In Budapest, an underground gypsy music pub strikes a chord with Jews
BUDAPEST — If not for the overtones of lively gypsy music wafting down Paulay Ede Street, the dark, brick-walled basement tavern would be easy to miss. But the unassuming venue known as Giero Pub holds one of Budapest’s best-kept open secrets: some of the best Roma musicians the capital has to offer.
Inside, Gyulane Farkas – known to everyone as ‘Aunt Gizi’ – moves between tightly packed tables laying down pictures of palinka, strong Hungarian schnapps and draft beers. During slow moments (of which there are more than a few), she settles into a corner table outfitted with many of the comforts of home.
On a quiet night, Gizi, a compact woman in her sixties, might be inspired to share some of her life story, as she recently did for The Times of Israel with the help of a skilled performer.
“I’m not quite a gypsy,” says Gizi. “My father’s mother was Jewish. She met a beautiful double bass player and married him, and that’s how we acquired the tradition of the gypsy double bass in our family.
The pub is named after Gizi’s father, Giero, and an old black and white portrait of him in his youth is prominently displayed above the bar. Half-Jewish, half-Roma, Giero followed in his own father’s footsteps and made a name for himself playing the double bass.
But tragedy struck the family when Giero was just a young man during the Holocaust when his Roma father was taken to a labor camp, where he died.
“My father was orphaned at 13,” says Gizi. “There weren’t just Jews, they also took gypsies. I didn’t even know my grandfather or his family, I just knew they were great musicians.
Not to be confused with the more traditional Roma genre, Gypsy music is an interpretation of Hungarian folk music which, at its height in the early 20th century, was ubiquitous in restaurants, cafes and pubs throughout Hungary and the -of the. Before World War II, around a quarter of Budapest’s residents were Jewish, and klezmer also made its mark on the style. (While the term “Gypsy” is pejorative, some Roma in Hungary still use it today, and it loses its negative connotation when referring to musical style.)
Gypsy music is still commonly played today, although it has an air of nostalgia and is often marketed to tourists. The Giero Pub gets its share, but it’s also loved by the city’s cultural elite – movie stars and journalists, musicians and chefs – as well as a dedicated group of savvy locals.
“I opened in 1990. Since then, I’ve become quite famous. I’ve been featured in books, articles – do you see this one here? said Gizi, brandishing a press clipping written in Hungarian. “The title says I only receive good people. Do you know Ivan Bacher? He is a very famous journalist who worked for Nepszabadsag – also a Jew, like you. Here, look at this, I was about to have it framed, he wrote a long article about me in 1998.”
Gizi claims to have made a name for himself in Israel as well, and whether that’s true or not, the appreciation of an Israeli crowd would be well-deserved. Recognizing this reporter – a regular at the Giero Pub – the band kicks into a virtuoso medley of Shabbat songs, then rolls smoothly into Hava Nagila. Calls for traditional Roma songs fall on deaf ears; the musicians are clearly used to playing in front of the public.
Gizi’s nephew, Istvan Feher, leads the group on the cimbalom. “I don’t have any children of my own,” says Gizi, “but it’s a family business,” she says. The cimbalom is a horizontal string instrument played with two mallets held in the hand, at the crossroads of the piano and the harp, emblematic of gypsy music.
Feher was a cimbalom prodigy and his playing won him a string of awards. Alongside him on double bass and viola are his sons Aron and David, who, although teenagers, are also beginning to win international competitions. At the piano is Istvan’s brother, Bela Feher, who plays with lightning speed and acrobatic flourishes reminiscent of Chico Marx.
Istvan Feher says the Jewish songs the band plays were etched in his memory from an early age.
“There was a Jewish boy in my class at music school, a friend,” Feher says. “And I went with him to the synagogue. I fell in love with these prayer songs right away – they just touched me, I felt them in my soul.
Feher never forgot the music and later created intricate arrangements for it on cimbalom and accompanying instruments. And while Jews and Roma in Hungary share an unspoken connection following the mutual genocide of the Holocaust, perhaps Feher’s connection to music may be due to his grandfather Giero.
Gizi itself seems to approach its roots from the orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. “My father was Jewish, but I’m not,” she said, pausing for a moment. “But maybe I inherited business acumen.”
Gizi has run the store for 32 years and has spent most of his life as an entrepreneur. “I was born on the bank of the Ipoly River,” she says. She moved to Budapest from her hometown of Balassagyarmat near the Slovakian border with her family when she was 14 so that her father Giero could play music there.
“I’ve had stores since ’81,” Gizi says. “I had a variety store, a boutique, a vegetable stand. Originally it was supposed to be an antique store, because I loved and still love antiques. Anything old, anything vintage, I love it.
“We are just trying to make ends meet because here in Hungary there is a lot of racism against Gypsies, it’s not good here,” she says. “It’s really hard to run the business because there are big fish around me. A lot of people tried to bankrupt me.
As in much of Europe, Hungary’s Roma community faces prejudice and disadvantage in nearly every aspect of life, with women and children particularly likely to be the victims, study finds recent. Roma are overrepresented in terms of poverty and the number of children taken from their parents to be placed in foster families; they are sometimes separated into separate classes or even whole schools; and they frequently face housing discrimination — in addition to the everyday prejudice they suffer regardless of their social status.
“I’m not going to say Communism was better,” Gizi says. “But the hatred that exists today was absent then. I’m not going to cry for the return of communism because they say we are free now, but for us gypsies we have to do so much more to be accepted in all aspects of life.
“If there is a job available and nine Gypsies apply and one white, they will take the white non-Gypsy,” she says. “So I’ll tell you, there are enough problems. And not only with the Gypsies, the Jews also have a lot of problems here. But back home, we’re a different caste. If our younger generation is learning, it may be different – the only way out is to learn, learn, learn. But it’s really hard even like that, with all the school segregation here.
If there is one area in which Hungarian Roma — albeit a small number of them — are held in high esteem by majority society, it is music.
Gizi holds up another photo from her collection. “The journalist who took this photo of me is a journalist from a Fidesz newspaper,” she said. (The ruling Fidesz party is seen by many as unfriendly to the country’s Roma.)
“She always told me that Aunt Gizi — that’s me — teaches young people in Budapest what good music is. It’s Hungarian music, but the gypsies have made world music out of it, because it’s world famous.
Ironically, Gizi says the very fact that she is Roma puts the music pub at a disadvantage.
“Yesterday a famous Hungarian movie star and his entourage walked in, and they were in love. And foreigners find this place because it’s an area with a lot of foreigners, and they hear the music so they come in,” says Gizi. “But I’ll tell you, if this business belonged to someone who wasn’t Gypsy, it would be better.”