In the past I’ve thought that some of Dan Rosenberg’s compilations for World Music Network were unfocussed, the result of one man’s goodhearted quest to include as much in a single album as possible—a laudable aim in theory, but one which, in practice, sometimes leaves you with a release that falls in the category of “Interesting” rather than “Enjoyable”. With the Rough Guide to the Music of the Hungarian Gypsies, though, he’s nailed it. It’s a beautiful example of thematic and atmospheric consistency. Hungarian Gypsies is a compilation with character. Rosenberg introduces a mood of restless grasshopper vitality in the very first song and expands on it cleanly and inventively for the next hour without showing any sign of wearing out.
Hungarian Roma music, according to this Rough Guide, has a dancing energy, like a ball always bouncing forward. In “Amari Familija” the men and women of Karavan Familia shout, “Hop-ha! Hop-ha! Hop! Hop!” and these explosions could serve as a summary of the entire disc. The Cimbali Band translates that energy into the language of cimbaloms, a quick, ringing sound like icicles being tapped, while Kálmán Balogh & the Gypsy Cimbalom Band bring in fiddles, lending the energy a folk flavour that is almost countrified American.
Other musicians introduce handclaps or accordions or groups of people singing “Da de da” or “La la la”, nonsense words to keep the momentum flowing. Parno Graszt pushes “Odi Phenel Cino Savo/Azt Mondja a Kisfiam” along with a guitar, and Etnorom on “Áven, Áven Romále” uses nippy percussion and a fiery trumpet that seems to be calling out for bullfights. The more streetwise trumpets in Besh O droM’s “Cigansko Oro” shoot notes with the rapid precision of machine guns, giving way to quick passages of scratching. Fanfare Ciocarlia’s reworking of “Duj Duj” is almost unbearably exciting, switching back and forth between swift battalion injections of brass from the band and stretchy, inward-curling singing from the two Hungarian singers, Mitsou and Florentina Sandou, who accompany it. I’m puzzled to hear a Serbian song played by Romanians on a compilation dedicated to Hungary, but I like “Duj Duj” and this is a good version of it, so I’m not complaining. Fanfare Ciocarlia is ripening with age.
There’s even a bobbing, percussive beat in the album’s most melancholy track, Kalyi Jag’s “More Shej Sabina”, in which the drums relieve the gradual sadness of the voices.
If you wanted to find a more familiar Westernised music to compare this to, then you might consider Irish folk, with its jigs and reels, the music that wants to tug you out of your chair and get you in the middle of the floor, footing in circles with dozens of strangers, all of you grinning madly at one another, not absolutely sure how you got here, but loving it nonetheless.
From Rosenberg’s perspective, the Hungarian Roma and the musicians inspired by them sound volatile and joyous, twitching with action, gleefully galvanised. I came to the end of Gypsies and thought of Kellie Pickler, the woman on American television a short while ago who said she had never heard of Hungary. “Hungry?” she cried, shooting her cute, sweet head forward at Jeff Foxworthy in disbelief. “That’s a country?” She should listen to this album. She might want to go there. So might you. So might I. “What do they call these people now?” she might say, frowning and pricking up her ears, intrigued by the half-familiar fiddles. “Gypsies? Do you mean from Egypt? Roma? I’ve heard of Romans, but …”
And so, piecemeal and strangely, do people learn about the world.