Song Series #18: Hungarian Songs I Missed While Abroad

I have returned from the U.S. It is good to be back. Many thanks to everyone who was part of the trip in any way: the person who fed Sziszi (update: I found Dominó and brought him back inside today!), the friends and family I saw in the U.S., the events I attended (including a play, a Kandinsky exhibition, a musical, and a songwriter showcase), all the staff at the various places I visited, the wonderful morning minyan service at B’nai Jeshurun on Thursday morning (which feels like this morning, not yesterday).

I had Hungarian songs in my head throughout the trip, not always the ones I would expect, but no big surprises either. These are background favorites, I’d say. Songs that hold their own whether I am listening to them or not. In this piece, I will not be translating the songs, but I think they come across (in large part) through the music itself.

One that kept coming to my mind was Cappuccino Projekt’s (Dávid Korándi’s) “Vidáman se.” Too hard to explain in a short space, but sad and exhilarating at the same time. It captures life somehow. Here it is.

Another was Noémi Barkóczi’s “Dolgom volt” (approximately “I had something to deal with,” narrated by someone who has been out of touch with others for a while). Barkóczi sometimes seems to me (slightly) like a Hungarian Joni Mitchell in the 2020s. I love the true-to-life lyrics, the chords, the rhythms, the swooping and diving of the vocals. Here’s the video.

Galaxisok was in my ears most of the time. Which song? Hard to choose, but let’s take “Focipályák éjszaka” (“Football Fields at Night”), since I listened to it in the rental car several times, and there’s this live video.

Felső Tízezer’s “Semmi pánik 2” (“No Panic 2”) figured in there somewhere. Here’s their delightful infomercial-style video of the song.

A song that I played for others (from my phone, not on an instrument, unfortunately) was Kaláka’s “Hajnali rigók” (Dawn Thrushes), a poem by Lőrinc Szabó, which they set to music. They have a whole album and songbook of bird songs (and many, many albums on other themes: bicycles, various poets, musical instruments, psalms, and much more). I can’t wait to hear them again in August. They are legendary; just as Russian literature, it has been said, came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” so contemporary Hungarian song comes out from under Kaláka.

On a tangent: At Arlene’s Grocery on Tuesday, I heard Noah Chenfeld play his song “Orioles,” which was inspired by the rhythm of an oriole’s call. I like it. Although it isn’t Hungarian, I’ll include it, because it was part of the week, and because there’s something interesting going on here. I look forward to more of his music. (My favorite music of the evening was SugarSugar—especially their song “Cruel Things“—that’s another tangent, but you can listen to them and watch their wonderful “Unbreakable” video.) By the way, the Platon Karataev duo will be headlining at Arlene’s on October 24!

Lots of Platon Karataev songs played in my head, some of which haven’t been released yet. From Partért kiáltó, “Csak befelé” (“Only inward”) came up again and again. Here’s a performance of the song by the Platon Karataev duo, whom I will get to hear on Tuesday.

And to finish off, Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day,” in the translation of Géza Simon) played itself persistently, as did other favorites from his work, including “Pure Sense.” I have brought up “On a Fine Day” many times here, but there’s always room for repetition. Who knows: maybe he will play it tomorrow night.

On A Fine Day
(Egy szép napon)

János Pilinszky, translated by Géza Simon

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

Always, as always
I wished to be back.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy weekend!

For other posts in the Song Series, go here.

Fishing on Orfű: Day 2 (June 30, 2022)

It was good to take time in the morning with coffee, etc., and then ride the bus back to the festival. A few hours stood, thinning, between my arrival and Felső Tízezer’s ascension to the water stage, so I went back to “A tűzhöz közel” (the stage where Cz.K.Sebő/capsule boy had played the previous evening) and listened to the sounds of the forest. Here is a recording I made.

