How I Met Bodó Band
Note: The following is an exerpt from a cultural exploration written prior to our tour…
The story starts with an International Folk Dance gathering on March 23, 2003 and continues with highlights from several subsequent meetings in March and April.
A viola player and international student from Hungary, Katalin Tamás, contacted me via my web site at the beginning of March regarding a “Musicians Wanted” classified ad that I had completely forgotten about. She filled out the questionnaire on my site and we got in touch via email. I checked out her web site (www.bodoband.org), but I didn’t actually meet her for several weeks due to my spring sinus attacks and scheduling conflicts. The plan, at that point, was to meet Katalin to see if she wanted to join some of my projects. It wasn’t long before the tables were turned, and I was brought into a whole new world.
The people I met are from Bodó, near Nyiregyhaza, Eastern Hungary. Hungary is located east of Austria, south of Slovakia and west of Ukraine and Romania. The famous Danube River flows through the capital of Budapest, bisecting the country into almost two equal halves. Bodó’s complete name is Bodóhegy, in which “hegy” means mountain. However, Hungary is almost completely flat. This “mountain” comes in at a whopping 25 meters. Please note that the term “gypsy” as used below is not meant as a pejorative term. The Hungarians I spoke with use the term “gypsy” in a more general sense, and not as a derogatory reference.
Katalin (27) graduated from the University of Miskolc, Hungary in 1998. She has performed throughout Hungary, and in Russia, Vienna, Austria and Jerusalem. At the moment, she is studying Business at BU where she is organizing the band of the Susquehanna International Folk Dancers. She is on the board of trustees of the first folk radio station of Europe. Katalin went to New Orleans for Spring Break, and when she returned she invited me to attend a local Sunday night International Dance at the Milk Parlor Ballroom (on Route 42 between Bloomsburg and Millville, PA). I agreed to attend, so on March 23rd, my wife Audra and I arrived for the 6:00 PM gathering.
What happened next was like getting to the pop-up page in an otherwise flat book. I parked near the ballroom, and Anne Wilson greeted us She was one of the dancers, and our hostess for the evening. Anne explained that the dancers practice in the barn while the musicians practice in the house. Her husband, Oliver Larmi (they call him Oli) is a professor at BU. He was away the first night I was there. Anne guided us across the street to their beautiful rustic, Tolkien-esk farmhouse with large open rooms and wood burning stoves. As we entered the porch, we were introduced to Katalin.
The other musicians at the house included Mark, a versatile banjo/guitar player, and Stained Grass Window string bass player Mary Hermann. Also present was the rest of The Bodó Band: violinist Béla Marssó, and double bassist Janika. After introductions, we went around the room sharing a mix of bluegrass, blues, folk and traditional music. I dabbled with some guitar accompaniment on a few tunes, but it wasn’t long before I decided to just sit and listen to take it all in. As soon as The Bodó Band kicked in, with their Hungarian, Romanian and Jewish folk songs, I knew this would be a night I would never forget. The music, and the people playing it, was like what I had been reading about in world music magazines like the UK’s Songlines, and listening to on CDs. But nothing beats a live band. I couldn’t believe I was there. Energy, passion, and the volume… this group could play!
Béla is probably in his mid-50s and has been playing Hungarian folk music in Europe since 1972. As Katalin says, “Béla has a magnetic power – young people around him start studying an instrument and join the group of cheerful musicians.” His hobby is gliding, and he used to be a member in the Gliding Club of Nyíregyháza, where he met Katalin and inspired her to pick up three-string viola. I don’t know much about Janika, their bass player. His English wasn’t as good as the others, so he was very quiet.
At 8:00, the band finished warming up, and we crossed the dark country road to the barn with our instruments. A group of about ten people were getting ready for our arrival. The dancers (male and female) were from various backgrounds, including some other international students (I later learned) from Poland and Russia, and American BU students and adults. The band set up in the corner, and Béla gave me a chord book to follow along. The band played a number of bourees, waltzes and some gypsy dance tunes. The progressions weren’t hard, but the pace and improvisational nature of some of the changes was hard to follow at times. On my side was the fact that the acoustic guitar was almost completely drowned out by the other instruments and dance steps.
