• Danny Wiser

HUNGARY: Klezmer - Budapest Bár

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

Jewish klezmer played by a Roma band, this musical confluence allows us a window into a lost world of Eastern European cultural symbiosis

Whilst I cannot claim to be a film buff like Joel can, whose film reviews you can check out here, I do of course enjoy cinema and have found myself often dreaming up madcap incarnations of crossovers between films that I love. Whether it is the image of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat playing the role of the Henry Hill alongside Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in the Martin Scorsese classic Goodfellas, or Ben Kingsley’s character Don Logan chasing a swan in the British cult comedy classic, Hot Fuzz, none of my wishes as yet are to come true. That is, until now. As far as I am concerned, the two best soundtracks to any film are undoubtedly Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Norman Jewison’s Fiddler On The Roof. Two very different films which both hold a very special place in my heart. Yet, somehow, a band from Hungary have managed to create a record that blends together my love for these two wonderful soundtracks.

“Budapest Bár’s cover sounds so 'authentically Klezmer' and authentically Jewish that it came as quite a shock to me to find out that they were in fact a gypsy music band...”

Let me paint you a scene - imagine you are flicking through the TV channels, and you stumble across Honey Bunny and Pumpkin (Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth) in the famous coffee shop opening scene of the incredible Pulp Fiction that you have seen umpteen times before. Knowing the quality of the film, you settle in for the glorious opening credits, accompanied by the pièce de résistance of the soundtrack, Misirlou, which creates a familiar tingly feeling across your body, knowing you are in for a treat for the next few hours. Then suddenly instead of the screeching sound before the belting Jungle Boogie by Kool & The Gang is played, what appears to be klezmer music seems to have replaced it. This jarring shift in music raises your eyebrows as you see Vincent and Jules (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) arriving to what appears to be a Russian shtetl in a horse and cart. The pair then start discussing that they call a quarter pound burger with cheese a ‘fertl funt berger mit kez’ here in Anatevka.

Whilst this might sound like some kind of Kafka-esque dystopian nightmare to many of you reading this, one cannot pretend that they would not be intrigued to see if this mash-up might work. I have to admit, that whilst it sounds more humorous than anything else, Budapest Bár’s album Klezmer really makes this work. Just like the Pulp Fiction soundtrack they too start with a version of Misirlou. The song has a fascinating history, as Arabic, Greek, and Jewish musicians were playing it by the 1920s. However despite crossing numerous cultural lines, the original author of the song is not known and its origins have been heavily contested. Yet, adaptations of the tune to suit more modern styles exist in abundance, from the Beach Boys’ or Dick Dale’s surf versions (the latter featuring in Pulp Fiction) all the way to the Black Eyed Peas hip hop version, Pump It. Yet, Budapest Bár’s cover sounds so authentically Klezmer and authentically Jewish that it came as quite a shock to me to find out that they were in fact a gypsy music band.

Featuring on Parts Unknown, hosted by the legendary Anthony Bourdain, the dearly departed chef explains that the “ubiquitous gypsy violin was found in one time, at every cafe or restaurant”. In a sense, the gypsy band are far from appropriating Jewish history in their music, but rather honouring the shared history the two groups have in which both peoples have suffered immensely from persecution in Europe. Music has always been a source of defiance. For the Roma people, much like the Ashkenazi Jews who would play Klezmer music, this kind of music would serve as a form of protest to those who had tried to knock their spirits down by means of subjugation and poverty by singing songs like Hava Nagila, that feature on the album, which repeat upbeat lyrics over again “Let's rejoice and be happy” to an infectious tune. In a strange way, klezmer music is just as much the music of Budapest Bár as it is the music of the Jews. Even so, the band acknowledge the heritage of the genre and invited by the chief cantor of the largest synagogue in Europe, the Dohány Street Synagogue to sing on a track. It is notable that László Fekete’s invitation to sing was on the Sephardic song Adio Querida as perhaps the band thought they could not do justice to a song that is not in their blood. I would highly recommend this album if you are curious to hear an exemplary example of gypsy, classical and klezmer music beautifully blended into one and have a picture of what life across much of Eastern and Central Europe sounded like throughout history.