I headed to the water stage when they were starting to set up (see the picture above), assembled my belongings in an inconspicuous heap, and entered the water. The show was terrific. I didn’t know the songs very well, but others in the water were singing along to every word, and I started picking up a few of them, such as “Utólag.” I loved the semi-acoustic sound because I could hear their individual musicians so clearly. They and the audience seemed to be having a great time. Besides the submerged assemblage, there was a large crowd sitting by the water’s edge. After the show, when I had clibed back onto land, I heard someone telling someone else, “You missed it! They played your favorite song, and we were calling, Gergő, Gergő!”

I had originally planned to stay for the next water stage show, to be performed by the musician Balaton, but I knew I had had enough sun and didn’t want to push it. So I went back to “A tűzhöz közel” to see what I would hear. First there was a beautiful classical performance: two mandalins and keyboards, then guitar and keyboards. The music took many interesting turns.

After that, there was someone whose music I didn’t like, but I’ll just leave it at that. I stayed through her show, because I was eager to hear Szalai Anna and Dorozsmai Gergő for the first time.

Well, within a few minutes of their taking the stage, I was grinning and in tears, completely taken by them. I had never heard them live before and had heard just one of their songs online. Anna Szalai reminds me a little of my female friends and favorite female musicians in the U.S.: badass, sweet, deeply smart. She was smoking, drinking beer, and singing smoky, wistful, funny songs to Gergő Dorozsmai’s gorgeous keyboard accompaniment. Here’s one of my favorites from the show, “Rigó”:

And here’s another favorite, “Senki nem beszél,” the title song of their duo album.

What a happy discovery! I had heard of them before (many times) and had heard “Senki nek beszél” before, but this was my real introduction to them. Now I can’t wait to hear them again.

After that, I took the local bus back to Pécs and listened to most of Continental Subway. The last hour (the “Random Road” segment) was devoted to music from Haiti, and there too I made some exciting discoveries.

Today I hope to be open to new music without getting overloaded, since there will be so much to hear: Middlemist Red, Barkóczi Noémi, Kaláka, and of course Platon Karataev. In between, I will wander around and see what there is to hear. But before then, in the early afternoon, I hope to go hear a discussion (featuring Zwickl Ábel and others) about music technicians. In that case (which is looking likelier by the minute), I will then go up to A tűzhöz közel for a trombone octet followed by Flanger Kids. So be it. Let today be the packed day. Then tomorrow: Kubalibre, Elefánt, and Galaxisok! Nothing for me after Galaxisok, because I want to leave with those songs in my ears.

Fishing on Orfű: Day 1 (June 29, 2022)

I bounded out the door around 9:30, took a delayed train to Budapest, missed my Pécs connection, did a post office errand and had a Vietnamese lunch, took the next train, got to Pécs, went running around (sweating from the heat and the day) in search of an ATM machine, having realized that I had to pay the hostel in cash, found one, ran to the hostel, checked in and dropped off my bags (I have a tiny private room for four days, perfect under these circumstances), caught the jam-packed festival bus, and rode up into the hills and down to Orfű with some fifty jovial, excited people. Then went through the ticket check, got my festival pass, and headed up to the “A tűzhöz közel” (“Near the Fire”) stage to hear my first concert of the festival, which will stand out among them all.

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly gave a solo Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy concert: the words “dreamy, melancholic, joyous” are only tangents, since the music has so many interesting elements and is so moving at the same time. It brings up new thoughts, new emotions. Sebő seemed fully in his element. And there, in the forest shade and early evening, the large audience was wrapped (rapt) in these songs and sounds. They had classical influences (one of them was slightly Arvo Pärt-like, and in others I heard hints of baroque music); they alternated between Hungarian and English and a language of their own. They have a feeling of exploration; I don’t know whether any improvising was going on in the moment, but they keep searching and diving and returning.

After this, I heard two terrific concerts: Lázár Tesók and Felső Tízezer. The Lázár Tesók crowd was a little bit too rowdy for the music, singing drunkenly along and out of tune, but it was all in good fun, and people were having a great time. There was love in the air.

