The Politics of Hungary’s Folk Music: Beyond Nationalism and Xenophobia

You hear them in Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Berlin: Punk bands, "world musicians" and cabarets filch Roma, or Gypsy, Jewish and Balkan melodies, and casually weave them into other musical traditions. In these metropolises, Eastern European folk music roosts on the margins, threading together broader Balkan, Jewish and Roma themes to survive. Yet on the edge of this musical map beats Budapest, a folk boomtown with thriving Magyar, Roma and the seedlings of the neo-klezmer scene. In a town where established folk communities are the norm, do they ever cross-pollinate?

Hungary is in turmoil. Its socialist premier effectively resigned in March 2009, and darker nationalistic instincts have been resurfacing. Traditionalist politicians have been evangelizing, calling for a return to a Christian, family-values society. Amid resentment at the financial crisis and stalled European Union prosperity, Jobbik, Hungary’s ultra-right-wing party, won 14% of the vote in June’s EU parliamentary elections, scant fewer than the Socialists. Jobbik now holds three of Hungary’s 22 seats in Brussels.

For artists, at least, volatile times can often be creative, if not downright inspiring. So are Hungarians – despite the political and economic situation – expanding their folk frontiers to include Jewish and Gypsy musical elements?

"If someone wishes to make a living playing music, he or she must study the music of all of Hungary’s communities," said Endre Maruzsenszki, the lead fiddler of Budapest folk band Coffee and Milk. "Which is difficult," he added between sets at RS9, a bar known for its live acts, "as it once included Transylvanians, Slovakians, Germanic and Balkan people."

Today, mainly ethnic Hungarians, Roma and Jews comprise these communities.

"If you’re Jewish, we play klezmer. If you’re Gypsy, then Central Carpathian songs. If you’re Hungarian, then folk music," Maruzsenszki said.

But in Hungary, communities mingle less than one would imagine.

Roma, marginalized and poor, suffer legendary discrimination. Jews, though mostly assimilated and more affluent than the Roma, are by no means free from antisemitism. Though mistrust runs deep between the two minorities, they share an enemy: the far right. The Hungarian Guard, an armed paramilitary associated with the Jobbik party, has attacked and killed Roma since 2008. The violence continues with fire bombings and shootings, and with the Jobbik party scapegoating "Gypsy crime" for Hungary’s problems. Many point to Jobbik’s popularity as the bellwether for a resurgent antisemitism. Indeed, days before the June 2009 EU parliamentary elections, Krisztina Morvai, a law professor at Budapest University and one of Jobbik’s top candidates, was quoted by the Guardian as saying, "So-called proud Hungarian Jews should go back to playing with their tiny little circumcised tails." No apology was issued, and Morvai now serves in the EU parliament.

Veronika Szekely, the 19 year old leader of Fel Vono, has a different take. After fiddling through a show at Budavári Művelődési Ház, a cultural center overlooking the Danube, she explained that her group plays "authentic" folk. "We play traditional music only," she wrote in a follow up e-mail. "Our aim is to keep our traditions alive."

Lusting for authenticity to the exclusion of foreign influences, Balkan musical guru Bob Cohen argues, is somewhat expected of local acts.

Hungarian folk bands become "crystallized by their demands for ‘authenticity’ in a way that stunts growth," Cohen explained. "On the other hand, Gypsy music is always changing, and Jewish music is also in flux, catering to the demands of its audience."

Cohen, who has nested in Budapest and researched Eastern Europe music since 1988, believes that one reason for this is that minority music doesn’t need to reflect "cultural purity" as defined by the mainstream. Media thought control sounds strangely authoritarian, but then again, Hungary did languish under secret police, informants and dictatorship for nearly 45 years.

While it’s difficult to find Hungarian musicians whose music mixes with the other communities, it’s not impossible.

Julius Brody, the pomaded and pencil-mustachioed pianist at Zangora Bar in Budapest, played "If I Were a Rich Man," "Sunrise, Sunset" and, before breaking, "Matchmaker": songs from musical Fiddler On The Roof. Not exactly traditional, but maybe as close to a musical powwow as there comes in today’s Budapest.

"Jewish, Hungarian and Gypsy," he proclaimed, like a New Age sage, "it’s all the same."


Sammy Loren is documentary filmmaker and journalist currently based in Los Angeles. He spent last year working in Europe. For more information, visit his blog: