented by the An-Ski Ensemble from New York, consisting of my good friends Rete Rushevsky, Ethel Raim (both of the New York Center for Traditional Music and Dance) Michael Alpert and Jake Shulman-Ment, presenting an older klezmer tradition alongside Yiddish song.
An-Sky Ensemble
I did one concert with them as a cross-program with the Hungarian program, but this is a group that needs to record a CD as soon as possible. you rarely hear Yiddish music done as well in an informal context, and with such verve and such yikhes (look it up) as this. Possibly the most successful case of language renewal among american indigenous people is that of the Hawaiians. Hawaiian suffered greatly during the 20th century, until a generation ago it was barely spoken in the home by any but the older generation, and the only place still raising children in the Hawaiian language was on the restricted island of Ni'ihau and nearby Kaua'i.
Hawaiian party at the hotel
By setting up language nest immersion schools while there were still young speakers, Hawaiian language activists have managed to arrest the loss of the language for at least another generation, but, as educator and musician Kalehua Krug told me "there are only about 50 households in all that speak Hawaiian every day all the time. That's not much." Among other things, Krug was able to show me a few tips on how to play slack key guitar riffs on the ukulele.
Kalehua Krug
By early evening everybody headed back to the hotel and the daily after party that began at 9 and ran until... dawn in most cases. The Hungarians tended to open the evenings with a dance house, which often brought local Hungarians and folkies along to dance and chat.
Pubi and Florin play Palatka
The Folk Music society of Washington DC sponsored the parties, offering free snacks and cheap beer - much welcome in a Marriott hotel with hotel priced beer. On the second day, while the Hungarians were winding down, the Garifuna showed up, borrowed a drum from the Mexican Zapotecs, and set the room on fire with a long set of drumming and singing. It drew the Hungarians in to dance with the African Maroons from Palenque, had the Zapotec flute players jamming along, and sure enough the ultimate party hounds - the Kalmyk Mongol women - joined in doing their birdlike dancing to the beat.
Palenque meets Garifuna

Friday, July 19, 2013

Béla Halmos: 1946 - 2013.