In between this and Felső Tízezer, I walked down to the lake. Lightning was flashing in the distance. Here you can see ducks passing by.

And the Felső Tízezer show was punchy and beautiful. They played old and new songs, including some of my favorites. The audience knew the songs and was involved in every moment of them. During ”Semmi pánik 2” we were all anticipating the ”pont pont pont”—it was a great moment, with fingers flying in the air.

After that, I caught just the final two minutes of the band Kaukázus, enough to make me curious to hear them again. I also heard a minute or two of Vad Fruttik, but not enough to tell me whether I want to hear more.

The evening’s rollickings were far from over! From here, I went down to the bus stop, hoping to catch a festival bus back to Pécs, but not realizing that the next one wouldn’t be until 1 a.m. A lot of others were waiting for a bus too, or for something or other. It felt a little like a Waiting for Godot situation. The trolley came along and people (including me) got on it, some of us for no reason whatsoever. Some people were riding it to another part of town, but the rest of us had gotten on just to board something or other. So I rode it around the lake.

Not having had dinner, I returned to the festival for fish and chips, walked around a little, and then headed back to the bus stop, where a large group of hopefuls had again assembled. This time, it was close to 1 a.m., and the bus did indeed arrive.

It’s good to have a room to return to after all this, even a bare-bones one. To be able to sleep, and then relax in the morning and type out memories of the previous day. Today I am keeping it short and sweet: going just for a few afternoon hours to hear Felső Tízezer and then Balaton on the water stage, followed by Szalai Anna and Dorozsmai Gergő (together) at the “fireside” stage, then coming back to the hotel to tune in to Continental Subway. That may seem odd: tuning in to a radio show from a music festival! But I regretted missing it last week—David Dichelle played Galaxisok’s “Ez a nyár,” among many other interesting things—and this way I can pace myself. Tomorrow will be quite a full evening, with Middlemist Red (whom I have never heard before), Barkóczi Noémi, Kaláka, maybe another band or two, and then Platon Karataev. And then Saturday will include a saxophone concert, Elefánt, some unexpected things, and finally Galaxisok, the last show I will hear before heading back into Pécs, getting some sleep, and then, the next morning, returning to Szolnok (where I will regather my wits and pack for the U.S.).

What makes Fishing on Orfű different from other festivals? The wonderful music (well, that’s to be found at other festivals too, but my Orfű memories stand out so far); the hills, lake, and greenery (lots of shade, lots of tall conifers); the good cheer; the people of many ages; the knowledge that we’re here for the music; and a spirit of adventure, among other things. As I have mentioned before, lodging (and even camping) here can be tricky; you have to know the options and plan well in advance. Yesterday I released my camping ticket through Ticketswap (at the original price); someone bought it within ten minutes. I was happy to know that one more person was now able to set up a tent. As for my hostel room, it’s quiet, comfortable, and secure (and just a few steps away from the buses and trains). Now it’s time to leave it behind and head off to the festival again.

Kolorádó, Home and Not-Home, and More

The Kolorádó Fesztivál is sweet and beautiful, with one drawback, which I’ll get to in a moment. I felt out of place there (older than most, and conspicuously alone), but this feeling disappeared during the shows themselves and during some quiet hours in the kunyhó, the miniature cabin where I stayed. The experience was enveloped by the shows before and afterwards: the Platon Karataev acoustic duo at Papírkutya in Veszprém, and Felső Tízezer and Jazzékiel at Monyo Land in Kőbánya-Kispest.

Kolorádó is a fairly large but intimate music festival (with some theater and other arts as well) in the Buda hills. It has large and small stages, renowned and lesser-known musicians. Being able to hear Platon Karataev, Galaxisok, and Kolibri on three consecutive days was just great. Granted, not everything there went perfectly. Buses didn’t run often enough. There was only one phone-charging station in the whole place. Etc. Those, to me, are minor issues, things that can happen anywhere. My one big complaint is that there was a constant thumping of an electronic drum, in at least one location, almost all day and night, without any pause except for a few minutes here and there. This interfered not only with my sleep, but with the concerts on the KERET stage, my favorite feature of the festival. I am not against electronic music in itself—it can be brilliant—but this went overboard. Other than that, the festival is great.

