Although being quite fond of gypsy Music, my knowledge of the Hungarian branch of the genre is limited to non-existent. With their very own mix of instruments and local dances, Parno Graszt, more or less Hungary's most prestigious gypsy ensemble, occupies a unique place in the gypsy music scene. I met up with founder József Oláh and manager Márk Szász backstage at the Couleur Café festival and asked them to initiate me into the world of the Hungarian cigány.
Parno Graszt means "white horse" in Romani, that much I know already, but why are you called that way? What's the story behind that name?
József Oláh (vocals, guitar, tambura): "I used to have a white horse many years ago. The animal was rather skinny and not in the best of shape, but I loved it none the same. You have to realize that in those days having a horse was both a necessity and a status symbol for a gypsy. That's where the name came from."
You're from the little village of Paszab in the Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg region of Hungary. What can you tell us about that place?
József Oláh: "The village of Paszab is located in the triangle formed by the Ukraine, Romania and Hungary. Economically speaking it's one of the most underdeveloped areas of Hungary. Paszab lies on the banks of the river Tisza and has about 1400 inhabitants. As a Westerner, if you visit that area of Hungary today, it's like a journey back in time. Time has kind of stood still there."
Are most of the people living there musicians or can you also find people making a living of other trades?
József Oláh: "Well, first of all I should say you won't find many Hungarian gypsies that make a living from playing music. (laughs) Our music comes from the heart and that's why we love playing it, but for most musicians it's not enough of an earner to make it their full-time job like we do with Parno Graszt."
Márk Szász (management): "Being a musician is an honorable position in the gypsy community. Most of the gypsies in the Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg region are either unemployed, doing the odd job here and there, or work as iron and metal traders."
What would you say sets Hungarian gypsy music apart from the gypsy music in countries like Romania or Serbia?
József Oláh: "It's in the rhythm really. The rhythm we use in our music, we call it ‘estam' or ‘kontra' in Hungarian, does not exist in any other form of gypsy music. It's like an off-beat. If we look at the instruments we use, guitars are very typical for Hungarian gypsy music and the spoons and milk jugs are unique and only to be found in Hungary. The last thing I should definitely not forget to mention is the oral bass, produced using a singer's voice."
It's kind of similar to what in the jazz scene is known as scatting.
József Oláh: "Yes, there are definitely similarities. Singing the oral bass (szajbogo, red;) is like speaking in a very fast way. In any case it's not easy to do, but Istvan Nemeth, our percussionist, is a natural at it."
Another instrument you use and one that most people will be unfamiliar with is the tarogato or taragot.
József Oláh: "This instrument dates back to the 17th century and is similar to the clarinet in shape. The main difference between the two is that the clarinet has a higher range than the taragot. Sound-wise the taragot is closest to the alto-saxophone. The use of the taragot is not widespread though. As far as we know Parno Graszt is the only band in Hungary using it."
In your stage performances you include a dance with a lot of resemblances to martial arts. What is that all about?
József Oláh: "When you say martial arts, you're very close to the truth. Originally the stick dance, as it is known, is a fighting dance between two men competing for the honor of a woman. Unfortunately we only have one male dancer in the band at the moment, so we have to make do."
Like with so many gypsy bands out there your music has also been remixed, in your case by the Belgian deejay Gaetano Fabri, who did a remix of your song 'Gelem Gelem'. How do you regard that whole trend of "dancefying" gypsy music to present it to a club audience?
József Oláh: ""Dancefying" our music, as you put it so nicely, is a very useful way to introduce people, that otherwise would never listen to it, to our music and culture and maybe in some of them it can spark an interest to go in discovery of the original tunes behind those remixes."