Just like the dancefloor DJs of today, the members of Hungarian band Kerekes are always searching for ways to turn up the heat in their táncházok (“dance houses”). So ten years ago, when they were still teenagers, they traveled to the countryside on foot, by bus, and by train and just like Bartók, collected living traditional folk songs in the last minute before all the masters were gone and the tradition would be lost forever. They spent eight years looking for new material and recorded over 200 hours of songs, all with the goal of bringing new-old songs to their audiences.
While the band continues to keep traditions alive for their regular dance nights, they have plugged in on their new album Pimasz (which means “cheeky”), following in the footsteps of bands worldwide who are connecting their roots sounds to amplifiers and effects, without losing the spirit of their ancestors. With a strong basis in the music of Moldova and the Gyimes region of Romania, two areas with ancient Hungarian ties, Kerekes (pronounced ker-ay-KESH, with a rolled ‘r’) has also taken cues from Jimi Hendrix and the J.B.’s, developing their own “voice,” though the band is all instrumental.
For some, Kerekes introduces audiences to melodies and dance rhythms rarely heard elsewhere. For others, they take familiar sounds and update them. But all listeners notice that the band taps the magic of the ancient shepherd’s flute, conjuring sounds never heard before on this planet. While artists like Shantel and OMFO have used electronic wizardry to bring Romanian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian sounds to the dance floor, Kerekes’ prolific live performance (including 200 concerts in Hungary in the past two years; appearances in Hungary’s top venues, The Palace of Arts and The Music Academy in Budapest; and performances at prestigious venues across Europe) taps another type of magical music-making.
“Shepherds are the inheritors, warriors, and carriers of the ancient knowledge of the shamans,” says Zsombor Fehér, the band’s virtuosic flutist and leader. “They used their magic to heal or place curses. They could read the future.” Zsombor carries knowledge from the flute and bagpipe player István Pál (age 87), who is probably the last keeper of this ancient knowledge in Hungary.
In Transylvania, the flute can magically return a lost herd to its shepherd (the melody on “Searching” brings this to mind). In Gyimes, it is said that a dead bear can be revitalized by his master with his flute. In Transdanubia, a miller being attacked by robbers used his flute to call a pack of dogs who rush to his aid shredding the robbers to pieces, a story embodied on the track titled “Két pásztor” or “Two Shepherds.” The track features the ütôgardon, a cello shaped rhythm instrument whose strings are hit with a stick and a special three-foot, three-holed flute. This “longflute” is still used in Somogy County in Western Hungary and was brought over from outer Mongolia.
The way Zsombor plays brings to mind the epic Robert Johnson tale when he says, “To become a good pipe player, the shepherd has to enter into collusion with the devil. They say he ‘takes his skin to the market’ and then the pipe can play itself.”
Zsombor plays a shepherd’s flute on which he installed extra keys to make it chromatic. After playing the flute for about one and a half years, old relatives mentioned that both his grandfather and great-grandfather had been shepherd flute players. He later found out that all the way back to the 1700s, all his male ancestors had been shepherds, which means they had been flute players as well.
On their journeys, the band found a village in Transylvania where just about everybody makes flutes, about 200 families. “We were looking for a particular flute-maker. Upon presenting a flute I had, everybody said that even though they hadn’t made this one, they could make an identical one, though admittedly it would not have such a great sound,” says Zsombor. “It took three days to find the maker of this original prototype, and there just like Aladdin I was awaited by heaps of flutes. Sometimes I had three flutes hanging from my mouth, in a frenzy to try as many as I possibly could.”
Another time Zsombor went to the hillside around Fedémes, his grandparents’ village, just to play the flute for his own pleasure. “The next day villagers told us that they had heard the music even in the far end of the village,” remembers Zsombor. “They had stopped working and sat out to listen to it, bringing back a sense of the old times when shepherds used to do that regularly.”
“I learned the traditional way of flute-playing from old peasants,” says Zsombor. “Having turned the flute chromatic, it is now suitable not only for pentatonic folk songs. When I realized that each shepherd flute player is a local Jimi Hendrix both in their manner of playing and musical re-creation, I saw the fusion of these two styles as completely legitimate.”
Other band members have also adapted both instruments and playing styles. Csaba Námor plays the koboz, a lute of Middle Eastern origin. “By now, all the Hungarian koboz players rest in peace, and they left behind only a couple of recordings,” says Csaba. “In the absence of masters, only rock music could show us the way.” Meanwhile, the band is proud to have convinced the largest instrument factory in Transylvania to restart the production of the koboz. The instrument’s Middle Eastern origins can be heard on “Medina,” named for a sweet Hungarian red wine from Eger, the band’s hometown.
The viola has been used all over the Hungarian-speaking territories. “The Transylvanian viola is built with a flat, not curved, bridge, with three strings,” explains viola-player Ákos Csarnó. “It is played with a stronger bow made from the hair of a stallion. This allows the player to bow all three strings simultaneously in a strong rhythmic manner, playing loud chords.” Ákos plays it as if he had a “Reggae Fender Rhodes” in his hands, with his bow imitating a buzz saw.
The drum was introduced in Moldova from brass bands in the 1950s. It was played similarly to the tapan in the Balkans. Viktor Fehér had played this traditional drum for years until he realized he couldn’t play funk on a drum from Moldova, so he bought a drum-set. “Since rhythms in Hungarian music are quite fixed, we drew on rhythms of other musical cultures, mainly those of popular roots,” explains the younger Viktor. The band is rounded out with Csaba Kónya on electric bass. Four years in the making, the overall sound of Pimasz has earned them a 2007 Top of the World acknowledgment from Songlines magazine, a result of 200,000 readers’ votes which put them in the company of The Gotan Project, Ali Farka Toure, and Toumani Diabate.
“We knocked on the doors of old peasants’ houses not because we wanted to make world music but because we wanted to experience the real folk music of our ancestry,” concludes Zsombor Fehér. “At the time, our main motivation was to find these newly-collected tunes that our dance audiences could not possibly have heard anywhere else. However, beyond all the sophisticated reasons we could give, the heart of the matter is that we were simply spellbound by the amazing music we found, and we could not help just purely enjoying every minute of both listening to our old masters and playing with them. But now, we’re going to funkify this tradition!”