As for being alone, I usually enjoy it—but here, when not listening to music, I felt unusually self-conscious, maybe because part of me would have liked to be with friends, or gather enough courage to meet people. The vast majority of the audience seemed not only younger, but accompanied. I say ”seemed” because there actually were a few people closer to my age, and people who, like me, had come alone.

But the self-consciousness did not take over everything. As I walked around and took in the festival, I discovered more and more of its wonders: the campfire open to everyone, the tents upon tents, the beautiful wooded valley with the bridge running over it, where people go to be quiet and read, the delicious food (which you have to buy, but still—while there, I had two burritos, a serving of fish and chips, and a gyros pita sandwich), the different performances happening, the brilliant music, the natural surroundings. All the more reason to get rid of or limit that thump, thump, thump! I know that many people at Kolorádó love techno/house music, but perhaps it could be moved somewhere where it didn’t interfere with other concerts or sleep.

I stayed in a kunyhó, a kind of triangular miniature cabin equipped with a mattress, blanket, pillows, an LED light, and a lockable storage space. That was a great choice, because when the festival and hot sun were too much for me, I retreated there and read Pilinszky for hours.

I had planned months earlier to attend Kolorádó, and originally intended to be there the whole time. But then it turned out the the Platon Karataev duo (Gergő and Sebő) were playing in Veszprém, and if I went there first and stayed the night there, I could easily head on to Kolorádó the next morning. The concert was dreamy and the whole evening lovely; I saw Zsuzsanna and Atti there and had a comfortable stay at the Éllő Panzió.

At the festival itself, on Thursday I heard Mordái (very interesting but a little bit over the top for me), Platon Karataev (an exuberant and gorgeous show), Csaknekedkislány (whom I liked), and a few sound checks and bits of other concerts. On Friday, at the KERET stage, I heard Cataflamingo (my favorite new discovery from the festival—they were wonderful), the tail end of ДEVA (beautiful voice), Galaxisok (just fantastic), a little bit of Carson Coma (first time hearing them), and a few other bits and snatches. Then on Saturday I heard Kolibri (again at KERET) and took off immediately afterwards.

Let it never be said of me that I treated a Felső Tízezer concert as a “B-terv” (Plan B). That is not what happened. I had bought the ticket weeks ago, before realizing that it coincided with a few shows at Kolorádó that I was going to want to hear, particularly Ben Leavez. So until Friday morning, I wasn’t sure whether to stay at Kolorádó or to take off right after the Kolibri show and go hear Felső Tízezer and Jazzékiel at MONYO Land in Kőbánya-Kispest. But after a night of thumping electronic drums, my mind was made up, and I figured out the logistics, which were not simple.

It was good to hear Kolibri except for that thumping drum in the background, just a few meters away, through the trees. I almost went to ask them to turn it off just for this show, or at least to turn it down, but realized that the set was very short and I would end up missing too much of it. So I stayed still, and then took off.

To get to MONYO Land, I took the Kolorádó bus to the Hűvösvölgy stop, took the tram from there to Széll Kálmán tér, took the subway to Blaha Lujza tér in hopes of catching the special MONYO Land bus, realized I was going to miss that bus, took the subway back to Déli pályaudvar, took a train from there to Kőbánya-Kispest (with a transfer at Kelenföld), took a taxi from there to the venue, and arrived a little before Felső Tízezer took to the stage. The security guards kindly held my luggage for me.

I was so happy to be there. A mix of ages, a friendly open-air atmosphere. A feeling of home, though I had never been there before.

