Sunday, November 19, 2006

Rock the Boat

In Summer 2005, Rick and I went to the Guca Golden Brass Festival in Serbia. This is the summer we fell in love with Budapest, the summer we decided to flee the States, the summer we permanently damaged our digestive systems with homemade liquor and pork.

In Belgrade, our Serbian friend Sasha bought us an album by a Romanian gypsy brass band called Fanfare Ciocarlia. At the festival, everyone was talking about Fanfare Ciocarlia. On the long drive back from Guca, our ride (Belgrade’s best classical trumpet player) was rocking out to Fanfare Ciocarlia.

We were hooked. This Thursday Rick and I got to see them live in a nightclub on a boat on the Danube. It was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. I captured some of it on my wee camera:

Fanfare Ciocarlia at A38 Ship, Budapest (1)

Fanfare Ciocarlia at A38 Ship, Budapest (2)

Fanfare Ciocarlia at A38 Ship, Budapest (3)

At one point, we were jumping up and down so violently that my camera flew out of my pocket and got lost among the trampled beer cups. I didn’t bother to look for it until after the set. So I didn’t get to record the band’s third encore, when they took their instruments down into the center of the crowd, wedding-style. Ecstatic sweaty dancers fought their way up to the band and stuffed bills between the keys of their trumpets, slapped bills on the players’ sweaty foreheads, threw bills like confetti into the air, not caring where they landed. Everyone was singing, the foreigners in the crowd looking around bewildered and delighted, the real hard core fans bellowing at the top of their lungs. I wish I could have recorded that for you.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


The lovely Miss Inna of Barmaljova fame recently blogged about our amazing Jam Session last Saturday. Check it out (you can click on the pictures to see more of her budapest images.) I can't say enough good things about the folks who the end of the night I was thoroughly humbled and very happy. If you get a chance to see any of them play in New York, grab it.

The Gringo Channel

Someday I really will learn Hungarian. In the mean time, ignorance is sometimes bliss.

Vintage Hungarian Sausage Commercial

This sausage makes you strip to your skivvies and sing like the chipmunks… and that’s the type of sausage I like to eat. Good times!

80s Hungarian cmmercial - Stzer?

Rick: Is this a commercial for nuclear power?

Sarah: I’m guessing it’s advertisting a Lord-of-the-Rings Stag Party package for Brits. Elf sex tourism. Huge in Budapest.

Hungarian 80s commercial - shopping center?

Rick: This was made by futuristic robotic overlords to entice humans into their reprocessing plant. Listen to those creepy, artificial keyboards. Something really bad is about to happen to that little guy.

Sarah: According to the folks on youtube, he's saying “I go in, I come out, but how well I come out…if I go in.”

Rick: Soylent Green is People!!!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Llama Toes

There have been many musical adventures to report in the past week or so. Blame it all on our lovely new friends Barmaljova, who are incredible at seeking out live music. We finally met legendary American-fiddler-gone-native Dumneazu. We’ve met an Argentinian Jewish hurdy-gurdy player who lives in Budapest but only plays Brazillian music. Thursday we went to hear the Ukranian gypsy Tecso band, and ran into Matt Dariau (who I’d never actually met before but have been to hear play a million times in NYC.)

But alas, not all musical adventures are positive. Last night we went to see a jazz band.** Now, I love a nice, active drummer. I love drummer toys like llama toes (llama toes!) But last night’s drummer, well… it wasn’t just that he had a lot of geegaws: chimes, rattles, woodblocks, bells, a triangle, an ocarina—no snare drum, mind you—a metal water jug, and, of course, llama toes (llama toes!) That wasn’t exactly the problem. He was just so busy picking up geegaws and putting them down that he couldn’t be bothered to listen to anyone else. If I was playing with him, I would have been furious:

IMAGINARY BANDMATE: Say man, I don’t want to be a drag, but you gotta lay out a bit, brother. I’m over here trying to solo on “The Days of Wine and Roses,” and every time I look up you doing some other type of ridiculous shit. You got sticks, brushes, a piece of rebar, you got some piece of metal tied to a pipe, you got a turkey call, you got a dreidel spinning on the snare, you hitting the wall with a whip, you chewing a bunch of sugar cubes with your mouth open, you got a can of peanut brittle that shoots a snake out of it. Then you gonna act like the snake surprised you. You know you did that on purpose!

My lady just left me. I mean, I loved that woman, and I’m trying to capture a moment, and you’re over there hitting the cymbals with a Styrofoam pool noodle. You’re dragging a chain over the cymbals, like the jazz is in hell trying to escape! I’m trying to play my heart out, and you over there hitting a watermelon with an icepick. That’s some Gallagher shit! You like Gallagher in prison, killing his old comedy partner in the shower! Damn.