The band played while Anne led some dances. The dances varied from line to circle, usually involving dancing partners. Some dances changed speed with the tempo of the music. After about an hour of playing and dancing, everyone retired back to the house for snacks and drinks (actually, there was a good bit of wine and beer flowing even before that). At the house we did some more playing, and talked. As the night drew to a close just after 10:00, Audra came down with the start of a migraine, so we decided to go.
As Katalin and Béla walked us to the car, they asked if I knew any double bass players in the area. Janika was leaving for Florida soon, leaving them without a bass player for their next tour. One person from BU came to mind, but he is often difficult to reach. I mentioned my background as a bassist, cautioning them that I am less accomplished on string bass than electric bass or guitar. That’s when they told me about their two-week West Coast tour in May, and asked me to consider the idea of going with them.
Of course, at that hour, and considering Audra needed to get home, I didn’t know what to tell them. It was almost a year since I had touched a string bass (let alone the 3-string gut version they used). In Spring 02 I rejoined the Bloomsburg University Community Orchestra just for a one-semester challenge, and that was after over 4 years away from the instrument. Before then I wasn’t that great to begin with, always having to bow out on the more complex sheet music. For the most part, I admittedly was there to fill in the gaps on the easy stuff so the more accomplished players could rest in between difficult passages. It was somewhat more refined than air bass, but not much. I asked Béla and Katalin to let me think about it, and suggested that they contact me later in the week.
There were financial and logistical concerns to think about, not to mention the creative workload of learning a new repertoire in a few weeks. The next day was spent bouncing the idea around, considering the implications of taking two weeks off (without pay) to play with a band I hardly knew. I decided to concentrate on the creative barrier, if indeed one existed. I decided it was better to find out if I could actually play first, and see the band’s reaction, then address the rest of my concerns.
We set up an audition in the Kehr Union on the Friday following the Sunday jam. Katalin was working on some translations of Hungarian lyrics for her web site when I met her in the computer lab. She explained that Hungarian sentence structure has no subject, so phrasings are often difficult to translate. Katalin works with an American poet who makes suggestions to improve the English reading. Katalin has occasionally asked me for an equivalent English word or expression to convey an idea that she is trying to express.
While waiting for Béla, Katalin and I played a game of 8-ball, for which I had to briefly explain the rules. Despite the fact that the game was completely new to her, Katalin wiped the table with me (I scratched on the break, sunk the 8 ball early, and scratched a second time). I wasn’t letting her win. I just suck. When Béla arrived, he coached Katalin on her shots, giving detailed directional cues and advice on the amount of force to put behind the ball – all in Hungarian, leaving me without even a hint of advice to better my game. Katalin sank almost every ball the first time. I hoped this wasn’t any indication of how the night would go musically.
We went upstairs to a conference room to practice. My first exposure to the 3-string Hungarian bass was less scary than expected. It was relatively comfortable to play, though we could not get the endpin out to make a better height adjustment (their former bass player was short). I risked European alienation by holding the German bow like a French bow because I am uncomfortable with the German style. My poor classical technique was of little concern. As Béla says, “It is the result that matters, not the method.” Well, what do you know… Hungarian Zen!
We played for an hour, and I was introduced to the rhythmic styles of their music. There’s a “boom chuck” pattern similar to bluegrass that requires me to play on the first beat (one) while the viola plays on the second beat (two). Other patterns put the bass and viola players together on “one” and “three” or “two” and “four”, depending on the indications received from the violin player. Béla spoke very calmly and quietly, often in Hungarian, while Katalin interpreted instructions as needed. Communicating through music is much easier, but even that can be a challenge, since the names of notes and musical terms are somewhat different in Hungarian. When in doubt, sound prevails over intellectual understanding.
The results, as you might call them, were mixed from my perspective. Not having a low E string on a bass is a serious handicap for my mind to deal with. Mathematically, the instrument should be 25% easier to play, but it really works the other way. It is 25% harder. I found myself reaching for F# and G, but getting B and C. This made for some interesting counterpoint and harmony, not all of which was intended. Still, the majority of the material was doable, and after all, this was my first time as an Italian American gypsy. From their perspective, the results were fine. It was determined that, with some work, I could do it. I would just need to clock some serious string bass hours before the tour.