And Felső Tízezer, and then Jazzékiel, thank you for crowning these past few days so gloriously! I danced my heart out to songs I knew and loved, and songs I was hearing for the first time. “Majdnemország” was one of the highlights of the week. So were some songs whose names I don’t know.

I realized at the concert that I had heard László Sallai play on three consecutive nights, in three different bands: Platon Karataev, Galaxisok, and Felső Tízezer, the last of which he fronts. That is a first for me—I have never heard a musician play a public concert on three consecutive nights, not to mention in three different bands, not to mention bands that I love, and terrific shows to boot—and an astounding accomplishment from him, not just the three nights, but the years of work and inspiration that made them possible. So thank you, Laci and all your bandmates.

As for Jazzékiel, I had heard a few of their songs before, and commented on a song by their frontman, Péter Jakab, but the show drew me in completely, and I will be hearing much more.

Many thanks to Marianna and Gyula’s son Zalán for feeding Dominó and Sziszi while I was gone. The past few days were an important experience. I not only heard some of my favorite music and made some discoveries, but recognized that my partial discomfort at Kolorádó did not detract from the festival itself. One’s feelings about a thing are not the same as the thing itself or its quality—and feelings can change. While there, I found my way into some beauty (quite a bit of it, actually), then came back home in stages, first to MONYO Land, then here, and last of all, after some sleep, to this quiet morning.

Update: I shortened and edited this post a few months after posting it, because my perspective changed.

Dancing Through the Galaxies

Musicians here in Hungary are playing their hearts out, and their audiences dancing, exulting, and cheering past the end. It is so good to be able to play and listen again, and so uncertain what will happen in the fall. In the U.S., the mood is different: with cases of the Delta variant rising, many are urging caution, and some clubs require masks as well as proof of vaccination. But here, while we have this respite, I am all for making the most of it (while taking the necessary precautions—for instance, many of these events are in the open air, and you need to show proof of vaccination to get in).* So it has been exhilarating to attend concerts by some of my favorite musicians, including new favorites, the wonderful Galaxisok.

How to describe Galaxisok? Let’s start with their announcement of the show (which took place last night at the KOBUCI, Kert):

A Galaxisok végre cakkumpakk bemutatja tavaly októberben megjelent főművét, a gyerekkori emlékek félfiktív álomvilágában játszódó Történetek mások életéből című duplalemezt. A twee pop, a bossa nova, a tropicália, a soukous, a perui folk, a shoegaze és a pszichedelikus rock kontinenseken, évtizedeken és életeken átutazó karneváljának szereplői közt ezúttal a lemezen szereplő vendégzenészek egyike-másika is felbukkan, miközben Gyuri elmegy otthonról, Dóráért nem jön el a szerelme, Janó és Dzsó a tetőn dolgoznak, Diána nem lesz már öregebb, és egyszer mindennek vége van.

In rough translation:

Galaxisok is finally presenting, lock, stock, and barrel, the masterpiece released last October: the double album Stories from the Lives of Others, which takes place in the semi-fictional dreamworld of childhood memories. From the characters in this carnival of twee pop, bossa nova, tropicalia, soukous, Peruvian folk, shoegaze and psychedelic rock that travels through continents, decades, and lives, one guest musician or another from the record will pop up, while Gyuri leaves home, Dora’s love doesn’t come for her, Janó and Joe work on the roof, Diana won’t get any older, and at one point everything is over.

What do you make of this? It’s all true, it all happened, but the music is anything but a hodgepodge. Even with all its different styles, it flies as a single body, a single spirit. It’s some of the happiest melancholic music I’ve ever heard. It’s melancholic from start to finish, but the music has so much joy, the musicians so much heart and talent (Soma Bradák, the drummer, looks like he’s dancing sometimes), and the lead singer and songwriter, Benedek Szabó, has a way of filling the crowd with love. There’s a generosity and gentle eccentricity to him; you feel swept into a glorious and familiar weirdness, a place where everything’s different together.