Béla Halmos, one of the founding fathers of the Hungarian folk music revival movement, passed away at his home in Budapest yesterday. He was 68. Béla was one of my great friends and a role model as I was growing up. He was, in fact, one of the main reasons I live in Hungary today.
In 1972 I was staying at my Uncle's house in Veszprém when I saw a TV documentary following two long haired but serious young Hungarians as they went from village to village in Hungary sticking microphones into old people's faces, collecting folk music, and then attempting to reproduce it themselves. I was fascinated, and so my uncle began taking me to friends of his who played the fiddle or the Hungarian zither. Eventually my uncle bought me a cheap Czech fiddle (which is hanging on the wall behind me as I type) and started me on my lifelong path to making screaming East European fiddle music. That TV show was a window on the very beginning of the Dance House movement.
At the original dance house, Kossuth Klub, Zuglo, 1972
Eventually, I got to meet Béla Halmos in 1986 in Boston Massachusetts, when Beth Cohen and her all Woman Hungarian folk band brought him over to play for Dance workshops. The serious unsmiling guy in the film turned out to be a rather jolly fellow with a taste for Chinese and Japanese food and a wonderfully competent, if quirky, command of English. Béla Halmos took Hungarian musical culture out of the academic and folkloristic realm and put it back into the hands of everyday people, especially young people, and set an example that would grow into a movement. That movement – beginning with 1970s communist era Hungarian youth in bad hippie haircuts – grew into a unifying social force for Hungarians called the Tanchaz, or Dance House movement. Dance House put the fun back into folk dancing, put fiddles back in the hands of teen musicians, returned the csárdás  to its place as a sexy dance for young Hungarians, and helped Hungarians retain their unique cultural identity at a time when the prevailing Communist ideology still strove for a Stalinoid cultural sameness in the identity of the World Proletariat. What Béla Halmos did was simply genius: he learned to play the fiddle in Hungarian village style. And then he played. A lot. Everywhere.
Fiddling in the bar at the Fono Club
Béla bácsi (Uncle Béla) was as central to the shift in consciousness that led to the fall of Communism as any samizdat publisher or Radio Free Europe broadcaster. Bela helped shift a cultural viewpoint, and he did it simply by saying “This is how we sound.” And then he would pick up a fiddle and show you. I mentioned Bela a couple of posts ago when he was playing a set of dances from Szék at the Dance House Day celebration at Franz Liszt Sq. in Pest in June. While at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival I asked several organizers there “Why isn't Béla bácsi here?” since anything celebrating Dance House culture on a large scale could have included the participation of one of its founders and key popularizers. Béla Halmos was (with Ferenc Sebő) the founder of the first of the Hungarian Folk revival band back in the early 1970s, the Sebo-Halmos band. As such, he had a stature in the scene equivalent to, say, that of a Pete Seeger in the USA or a Ewan MacColl in the UK as the Father of the Folk Scene. Trained in classical violin and studying to be an engineer, Halmos met Sebő as students taking part in a folk song competition around 1969. Rejecting the over-arranged restaurant Gypsy music style of the folklore troupes, Sebő and Halmos wanted to sound like the village musicians they had heard on field recordings of folk music recorded by ethnomusicologists like Bartók and Lajtha.
Playing with Icsan in Szek, around 1973
They sought out the dance ethnographer Gyorgy Martin who shared his huge collection of original recordings of Transylvanian folk bands and steered them in the right direction of getting on a train and going to the “pure source” of the village musicians themselves in Transylvania, where the older Hungarian traditions still maintain their context in rural villages. Béla found his sound in the village of Szek, in the north Transylvanian plain, and his mentor was Adám István, named “Icsán” - a hard-boiled old village Gypsy fiddler whose repertoire and fiddle style were absorbed by Béla to became the core of the Dance House revival.
While the Dance House movement was “tolerated” during the 1980s, after 1990 Béla and other Dance House researchers worked to make the folk dance movement a part of the education system and bring it to a wider audience. Béla produced a long running TV series on Hungarian folk music as well as taking a position at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as a musicologist and archivist, all the while teaching workshops and performing concerts and dances.He preferred the simple joys of a weekend night playing fiddle for a room full of sweaty dancers to almost anything – except maybe a few strong shots of palinka after the set, as long as somebody had the foresight to bring along some spicy salami or bacon to settle the stomach. Which I always didBéla Halmos' influence will far out shadow the sorrow at his passing: he leaves behind thousands of active musicians, singers, and dancers all over the world whose love of the arcane village band sounds of Transylvania is directly the result of his life's work. Béla was one of the strongest supporters of what we were doing in Di Naye Kapelye, and included us in several of his music series and TV projects. He had a broad, relativistic modern Anthropologists' view of the world, not the provincial East European “folklore” vision so many still profess. He was not a ranting nationalist, but he loved Hungarian culture while valuing the multicultural aspects of life in the Carpathian basin. He was a cultural treasure as well as a cultural activist, a real Renaissance man. But most of all, he was a nice guy. A wonderfully nice guy. A good friend. He knew what was good. As his mentor, Icsán the fiddler used to say "Ami jó, az jó." What is good , is good. Bela simply did good work.

He played a dance in Budapest like he belonged in a village in the Mezőség. He was a good teacher, a good man. We will miss him, but we will feel his influence for many, many years to come whenever a fiddle comes out of a case, and a Hungarian tune comes out of a fiddle. Nyugodj békében Béla!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hungary at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Washington DC.