Béla had brought the instruments to campus in Oli’s car, but Oli took the car to attend a showing of a foreign film (Truly, Deeply, Madly). We were to meet up with Oli later, using my car. We got out to the tri-level to find I had left the headlights on the entire time of the audition. Luckily, the car started right up. Unlike my old Corsica (which I recently totaled), Béla, Katalin, their instruments, and the string bass all fit rather well into my 96 Pontiac Bonneville. Béla immediately took a liking to my huge American car (for reasons I would learn later that weekend).
We were running late, and it looked like we would probably miss the beginning of the film, but there was no rush. After a brief stop at my house to see if Audra wanted to go (she declined), we went on to the film at the Magee Center. We missed the beginning, and we had to sit in the back on tables, but the film was good (kind of like Ghost, but not as sappy). After the film, we met up with Oli and some other international students, and were invited back to Oli’s place to hang out. Once there, snacks, homemade treats and drinks were offered. I had the pear juice and pistachio while Béla had a beer and a couple of shots of some Irish whisky. Stories and jokes were told by candlelight, often interpreted into/from Polish, Russian, Hungarian and English. At one point where Katalin tried to interpret a joke for Béla, someone pointed out how the Hungarian interpretation took twice as long to tell as the English version.
We watched a digital photo slide show from Oli’s recent trip to New Orleans with The Bodó Band. My favorite was the photo of the band traveling by bicycle with the string bass in tow on a makeshift cart (showing me just what I was getting myself into – see web page below). We actually didn’t play any more that night, but the company and comradery was comforting. Around midnight people began to disperse.
The next day was set aside as a “world music jam” day to which I had invited a tabla player (Bulu Rahman), blues singer (Louisa Luisi), world traveler/musician Tom Dennehy, and the Bodó Band. It wasn’t clear if everyone would be able to make it at the same time, but it was worth a shot. As it turns out, Bulu and I got to jam with Luisa and Tom, and Tom got to play with The Bodó Band and me until Tom had to leave to make preparations for his return to Morocco.
The observations of that day are worth a separate story, as there was such an exchange of language, cultural references and music that I will probably never forget that day either.
Katalin and Béla visited in the mid-afternoon. I was able to try out some electric bass on some of their songs, which Béla liked very much. This was both good and bad because it immediately puts me in the frame of mind of how to play on that instrument while at the same time corrupting my string bass technique. The fretting and spacing are completely different (nevermind the E string issue). Still, as far as ear training goes, it was helpful. The time flew quickly that day, filled with music making and merriment. For a while I felt like I had stepped out of my own world. As the evening drew closer, Audra invited Katalin and Béla to stay for dinner, which they accepted after a brief discussion in Hungarian. For the rest of the evening we shared stories over dinner and a few drinks. They enjoyed our friend Billy’s story about a deer, Cadillac and Mafia thug. They were aware of the Mafia presence in our area of the state, and even knew the names of some famous people. Small world. Katalin likes dead trees, and Béla has a fascination with Centralia, so I am looking forward to showing them Stockton and some of the other coal towns around Hazleton.
Béla has lots of stories about the old days of Communism. My favorite so far was the one about the two-cylinder car made of paper. Béla refused to wear a seatbelt because if he accidentally stood up without unbuckling, the car seat would become a backpack. Another good story was about the trials and tribulations of purchasing a car. People pre-paid, were given a number, and then waited several years for their number to come up. Parts were difficult to find, and you could only get them from the capital or in other countries. If you died without getting your car, your relatives couldn’t take advantage of your number. They had to start from scratch. To get a telephone, you had to take a test. You were given points based on your occupation, age, family name and schooling. After a certain number of points, you were given yet another number to use to claim your phone when service became available. Some people waited 23 years.
Béla says he understands only 20% of the English around him. He very much communicates nonverbally through facial gestures, eye contact and hand movements, especially when Katalin isn’t available. When Katalin and Béla talk to each other in Hungarian, the main things I have to go on are the tone of their voices and their nonverbal expressions (especially eye contact).
That Sunday at 6 pm (one week since I met the group), I went to Oli’s house to play with the band in public for the first time. I brought the electric bass (still a bit of a novelty for Béla), but I also played string bass. Béla described me to one of the guests as an “honorary gypsy”. Plans are being made for additional appearances, and it looks like we’re going west. Hopefully I can better my bass playing, and maybe my 8-ball too.