He was speaking rather fast when introducing the guests, and this was my first Galaxisok show, so I may have some of this wrong. But I think his parents joined for one of the songs, and his godfather for another. And the saxaphonist Marcell Tóth came up several times. The crowd was ecstatic. And I felt so happy to be there. The song “Janó és Dzsó” (both of whom were there at the concert, if I understood correctly) captures some of the feeling that was there last night:

És boldogok, mert hosszú a nyár,
és boldogok, mert fiatalok,
és véget értek a hetvenes évek,
és ki tudja, mit hoznak a nyolcvanasok.

(And they’re happy because summer is long,
and happy because they are young,
and the seventies come to an end,
and who knows what the eighties will bring.)

For those just entering the Galaxisok cosmos, I recommend just listening to Történetek mások életéből from beginning to end, without interruptions, and taking the songs in. They are all in Hungarian, but you can get a limited, flawed idea of them from Google Translate. That, along with the music, is enough of a start to take you into the album. Who knows: the lyrics may get translated one day.

Galaxisok and Platon Karataev are closely related in membership and maybe (slightly) in terms of music too. There’s a lot of history here that I don’t know, but the rosters themselves tell a story. The current members of Galaxisok are Benedek Szabó (singing, guitar, keyboards, etc.), László Sallai (bass and keyboards), Soma Bradák (drums), and Ákos Günsberger (guitar and maybe another instrument or two). Sallai and Bradák are also the bassist and drummer, respectively, of Platon Karataev. But it doesn’t end there: Sallai is also the frontman of Felső Tízezer, and Szabó and Bradák are Cz.K. Sebő’s band members (besides Sebő himself). This is particularly interesting because of the differences between the bands. No matter how you describe Platon Karataev, you probably won’t say “bossa nova” or “Peruvian folk” in reference to them. Nor are the lyrics similar; Szabó’s songs are stories, slices of life, whereas Platon Karataev goes inward, asks questions, cries out. Sebő’s music is different still, and Felső Tízezer’s too.

They have something in common, only it’s difficult to pinpoint. They play so well and tap into some kind of truth, different kinds in each case, a truth that can only be reached through music and lyrics, yet something we know in ourselves. The listeners may gravitate toward one band or musician more than another. That is natural, and probably good; a relationship to music is personal and intimate and doesn’t spread evenly. But listen to them all, and something new starts to build, a different kind of imagination, a larger world (or a smaller one, depending on your perspective). There are moments of dancing through the galaxies.

So I am grateful that these concerts are happening now, and thrilled about last night, which throbbed with such sweetness and life. The audience roared for more and more. We got a five-song encore and then roared again. But that was the end—of the music, that is, but not of the evening or the aftersounds. After the concert I stayed for a little while, then took the late Bucharest-bound train home.

*There are people in Hungary who find it unfair that they can’t attend events unless they get vaccinated. In some ways I sympathize. But for these events to take place at all, there have to be some protections in place. Weighing everything, this seems like the best of solutions: better than cancelling the events, requiring tests, enforcing strict social distancing rules, or taking a reckless approach. I am grateful that the events can take place.

Two-Week Roundup

A lot has happened in the past two weeks. In two weeks from now, I will already be on my way back from the U.S. (I head out there on Friday). I am not bringing the laptop, so any updates during those two weeks are likely to be brief (though you never know).

So, a roundup:

The school year ended, and the faculty went on a trip to the village of Demjén. We visited a winery and thermal bath. It was a beautiful day.

I went to three concerts over the past two weeks: Cz.K. Sebő and Felső Tízezer (at the A38 Hajó), then a performance by Zsolt and Marcell Bajnai (at the Szolnoki Művésztelep), then the Platon Karataev duo at the TRIP Hajó. In addition, I attended two literary events at the Szolnoki Művésztelep (at the ARTjáró Összművészeti Fesztivál): one featuring the literary journal Eső, and one featuring Légszomj, Gyula Jenei’s Covid diary in verse with György Verebes’s art. I also attended an online event featuring the poet and translator George Szirtes. All of this is enough to fill the mind and soul for a long time.

