Budapest, Scenes from the Citadel. Photo by Mike Long.
The crumbling architecture, overgrown parks and rough but welcoming vibe of Budapest embraced me as an old friend. First the city felt cool and distant, then warm and comfortable--as if it mean to welcome me all along. Both cities (Buda and Pest, which reside on either side of the Danube River), brought a me a surprising gift: eclectic jazz.
It seems like everywhere you turn in Budapest you hear jazz music the most people in the city are seem to be in denial about how integral it is to their culture. I stayed with a friend who came from a family of musicians whose tiny house was crammed full of small and strange instruments. When I mentioned my observations, she raised her eyebrows in alarm, “You think Budapest is a jazz city?”
Yes, I do. Like a wandering trumpet solo that never seems to wrap-up, I explored the city for weeks with seemingly no end in sight for venues that were chock-full of smooth sounds. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Musician Barabás lőrinc at Arkvarium Venue with Budapest Turnarounds. Photo by Mike Long.
A trumpeter named Barabás Lőrinc played the first concert I saw in Budapest. Like almost all of the musicians I met, his trio configuration that night was only one of his many performing groups. Jazz players, in particular, seem to accept that multiple gigging bands are part of the path to paying one’s rent.
At Arkvarium Club, Barabás and his band, along with a much-loved local singer named Sena, played a diverse range of tunes to one of the most engaged and dance-ready audiences I’ve seen on my travels. Her funky soul tunes sparked an intense and palpable energy in the audience. Afterward, Barabás cooled us down with his smooth effects-pedal augmented trumpeting.
I was still on a high from that the show when someone mentioned I should go check out the open-mic at Lampas Bar in town. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the words “open mic,” I imagine 21 year olds chugging their way through Bob Dylan songs on acoustic guitar.
Szimpla Kert (Simple Garden). Photo by Mike Long.
Thankfully, this open mic experience was more skillful than a collection of folk covers. Down a set of crumbling stairs and through short passages that required me somehow become much smaller than I usually am, I found a bar and stage with 5 or 6 musicians noodling their way through various prog/rock/jazz tunes. Sometimes players would walk off stage and someone else would instinctively take their places, carrying a flute or saxophone with them. The jam didn’t seem to have a beginning or end, and the line between audience and artist was blurry. There was an easy-going and light-hearted fun to the whole event, with enough talent to rival any professional gig.
It was less of an “open mic” as we know it in America and more of an amorphous, free-flowing jazz session. The nature of jazz seems to lend itself to improvisational situations like these, and the impromptu musicians were simply basking in its glory.
Budapest wins for unique venues, interesting stories and energetic audiences. The city really knows how to celebrate. I had been told about a venue called A38 which was on a boat on the “Buda” side of the Danube River.
A38, boat and music venue on the "Buda" side of the Danube river. Photo by Mike Long.
The Toaster (from New York) played the most light-hearted and fun show I’d yet seen on my travels, and in the belly of a beautiful boat, no less! Locals conversed on the banks of the river, filing in and out sporadically, echoing the changes in the music. Inside, the dance-crazed audience rocked the boat until the late evening.
Gentrification is occurring rapidly and visibly in Budapest. Most of the “action” and tourism happens in the fifth district. To escape the tourist traps, I opted to stay in the eighth district. About ten blocks toward the city center from my house was a shiny new shopping center. Next to it stood a recently-constructed Nokia Sky Center and several other fresh high-rises. This wave of growth and new money was unmistakably moving toward the eight district and across the entire city.
Goyla, one of the last surviving original music venue pubs. Photo by Mike Long.
Among the construction madness was of the most unique places I’ve ever seen--a tiny club called Golya. It defiantly stood at the edge of the shopping mall in the shadow of two massive, modern buildings.In the U.S., the equivalent would be your Grandma’s house sandwiched between two Walmarts.
I saw several shows there and made an effort to talk with bartenders and regular patrons. When I asked if Golya was going to survive, the answer was always “no,” with variations on how long its devotees expected it to last.
One night I was sitting in the back of the bar when I noticed an older man smoking and working on some contraption that involved magnetics and an apparent attempt to generate energy through some gyroscopic force. He explained that Golya had been around since he was a kid. It was once meeting point for what sounded a lot like a Hungarian Mafia. He pointed to a trap-door and said there were meetings there. He mentioned that sometimes drummers come and meet and play in the basement. On-stage, Tudósok, an art-school favorite, played through a set of punk-jazz, spoken-word and funk. As with all the shows I’d seen, the audience was open, warm and ready to cheer and dance.
Whiskey Moon Face performing at Goyla. Photo by Mike Long.
Budapest was brimming with spicy and fun flavors of jazz, colored by Hungarian traditions. Buzzing clarinets, vibrant saxophones and off-the-rails fast tempos are scattered around all the eclectic venues all over the city. Like an auditory scavenger hunt, the feeling of the city is festive and fun, with no telling what you’ll find.But if I had to guess, I’d venture jazz.
Next stop - Transylvania! The home of Vampires and surprisingly cool music. Stay tuned!
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Videos - Just a taste of the many cool bands we saw!
Kerekes Band at the National Museum for the Budapest Spring Museum Festival. Video by Mike Long.
Nemulass performing at Aurora in Budapest. Video by Mike Long.
The Toasters performing at A38. Video by Mike Long.