St. John's Pub, Portland, OR, USA, (October 2002)
The band Szászcsávás (TSA-cha-vash) comes from a village of the same name in southwest Transylvania. Most of the less than 1000 inhabitants are Hungarian, but about a quarter of the population are Gypsies. The members of Szászcsávás come from this Gypsy population, and are currently touring the United States to promote the traditional music of their culture. We went to see them on a whim, as one of their performances was held at our local pub, a watering hole known for excellent musical guests. Neither my husband nor myself were at all familiar with traditional Gypsy music, beyond the occasional riffs adapted by some of our favorite bands such as Boiled in Lead and Tears for Beers. I'm so glad I follow these whims, because I couldn't have had a better time.
The magnificent domed performance space at the McMenamin's St. John's Pub is the perfect venue to see such a group. The space is intimate, unpolished, and with wonderful acoustics. There is no fixed seating so it's always possible to move the chairs and dance. The Persian rugs and other wall hangings that decorate the space made a wonderful setting for this group.
I didn't quite know what to expect: charming men with sparkling eyes, in wild and colorful costumes, right out of the movies? Enter Szászcsávás, six dark-haired, dark-eyed...dour, unsmiling men?
Uh-oh. None of these guys even look like they want to be here. What's that they're wearing? Plain button down shirts and slacks? Oh, no, I hope this isn't going to be boring...wait, three of them are wearing...anime shirts? Oh my goodness, yes, yellow shirts with flamboyant Japanese anime characters on them. And that young fellow...why, he's smiling. Grinning ear to ear, in fact, and what an infectious smile! He's lighting up the whole room! OK, now they're getting started. Hey, look how they're holding their fiddles, completely perpendicular to their chins, and they're bowing up and down instead of from side to side. Well, this will be interesting. They're playing now...WOW!
The audience was nearly as entertaining as the performers: a few music students from the local universities and colleges; a couple of confused Goths standing in back who appeared to have come because they heard the group was Transylvanian, and thought they'd be meeting Vlad Dracul; but mostly a good 70% of the spectators were Hungarian and Romanian ex-pats, some even in traditional garb, and all buzzing with excitement about the band. Clearly, for them, this was an Event. And when the band began to play their first set of Hungarian music and dances, the ex-pats began to clap along with the music, and the energy swept the room.
The first half of the concert was marvelously exciting, especially since this music was all fresh to me. A few minutes into the set, two dancers in traditional Hungarian dress entered (Oh, my. Look at that red velvet skirt she has on. I'm so jealous...) and energetically performed some of the traditional dances of the area. Throughout the concert the two solo dancers (from the Válaszút Ensemble, Hungary), Nóra Kertész and András Szöllösi, would periodically enter and perform, each time having changed into one of the many different traditional costumes from the Szászcsávás region. It was a lovely and fascinating addition to the concert. I try to take notes when I'm attending a gig for review, but halfway through the first set I stuffed my notepad and pen into my bag and left them there for the remainder of the night. I was having too much fun to bother with notes.
As I said, the first half of the concert was utterly enjoyable, as they played traditional Hungarian dance music (Szászcsávás plays at home for weddings and festivals so dance music is their staple), new style csárdás tunes, and music gleaned from other regions in Transylvania, albeit all with their own exciting Gypsy flavor. But the second half...the second half was sublime. After the first half, (more than an hour of tunes that seemed like it slipped away in minutes) the band took a twenty minute break to recharge and give the audience a chance to calm down a bit. When they came back for the second set, the men seemed much more relaxed, and one by one we caught each of the formerly dour men breaking into charming, glowing smiles as they played the second half.
During the second half the band switched from the Hungarian music of their region to the Romanian music of their region, and performed a fascinating medley showing the development of music in the village from ancient traditional tunes to a thrilling version of "O, Susanna" and a few other bits of Western music that could be picked out from within the tapestry of the Gypsy style. At this point, audience members had thrown themselves into dance and were having an excellent time shaking their Old World booty on the floor in front of the band (which the band was enjoying no end, of course, since getting folks dancing is their purpose). Kertész and Szöllösi performed more traditional dances. And then...and then...then they finished off the set with Gypsy music and dancing. And they sang. Oh, they sang...
(Oh, I think they're going to sing. Yes, the gent in the white shirt is stepping up to the microphone and...Oh. What a nice voice he has. I wonder if that's Romanian, Hungarian, or Rom he's singing in? I wish I knew more about this culture. Well, that was a pretty song. Look, he's starting another tune. This one sounds sad...the program notes say it's a lamenting song about Gypsy life? Wait, the others are adding harmonies...Oh. OH...)
At which point I closed my eyes as possibly the loveliest, purest sound I've ever heard filled the room, six men singing such sweet a capella harmony that it lifted me above the crowd and sent me soaring...somewhere. I don't know where, I only know that for the duration of that song I was entranced, enraptured, and utterly disconnected from anything in the room beyond those sweet clear voices.
After that, the rest of the concert became a jumble of rollicking and delightful chants and dances, as each member of the band turns putting down their instruments to take soloes dancing the cigany csardas in the middle of the dance floor. Throwing themselves into the music, absolutely hamming it up with abandon; this was more what I had originally expected when I decided to go see a Gypsy band. Yet, I wouldn't have missed a moment of the rest of the concert, either. What a wonderful, wonderful experience.
The band is István "Dumnezu" Jámbor (violin), Levente "Leves" Mezei (violin), Sándor "Cilika" Csányi (violin), Ferenc "Csángáló" Mezei (brácsa), Ferenc "Tocsila" Jámbor (brácsa), and Mátyás "Matyi" Csányi (bass). Their very kind manager is Zoltán Szánthó. According to their Web site this tour is almost over, but I would recommend checking back often, as this is a band you definitely want to catch.