As far as writing goes, the inaugural issue of The Penny Truth is out and about, My long semi-satirical poem “Apology in Seven Tongues” was published by The Satirist, and my newest poem, “Day of Rage,” received some nice comments here on this blog. I am working on two translation projects (poetry and short stories), both of which are an honor for me. I will say more about them later.

Two weeks ago, I posted my cover (with cello, guitar, and voice, and a homemade video) of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Out of pressure.” I learned a lot from playing the song.

Radio also figured prominently in these past two weeks. I have been enjoying WFMU”s Continental Subway, and also listened to Marcell Bajnai’s interview on Megafon.

Speaking of songs, I have a few to recommend. Two have come up on this blog already, but that’s all the more reason to mention them again.

The first is Cz.K. Sebő’s “First Snow.” Listen to the whole song, the lyrics, the drums. This song sounded especially beautiful at the concert at the A38 Hajó; I have been hearing it in my mind ever since.

The second is Felső Tízezer’s “Majdnemország,” about which I have written here.

The third is Lázár tesók’s (the Lázár Brothers’) new video, “Olyan egyszerű” (“So simple”). The song is from their debut album, Hullámtörés. If you just listen to the melody and watch the video, you might think it’s about how nice it is to be out on Lake Balaton together. But the song is not nearly so cheery, and that’s part of what makes it beautiful: the combination of moods and colors. And that they composed and performed it so well.

And then, to wrap it up, Marcell Bajnai’s most recent song, “legjobb metaforám,” which I have heard in three forms so far: as a recording, in live performance, and read aloud as a poem (during the radio interview; the interviewer, Marci Lombos, read it aloud, and Marcell read “Forróság környékez” by Norbert Siket. This might be my favorite of Marcell’s solo songs; it is certainly one of them.

And that is a good way to end the day.

“Majdnemország” and Political Songs

Should songs be political? There’s no “should” about it. No one has to insert political content in a song. However, if a songwriter has something to say that could be taken as political, but holds back from doing so out of fear or apprehension, that’s a loss to the musician and the music. Try things out, say what you want to say in the form that suits it best.

But know that others might not take well even to your lighthearted endeavors.

On May 10, Felső Tízezer (Upper Ten Thousand, or Upper Class) released a new song, “Majdnemország,” about how we don’t live out our true beliefs and desires but instead give in to the forces at hand. As a result of this passivity, the song sings, we live in a “majdnemország,” which could be translated as “Almost-Country,” or “Republic of Not Quite” or something along those lines. It could also be a pun on “Majomország” (Monkey-Country), a poem by Sándor Weöres that appears on the Sebő-együttes’s 1986 album Cimbora, a collection of children’s songs and poems.

The song begins,

Majdnemországban élni, ahol nem köszönnek vissza,
ahol az ajtóban megállnak, aztán se jobbra, se balra.
Majdnemországban élni, ahol azt mondják, hogy mindegy,
úgyse tudod megcsinálni, inkább azt csináld, amire kérnek.

A rough translation:

To live in Almost-country, where they don’t return your greeting,
where they halt in the doorway, then go neither right nor left.
To live in Almost-country, where they say it doesn’t matter,
that you can’t do it anyway, so do instead what they ask.

Within a day or so of the song’s appearance on YouTube, nasty comments started pouring in. One after another–from people who didn’t seem to have listened to the song but assumed it was an attack on the country or government. That was what struck me: that the comments were not about the song, and that there were so many of them. A familiar scenario! (Since then, the irrelevant comments have been removed, but the comments about the song itself, including negative comments, have remained.)

I saw no point in responding to those commenters, so I posted an independent comment, in which I praised the bracing quality of the song and suggested that it could apply to many countries, not only Hungary: that it was speaking about the tendency to give in to political, personal, and social systems and orders.