Are you trying to make fun of me? I don’t get it. My lady walks out, I’m trying to express my sorrow, man, I’m trying to communicate it. I’m trying to do something sparse, like Miles, you over there tapping a cheeto with a thimble. And don’t try to help me out by running outside the club, calling your friend’s cellphone in the front row, shouting “bap bap bap bippity BAP!” crinkling some cellophane to make it sound like a long distance call, that’s not helping express the distance between me and my lady.

And I don’t care how good you think it sounds, you don’t bring a washing machine on stage, throw some rubik’s cubes in them and let them bounce around. It don’t matter if they’re solved when you pull them out. That’s not the point, man, that’s not the point. I’m over here trying to paint a picture in sound, the audience wondering about the state of a bunch of wet Rubik’s cubes. I try to block it out, and just go back to the changes, then I look up and you ain’t even playing the drums, you just silently juggling! It’s distracting, man!

You don’t need to use a turkey call on Autumn Leaves. You over there using the turkey call, I look up and we got seventeen wild turkeys in the club! They knocking over drinks, flying all over the place, and instead of trying to rectify the situation you grab one and start making it peck on the snare! How you gonna destroy your own snare with a wild turkey? It ain’t practical! You sold all your ADD medication to buy that snare! You ain’t got no more, that much is obvious. How you going to finance another snare? Don’t hold up those llama toes, man, that ain’t no kinda answer.

Anyway, the night wasn’t all for naught, as Rick got his first glimpse of a tanchaz, a type of crazy folkdancing party where Hungarian hipsters, dancers and party animals drink and smoke and perform complicated folk dances:

Sing-along outside Tanchaz at Reviczky in Budapest

This is actual video of what we saw at the tanchaz Friday. High tech!

P.S. Hooray America!

**(Our friends in Barmaljova and their visiting bandmate, great musicians all, did NOT second my emotion about this drummer, and they probably know better than me. So comedy aside, there is controversy on this point.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Halloween Hajj

Rick and I didn’t always have a lot in common. When we first got together, he was fronting a punk band called Weeping Anus. I was staging a whimsical clown show in which people salsa danced with six-foot-tall forks. But we’ve always had Halloween.

Rick inherits his love of Halloween from his dad, who at the ripe old age of 50 was still buying mortician’s wax and yak hair for his Wolf Man costume. For me Halloween has always been about costumes that felt like a good idea, but never quite got off the ground: a horse (first grade); a mini-refrigerator filled with popsicle boxes (third grade); and “Budget Dracula” (junior year college), a costume consisting of a pink wig, magic marker unibrow and moustache, and wool blanket.

In New York, Rick was always a zombie. Over the years his costume grew more and more elaborate. Fake blood, latex wounds, sodium bicarbonate to simulate foaming at the mouth, rice krispy maggots feasting on rotting flesh. When the costume couldn’t get any more elaborate, we mustered a Zombie Army to march in the Village Halloween Parade. A team of scientists from the Center for Zombie Control, equipped with white jackets, Zombie Zappers, and So You’ve Been Attacked By a Zombie pamphlets, herded a mob of the undead. When the zombies attacked the crowd, the scientists controlled them the only way they knew how: by playing Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The best part was, every single time the Zombies performed their Thriller dance, some random fellow-parader threw caution to the wind and joined in. Over the course of the parade we danced with two hoochies in devil horns, Luigi from Super Mario Brothers, a naked guy, Ace Frehley from KISS, and a roller skating chicken.

How do you follow an act like that, a continent away from home, in a country where no one gives a rat’s ass about Halloween? You go to Transylvania.

And Transylvania is beautiful. The Carpathians are covered in autumn leaves. The train takes you through little towns where horse-drawn carts draw loads of hay, shepherds pipe in distant fields, and people harvest by hand. There are crumbling factories and commie apartment blocks, the color of grey October. You eat stag stew and drink homemade liquor out of plastic water bottles.

Like most visitors, we went to Bran (“Dracula’s”) Castle and browsed its kitsch carnival of a souvenir market, where vendors make a killing on Dracula’s Blood wine and Vlad the Impaler coffee mugs. Later we hiked up a steep, winding path through thick pine forest to reach nearly deserted Rasnov castle. At the top of the mountain, a horse wandered through the ruins, grazing beneath a crow’s cage swinging in the wind.

The history associated with these castles is important enough regionally, but it’s not what tourists come to see. The American image of Transylvania has nothing to do with reality. Transylvania is the magical realm of the horror movie, land of dark monsters and blackest night. It is the opposite of historical—it’s timeless. To their great credit, Transylvanians are amused and intrigued by the American obsession with their land. They’ve graciously left history out of their attractions, to let the imagination roam wild. Bran Castle is furnished with a hodgepodge of baroque chairs, twentieth century bearskin rugs, medieval candlesticks, anything grotesque and foreboding. Let’s be clear: this castle has nothing to do with Dracula, who never existed, and nothing to do with Vlad the Impaler. The Romanians know this, they know you know—and they know you don’t care, because imagination is a million times better than dry reality.

