I always try to include a bit of local music, be it ancient or modern, in my explorations overseas so a trip to see the BEM Folk Ensemble at the Hagyományok Háza (Heritage House) Theatre only a hundred metres from the Danube in Buda was the perfect way to spend an evening. The building, with its grand entrance hall of marble columns and wide marble staircase, had apparently been completed in 1898 and was a classy affair though it seemed to have seen better times and perhaps could have done with a lick of paint. Somehow its lack of perfection made it perfect for me though as I sat and tried to imagine what events it must have seen over the years while I waited for the performance to begin. Perhaps even Mátyás Rákosi, Stalin’s mate and General Secretary of the Communist Party in Hungary had parked his bum on the seat where mine was parked tonight.
What really made the fixtures and fittings rank above anything I had ever seen before was the presence of a Poundland pan scourer on every wash basin in the toilets. What could people possibly do in a theatre to get their hands so dirty? Had Mátyás Rákosi found the need to use a pan scourer after visiting the toilet?
Already overjoyed by the plushness of the venue and its unique hygiene facilities, I went on to witness almost two hours of remarkable traditional Hungarian entertainment. Gypsy music thrashed out on a variety of string instruments including my favourite, the cimbalom, accompanied dancers who just didn’t know how to slow down. They put their hearts and souls into leaping into the air, slapping their knees, thighs and the heels of their boots and whirling about like eejits for the whole of the performance without showing even a glimmer of breathlessness. They must have been as fit as any Olympic athlete. Stiff white shirts and posh frocks were worn as the dancers who, with only imitation cherry blossom twigs as props, re-enacted Hungarian village life, work, courtship and domestic violence with fast and furious moves that left me exhausted, bloody and sore just by watching them.
There were one or two bits that reminded me of Alexei Sayle when his act included a bit of dancing in the way he perceived people from the Soviet Bloc countries would get down to the beat. This made me smile. I considered for a while that he must have watched such performers himself many years ago. However, despite the little warm smiley bits, I was sure that he had the utmost respect for the talent that these incredible entertainers displayed, just as I did myself.
The only real disappointments of the night were that they wouldn’t allow photography during the performance and that I couldn’t buy a cimbalom from the merchandise stall after the show. I did buy a CD of old Hungarian Gypsy music though. I think I was the only member of the audience who bought anything. The girl who ran the store seemed a bit startled by my interest, by the fact that I had been touring her country and at the discovery that I was staying in a hotel near the big Tesco Extra shop on Budapest ring road. She told me that she lived near there. Was that an invitation? I wondered if she played the cimbalom!
Unfortunately I couldn't find a video clip of my favourite troupe from the BEM Folk Ensemble but I have managed to trace a bit of footage of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble who are very similar and almost as good and even manage to bang out a bit of a tune on large metal milk jugs. It's a shame that you don't see much of the cimbalom player until around 6 minutes 20 seconds into the film when you can just about see him thrashing the metal strings on his large, trapezoidal box, but do watch out for him . . . he's like a Gypsy Johnny Ramone!