Women from Szék meet Garifuna (Black Carib) women.
The 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival just ended, and I was proud to have been a participant in the Hungarian focus area of the festival, representing Jewish folk music traditions from Hungary. I often balk at labeling what I do as "Klezmer" but then again... that is what people expect of Ashkenazic traditional music, so Klezmer they got. I didn't have my own band - Di Naye Kapelye - there with me, but I worked out a couple of sets with Pal Istvan "Szalonna" (the word means 'bacon' - Istvan's nickname. Jewish music always goes better with bacon!) and his band, who are as perfect a Hungarian folk band as it can get. Szalonna comes from the Karpatalja / West Ukraine town of Visk, and so he is a natural master of the style of music played in the Szatmar region, so I chose a repertoire leaning heavy on the Satmar and Vizhnitz Hasidic traditions, which borrow a lot of motifs from the local Hungarian folk styles and allowed the members of Szalonna's band - including the fearsome cimbalom virtuoso Sandor Urmos - to really settle into the tunes and let loose with some great solos and ensemble improv. We did a few side gigs: played the Kennedy Center on July 4th and did the Katzen Arts Center as a special concert for the Hungarian Embassy. We even got to meet Hungary's ambassador to the USA, György Szapáry. He's the well dressed chap standing next to me in the photo below. 
Jews and Bacon. Always a treat. 
A gig is a gig, though, and this one meant that we were missing dinner. Thanks to Festival Transport manager /driver Andrew Bautista, a half hour after this pic was taken we were all chowing down on Five Guys hamburgers. Does life get better? And while I couldn't have my whole band there, Jake Shulman-Ment was on hand to help out - a satellite member of Di Nayes and - now that he lives in the USA - a key member of the An-ski Ensemble which was representing Yiddish music in the Endangered Languages focus of the Festival. After the first days the hundred or so Hungarians who took part in the Folklife Festival all became something of a small community.
Kun Goulash of the Immortals!
The Csontos family from Karcag in the Kun region of the Hungarian plains demonstrated their award winning sheep goulash every other day, and while visitors could not taste any of the traditional foods prepared (due to strict rules by the National Park Service which controls the National Mall in DC) we particpants would wait behind the stage to wolf the sheep stew down. If you missed the goulash, there was always something from Kollar Ilona Neni and Bepe from the Voivodina town of Kishegyes. Ilona neni is a master of both Bacska cuisine and of salty ways to describe the searing, muggy DC heat (usually involving bits of dog anatomy.)
Apricot jam and pickles with Ilona Neni and Bepe!
The food demonstrations were probably the most popular event - it drew crowds of people lusting for a forbidden taste of paprika cake, puliszka with cheese, or slambuc, Hungary's answer to lasagna. Since most of the Hungarians chose not to take the evening dinner catered by our Hotel (in order to save by pocketing the per diem instead) this was also the area where everybody in the Magyar contingent hovered about waiting to eat "normal" Hungarian food, albeit food prepared by some of the best regional cooks in the Carpathian basin.) Personally, I think Transylvanian cheese puliszka is the perfect food for a hot summer day. Thanks Tekla!
Boot-slapping fun, 8 hours a day in the 93 degree heat.
While the main Danubius stage featured folk dance 
ensembles performing very un-Smithsonian folk dance choreographies while wearing layers of embroidered wool in the DC heat, there was a lot of music happening all across the Hungarian Heritage area. Anthropologist Mary Taylor managed the Heritage tent with an almost supernatural sense of 'cool' through the chaos of schedule changes and self-destructing bass strings. You couldn't tune up without drawing a crowd.
Several of Hungary's best duda bagpipe players were on hand, but we definitely missed having Ferenc Tobak there - he lives in Fort Bragg, California and is, beyond a doubt, America's best maker and player of the Hungarian Duda, and has beena major force in keeping Hungarian heritage alive in the USA since he moved here in the early 1990s (right after making me a duda which I still have, although - in a gesture of mercy to my apartment neighbors in Zuglo - I haven't actively played bagpipe in years.) The best part of the festival was what visitors didn't see: the after parties at our Hotel in Arlington, Virginia. I post more on that very soon.