Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 12
27 March 2000

G H Y M E S:
From Táncház to concert band

Ghymes is a Hungarian ensemble from Slovakia, who began their musical careers as folk musicians. They started in the traditional Táncház (lit. Dance House - a custom imported from Transylvania, where young village people would rent someone's house to hold a dance). Feeling that they needed to reach a broader audience, Ghymes began playing as concert musicians. Since then, the group has toured extensively in both Europe and further afield, but often returning to their own roots. Their most recent album, Rege, has won much acclaim in both Hungary and Slovakia. For our Hungarian Music Special, I spoke to Ghymes member Attila Pukkai after the band had just returned home from a series of concerts in Poland.

PN: First, why you did you choose the name Ghymes?

AP: It is the name of a village near Nyitra [Nitra]. The Slovak name is Jelenec and the very traditional Hungarian name, the old name, is Ghymes. Three members of Ghymes - Andor [Buják], Tommy [Tamás Szarka] and Gyula [Szarka] - went to university in Nyitra, where a youth camp for university students was organised in nearby Ghymes in May every year. It was there the group was founded in 1984 and began playing traditional Hungarian folk music.

PN: Could you tell us something about your different musical influences and what it was like in your early Táncház days?

AP: Three of us started playing folk music in our high school in Galánta where there was, and still is, a folk dance group, and we became influenced by Hungarian folk music. The members of the group also have other influences - for example, Tommy is very influenced by classical music, Andor by Rock 'n' Roll and Gyula by early renaissance music - all of which are present in our music. These are some of the influences the members brought into Ghymes.

PN: Why did you make a break with the Táncház audience to become a "concert band," and could you also say something about your association with the dance group Ifjú Szívek [Young Hearts]?

AP: I can't say that we stopped playing the Táncház. It was a gradual process. We thought that the Táncház music was too narrow, and we wanted to show the audience a broader musical thinking, which we could only do by playing concerts. We played traditional folk music with Ifjú Szívek, which is a Hungarian arts group, until last year, when the new director of the group kicked us out because he said that Ghymes does not know how to play traditional folk music. This is not true! We never stopped playing the traditional Táncház music because we kept on performing together with the dance group, and this is something we like very much.

PN: What has it been like for you to get media attention, in both Slovakia and in Hungary?

AP: It has been very difficult to promote ourselves in the media because this kind of music is unfortunately not what is most popular in Central Europe. This will unfortuantely only happen when this kind of music comes from the West. In Slovakia and Hungary, this generally happens two or three years after it has been a "hit" in Western Europe. We are however constantly working on appearing in the media, because our music is also needed in the media. We have an interesting story from two or three weeks ago when our manager asked a commercial television station in Hungary if we could perform in a morning show, not in the evening, only in the morning. The TV station responded that they know that Ghymes is a very good band and play very good music, but they can't educate the people. They need commercial music now topping the charts in Hungary.

PN: With Bennünk van a kutyavér [We're Full of Mischief] you set music to childrens' rhymes, but make the sound typically Ghymes. With this album, did you aim to convey the special relationship you have with the audience?

AP: With Ifjú Szívek we started doing concerts for children. We went to Hungarian schools in Slovakia, first only to give a different kind of music lessons. We used texts from books used by Hungarian elementary schools in Slovakia from which we created these Ghymes-sounding songs. These songs work particularly well live, so we did not want to record a studio CD. We wanted give back the feeling what it is like in these concerts for children, which we still do to this day.

PN: From having been a Hungarian folk music group are you now a truly "world music" group, or do you think that you have gone beyond even this and created a distinct "Ghymes sound" - popular music based on traditional Hungarian folk music? Did you intentionally move away from the more traditional music with your first album recorded in Budapest, Tűzugráz [Firejump]?

AP: We could say that we are a world music group, but we were put in this category by journalists, as every group must fit in somewhere. We don't mind this, but the problem with world music is that it is a very broad category and anything can fit in there. This does not matter to us. We play world music because it is not folk, not jazz, but something in between. Mainly in our territories we like to say that we play "Ghymes music" because unfortunately no other group plays this kind of music. This was as I said, and still, is an ongoing gradual and did not begin with Tűzugráz. It is true that from Tűzugráz we have used more electrical instruments and more drums, but this began already on the previous album, Üzenet [Message]. We will not change drastically, but every time we release a CD we feel we must add something and make it different from earlier albums. I hope we will be able to add something to every album. If not, we will stop playing.

PN: Could you say something about Rege [Legend], and your cooperation with Bernadett Kiss?

