Its history is a kaleidoscope of shifting borders, competing cultures and marching imperial armies. Its music, not surprisingly, is a vibrant mélange of variegated ethnicities with richly intersecting modes and instrumentations.
Whatever else it may be, Hungary is never dull.
“You cannot impose an identity; you show what existed in the past and let go of the need to define anything narrowly,” Gergely Romsics, the director of the Balassi Institute of the Hungarian Cultural Center, told The Jewish Week in a recent interview.
We’re basking in the morning sunlight in the Institute’s conference room, looking out on the roof of Macy’s and discussing one of the Center’s most ambitious musical efforts to date, “The Glass House Project,” a series of three late-May concerts in New York and Washington, D.C., to commemorate the musical culture of the Hungarian Jewish communities that were destroyed when the Shoah reached that nation 70 years ago. The series is named for the best known of 76 “safe houses” established around Budapest by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz as a refuge for Jews fleeing German and Hungarian troops.
The prime movers behind the event are Romsics and Frank London, the Klezmatics’ co-leader and a ubiquitous figure on the Jewish and avant-garde music scenes.
The concept behind the program is simple. London has assembled a band consisting of five outstanding musicians from New York and five equally gifted musicians from Hungary, and has spent several months researching the region’s various prewar musical traditions. The result will not be a museum retrospective of dead cultures; what London is aiming for is “a celebration of what was, not by replicating it but by creating something new.”
The renowned trumpeter is clearly exhilarated by this project. London is animated in conversation most of the time, but this morning he is downright effervescent, whipping his laptop around to show a visitor a film clip from the 1930s of rural musicians and exclaiming, “It’s a czardas that sounds like a frailach!” A Hungarian folk dance that sounds like a Jewish wedding dance.
London’s enthusiasm derives in no small part from the quality of the archives to which he has had access.
“The Hungarian [cultural groups] are really serious about their archives,” he said. “They have the same attitude to their folk cultures that we have in the Yiddish revival. There’s so much stuff that’s really well documented. It’s the most accessible culture I’ve studied in a long time. If we use 12 percent of what I’ve found it will be a lot.”
Given London’s multiplicity of projects, one suspects that the other 88 percent won’t go to waste. The New York side of the super group he has assembled for this program is a sort of testimonial to how broad his own interests are; it includes tango bassist Pablo Aslan, jazz and Latin drummer Richie Barshay, guitarist Aram Bajakian who has roots in both Armenian and Slovakian folk musics and, almost inevitably, fiddler Jake Shulman-Ment, whose knowledge and mastery of Hungarian Jewish music is encyclopedic.
“I didn’t choose musicians necessarily for their knowledge of Hungarian music,” London explains. “I wanted musicians who understand the process of absorbing another musical culture, people who can play anything and who understand traditional musics.”
The other fun part of his task, London said, was finding the Hungarian musicians.
“I wanted them to come from different musical worlds,” he said. “I found two who live here but who do the traditional music well and three who come from very different backgrounds but who have a deep relationship to Hungarian musical traditions.”
He also needed instrumentation that would complement and enrich the palette of the group, so two of the Hungarians, Szirtes Edina Mókus and Kata Harsáczki, are singers, Miklós Lukács is a cimbalom player, Béla Ágoston plays woodwinds and Áron Székely plays kontra, a Hungarian relative of the viola.
“They have a beautiful mix of knowledge, and we share the same worldview on the relationship of traditional and historical music and some relationship to Jewish music,” London said.
The group will also have a little more rehearsal time than is usually the case in these circumstances.
“We have five days of rehearsal,” London said. “That allows us to make some mistakes in private and to come together as a group, to develop a sound as an ensemble.”
The only cloud on this otherwise sunny horizon is the state of Hungarian politics. Hungarian Jewish organizations have been urging a boycott of 70th anniversary events sponsored by the central commemorative fund, suspicious of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and even more so of the openly anti-Semitic nationalist political party Jobbik.
Romsics is candid.
“This is definitely part of the context we’re working in,” he said. “We’re a government organization, the foreign cultural service of the Hungarian government. Our resources do not come from the central commemorative fund. We have worked closely with the Jewish community in Hungary.”
His leaves no room for ambiguity about the historical reality of the Shoah in Hungary.
“The Holocaust in Hungary was a clear case of a government turning on its own citizens, Jewish and Roma,” Romsics says emphatically. “We are not going to slip into the discourse that we were ‘all victims’ of the Nazis. You cannot base a democratic Hungarian identity on self-acquittal.”
Both London and Romsics want to use the events to open up an ongoing dialogue both here and in Hungary on the contemporary ramifications of the events of WWII.
“Playing to an American audience first will open up these questions,” London said. “We want to lead to a nuanced, intelligent dialogue, and I feel very good about that.”
The Glass House Ensemble will perform on Friday, May 23, 7:30 p.m. at Drom (85 Ave. A, at E. Fifth St.; 212-777-1157), and on Tuesday, May 27 at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Pl.; 646-437-4202). For tickets and information, go to www.culturehungary.org.