Halloween found us in Sighisoara, “Pearl of the Carpathians,” supposed birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. All day long we saw Americans on Dracula Tours: a plump girl with pink hair and glasses, bikers in Halloween Beer Fest t-shirts, a long-haired man in a black silk frock coat, a couple of trenchcoated D&D kids bemoaning Romania’s dearth of Guiness and Cheetoes. I’m not going to lie: I sort of fell in love with them as a group. I mean, you NEVER see Americans like that in Budapest. We wanted to hang out with them that night—if you can’t do it on Halloween, when can you?—but when night fell, Sighisoara was completely dead. Silent. Nothing happened. Crushed, I dragged Rick back to the hostel and made him tell me scary stories.

The next day was an idyllic, sunny November 1. We wandered around the old Saxon graveyard and hiked along the medieval city walls, talking of cabbages and kings. We told ourselves that even if we hadn’t partied on Halloween, at least we were in Transylvania.

And then night fell.

On the way back from dinner with a nice Swiss backpacker, we heard distant screams. I rushed through the gate of the clock tower and found a mob of people in medieval garb, beating drums and hauling around a terrified woman in a torn shift. Three film crews eagerly recorded it all. Naturally I had to know what the hell was going on. A drummer in a bald cap and peasant shirt explained that this was a reenactment of a witch trial in 1026, but it was over now. He sounded a drumroll to emphasize his point. Disappointed but undeterred, I looked around for someone who might know more. One quiet, solitary man with an air of authority was hiking off towards the main square.


Sarah: Excuse me, sir, but are you involved in this? Is it over?
Romanian Man: Yes, now the witch will be kept in the tower dungeon, until it is her turn to burn at the stake. Her journey is finished. But now…now we go underground, to the cellars of Sighisoara. And there, at midnight, the new Countess Dracula will be crowned.
(Sarah gapes, dumbfounded.)
Romanian Man: If you like, you will join us.
Sarah: (hastily) Yes, yes, we would love that!
Romanian Man: (stopping in his tracks) We are the Transylvanian Order of Dracula. (bows) You are Welcome.
Sarah: (mouths silently) YESSSSSSSSS!!!

And so we descend into an ancient cellar. There are Americans there in full-on, elaborate costume: not just vampires, but Scooby Doo, a headless man and a mad scientist. A female monk explains that tomorrow, God willing, they will all be inducted as knights of the Transylvanian Order of Dracula. The film crews are already drunk and dancing. The anchorwoman of the Filipino crew (“Miss Universe 1999! A very intelligent woman!” someone tells me) boogies with an elated Romanian waiter. A cheerful reporter from Bucharest shouts “If you think this is good you should see the party next door! There are some real freaks over there!”

And indeed there are. In the cellar next door are scores of completely blasted Americans: cowboys, jesters, princesses, vinyl queens, Elvira. Beneath the fake cobwebs and dancing fake skeletons, they’re dancing their hearts out to Love Shack, La Isla Bonita and Up In the Club: “Go Shorty, it’s your birthday, we gonna drink Bacardi like it’s your birthday...” Prince comes on. An obviously straight, Midwestern transvestite dances on a chair. The helpful hotel staff—safety first—brings him a table to dance on instead. A man in a top hat clambers onto the table and the crowd cheers as the two bump and grind. Our Swiss pal flees in horror. An elf swing dances with a break dancer. A mental patient does the twist.

Rick observes sadly that these people have come all the way from America to transform a real Transylvanian cellar into a New Jersey rec room. But it’s something more than that. These are the people who always had the most fun at the costume party, the people who dressed up for Halloween at the office. They’re not cool. Their costumes have always been a little bit too elaborate, a little too thought out. They try too hard. And here, for the first time, there’s no one to spoil the party. They’ve all brought their costumes thousands of miles, they’ve all scrimped and saved, and here they all are, for one night only, dancing the night away in Transylvania. This is what we’ve all come for, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: a Halloween Hajj.

Back at the Dracula party, Countess Dracula—an airhead Romanian teenager—emerges from the shadows, languidly showing off the new bite marks on her neck. “Was it good for you?” Scooby Doo shouts, and the Americans cackle. The journalists eagerly interview the Countess. Now a team of Romanian teenagers in medieval garb rushes into the room and starts square dancing to a techno version of Cotton Eyed Joe. The Bucharest journalist yells over the din, “Romania is the Fifty Third American state!” A vampire with shaved head, painted contacts and glued-on fangs flirts with the Countess. There’s a conga line. The electric slide is danced. The Macarena. And suddenly, the party is over.

The next day, we take the train home. In the dark countryside out the window, we see the flicker of candles in a graveyard. All Saints’ Day. Back home at last, I look at my calendar: November 1. We had totally screwed up the dates; we never missed Halloween at all. “Rick! Yesterday was Halloween! Yesterday really was Halloween!”