AP: We released Rege in both Hungary and Slovakia in 1998. We are very happy that the album has been very well received also in Slovakia, and that people in Slovakia are interested in our music. I think that every reader would have to listen to it because it is difficult to characterise, so every reader should judge for themselves. As for Bernadett's appearance on the album, we were looking for a female voice for a performance at the dance theatre Életeink [Our Lives] in Komárom [Komárno], in 1995. We remembered Bernadett, who is from the south of Hungary, because we had seen her win a competition for folk music vocalists on TV. Since then, she has appeared on our last two albums. In my opinion she has a very interesting voice, which is exactly what we need, but unfortunately she does not sing very much and does not appear on any other albums than ours. For example, she is now in Germany working as an au pair. I like the voice of Márta Sebestyén very much. Bernadett's voice is different, but for me, as good as Marta's. We instantly felt that Tánc a hóban [Dance in the Snow - on which Bernadett appears] would be the "hit" off Rege. We are very glad that this slow romantic song did become very popular.

PN: I understand that you would like for music to transcend national and cultural differences, but in your texts you refer to a longing for freedom and what I understand to be the typically Hungarian "hopelessness." Do you agree?

AP: It is true that most of our lyrics are about two things: freedom and love. Why I don't know, maybe this is inside us. These are themes that touch everyone, not only musicians, not only people in Hungary, not only people in Slovakia, but the entire world. As for the hopelessness, I do not think we are hopeless! [laughter]

PN: Would you say that you are a group who represent the Hungarians of Slovakia and their culture, or do you see yourself as a more generally Hungarian, or even a European, ensemble?

AP: Everywhere we go we feel and say that we are Hungarians living in Slovakia. We did not want to not say this to people, because we know this is a very good thing and we ourselves feel good in this situation. Especially this year and last year also Slovaks come to our concerts, which we feel is a very good thing. We have been invited to big festivals in northern Slovakia [which is inhabited almost exclusively by Slovaks], where we have played alongside Slovak bands, and we have been very well received. Also when we go to Hungary we feel good about the situation, because we can show that also Hungarians outside the borders can play this kind of music well. In Europe, we also feel this is a good thing. In June this year we will perform at the Expo in Hannover, representing Hungary, not Slovakia. We have however also encountered some strange situations. One time when we had a concert date in Paris, the organisers asked the Slovak Institute arrange for our accommodation. The Institute's response was, "Ok, but Ghymes are not typically Slovak, they are Hungarian." The organisers then turned to the Hungarian Institute, who responded, "Ok, but Ghymes are not from Hungary, they are from Slovakia." In the end the French Institute accommodated us. This is, I think, a good story about our identity.

PN: Do you feel you can write about anything, or does your background as Hungarians from Slovakia restrain you?

AP: I cannot say we are restrained. This problem [tension between Hungarians and Slovaks] appears every day in every situation in politics, but we cannot feel it as much. In every political situation, under every political government, we did only our own work. We have always strived to work towards our own aims. Or course we read newspapers and watch television. Mainly under the government of Mečiar there were big problems between the nationalities, so naturally we have to be touched by this.

PN: You have performed not only all over Europe, but also all over the world. How do you rate your, and other Hungarian groups', chances of becoming a "hit" abroad?

AP: We have said to each other that we cannot not stop until we are world stars [laughter]. It is quite a serious thing because we feel that the group must set its aims as high as possible. We hope that one day we will be world stars, but when I do not know. There have been some good reflections. In May last year, we did a concert for Polish state radio, which six and a half million Poles listened to. This concert was the concert of the year in Poland in 1999. This shows that we are on the right track. If we reach our goal we do not know, but if not, it will not be the worst thing in the world. I think that Hungarian music is very interesting to people in the West because of its deep roots and because it can grow from these strong roots. Much however depends on fortune. Márta Sebestyén was fortunate with Deep Forest and the English Patient, and much depends on this.

PN: What are your plans for the future, and what can we expect from your next album?

AP: In February we recorded five songs for the album, which we will finish in April. Initial reactions have been positive. I have been told that it is quite different from Rege, but just as good or even better. I feel that, like with the other albums, we are progressing. This album will be more relaxed, with stronger bass and drums.

PN: Finally, do you have a message for audiences outside the Hungarian cultural territories, who are not familiar with your music? What would you say to encourage people to listen to your fantastic last album, Rege?

AP: In Central Europe this kind of music is characterised as "layer" music - it is only for a narrow layer. Our first major aim is to enlarge this layer as much as possible, so we would be glad if people not only in Hungary and Slovakia come to our concert and listen to our CDs. Then they can hear for themselves what we have talked about just now. If you know where we will perform please come to our concerts!

Paul Nemes, 24 March 2000

Ghymes have upcoming concerts in Bratislava (A Magyar Köztársaság Kulturális Intézete, Pozsony) on 30 March and in Budapest (Fonó) on 6 April.

For more information about Ghymes and concert dates, visit the Ghymes homepage, or contact their manager, Mónika Csikmák.



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