It seems that this comment was on target, because it came up in an interview in ContextUs with two of the band’s members, László Sallai (the band’s frontman and songwriter) and Gallus Balogh (the bassist). The interviewer quoted it, and Sallai said that it came closest to an understanding of the song. (Yes, I am honored! But that is not the point here.)

In the interview they talked about how they like to take different directions with their music instead of always repeating the same thing. Their second album, Majd lesz valahogy, is about relationships, but they went on from there, with A bonyolult világ, to sing about complexities of life more broadly.

When the discussion moved toward political songs, the two had somewhat different things to say. Balogh said that he doesn’t bring politics into his music because for him, music is intimate. But he saw “Majdnemország” as only slightly political and was startled by the reactions. Sallai said that a person should not be afraid of writing about political themes, but he doesn’t blame those who don’t, if it’s not what interests them. He went on to say that the climate today is prohibitive, that musicians lose audiences even because of something they have said outside of the music. Later he spoke of how the large news portals have been giving less and less attention to culture.

It’s a fascinating interview because of the frankness, the ideas, the take on political music and Hungarian life. I agree with Sallai: I don’t think musicians have to be political at all, if it isn’t how they see the world. There’s much more to life and music than politics. But if it is part of what they want to do and say, then they shouldn’t be punished for that. Saying, writing, or singing what you think, even tentatively and playfully, deserves room and more. Until recently, I thought that music in Hungary was a great domain of freedom. Now I see some of the restrictions and censure that musicians face. I am glad that there are people speaking about it.

I added to this piece after posting it and made slight corrections to the translation of the lyrics as well.

A Few Brief Thoughts After the Concert

I don’t want to describe every concert I go to, because sometimes the thoughts I have aren’t verbal or structured. Sometimes I have lots to say, sometimes little or nothing. This piece is somewhere in between; I will just mention a few things that come to mind.

First, I love these boat concerts at the A38 Hajó and the TRIP Hajó. It’s great to get there early, enjoy the setting, and wait for the music to start. And to be quiet without talking, and to talk with people, both of which I got to do. And then listen to the music.

Cz.K. Sebő and his band played a rather short set. It was the first time I heard them play together in concert. I admire Soma Bradák, the drummer (also the drummer of Platon Karataev and Galaxisok) for his way of creating any kind of texture, and changing textures in the middle of a song. I loved the sound of the mallets. Some songs that stood out for me were “First Snow,” “Papermache Dreams” (which has become a favorite), “Chamomile,” “Someday,” and a very new song whose name I don’t know.

Felső Tízezer was just plain fun. The songs are punchy, wry, and tuneful; the crowd was dancing and singing, roaring out their favorite lyrics as they came along. This music is not what Sebő’s is for me, and will never be; it has a different spirit and imagination, a different view of the world. But it brings so much cheer, and there’s a lot to the lyrics, which I am starting to get to know. They remind me that many of life’s woes can be approached with humor and spunk. And they take many different directions, without inhibition. There’s a bounding (leaping) boundlessness to them.

I saw Zsuzsanna and Atti, and met their three children, who seemed to be having a great time. I saw Mesi too. Soon after Felső Tízezer finished, I took off so that I could catch the 10:50 train back to Szolnok.

Afterwards I was thinking about how versatile life is, and music too, how many different directions they can take, even in one room, even in the same person. The musicians last night all play more than one kind of music; their members overlap with Platon Karataev, Galaxisok, and Somersault Boy, and they have other projects too. I came home late, stayed up even later, got up in the morning, and worked on the new translation project, the first draft of which is now done. No one has to be limited: that is, we all have limitations of time, energy, ability, thought, but we don’t have to say, “Because I do X, I can’t do Y,” or “Because I listen to A, I can’t listen to B.” The world has more wiggle room than that, as does the soul.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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