Whisky & Culture

Gipsy Kings

Roby Lakatos and his band are redfining Hungarian gipsy music with the help of malt whisky. Ken Hyder reports.
By Ken Hyder
Gipsy influence is everywhere in music. Flamenco and central European classical music would not sound like they do without the tribes who headed west from India. And can you easily think of a Hungarian restaurant without seeing guys in ornate waistcoats playing soaring violins at breakneck speed over a jangling gallop from the cimbalom?For some gipsies, being a musician is a job handed down from generation to generation. In Hungary especially, children grow up in musical families and themselves become the next generation of players. The first wave of gipsies, now largely known as pan-European gipsies , began to make their mark in Hungary in the 13th century. Unlike the 18th century wave of gipsies who continue the full gipsy cultural life of speaking Roma and wearing traditional clothes, the earlier settlers have integrated - up to a point. They may not speak Roma any more, but the musical dynasties continue. And to some extent that’s created a problem.“For the last 50 to 60 years Hungarian gipsy music has remained static,”claims cimbalom player and guitarist Ernest Bango. But 10 years ago, a young gipsy violinist named Roby Lakatos decided to change things. He wanted to create something new, take a firm grip of the music and shake it definitely out of its stylistic straitjacket, presenting a new gipsy music uprooted from its past using the strong influences of jazz and
improvisation. To do this he called up a handful of other young musicians he had known since his childhood. These creative and enthusiastic musicians were scattered throughout the world. Ernest was one - he was contacted while in Canada - and others, based mainly in Europe, also joined the Lakatos musical revolution.Roby was in a good position to make this creative move. His background gave him enormous clout: he is a descendent of Janos Bihari whose gipsy violin was a benchmark for violinists in the Balkans from the 18th century. Bihari’s friends included Liszt and Beethoven - who called him the “King of Gipsy Violinists.” Liszt noted: “The strains of his magical violin fall like tears on our enchanted ears.” Roby explains: “It was from Janos Bihari that Brahms borrowed the themes of his famous Hungarian Dances: every gipsy knows these themes and has them in his repertoire, and my own ears have been used to them since I was a toddler.” He learned the repertoire the traditional way - by ear. He began aged five and shortly began performing with his father and his uncle Sandor.“That’s how I learned the whole repertoire - by heart , by total immersion in the traditions of technique and ornamentation,” Roby recalls. Later, he studied classical violin at the Béla Bartok Conservatory in Budapest. These family musical traditions are very strong and not unusual, states Ernest: “In Roby’s family, they’re all violinists. In mine there are 40 cimbalom players.” A cimbalom, by the way of an explanation, looks rather like the inside of a baby grand piano and is played with special sticks. The handpicked band became known as the Lakatos ensemble and made Brussels their base, specifically in a bar called the Les Ateliers de la Grande Ile. This new and reinvigorated fusion of Hungarian gipsy music and jazz soon attracted many fans including the veteran jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. Hardly surprising really as Grapelli had earlier made his mark playing a gipsy jazz fusion with guitarist Django Reinhardt. It was while playing at the club the band discovered whisky. Or rather whisky discovered them.Speaking in London, during a stint at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, Ernest attempted to recall the details of how this occurred, but could only remembered the significance of the moment. Making music and relaxing afterwards is something musicians enjoy, the way people might appreciate a cigarette after sex. They tour the world trying all the vodkas in Russia and all the grappas in Italy as part of their research to find the drink that will allow them to relax after strenuous musical and creative activity.About seven years ago whisky became the subject of their own research. Ernest explained: “Somebody, a friend, he might have been Irish ... well, he’d just returned from Scotland and had brought back a whisky.“I can’t remember what it was, but it was a malt. I remember him saying that you shouldn’t drink it with ice ... or Coca Cola. Anyway, we drank it all right away because it was wonderful.”The whole band are now whisky drinkers and there’s a request for a malt to be placed in their dressing room before every performance. A canny contractual move, I’m sure you will agree. Getting details out of Ernest is often difficult - names especially so. However, the band knows exactly what it likes. Island malts with peaty character, such as Port Ellen and Bowmore, are lodged in their memory banks.Anyway, if you specify too precisely in your contract what you want you might miss out on a surprise. Which is exactly what happened earlier this year when they went into their dressing room before a performance in Switzerland and found they had been left a bottle of malt by the owner of a whisky museum in St Moritz.Ernest described the whisky as “house-made” with an owner’s name and serial number on the label. No, he doesn’t know what kind of malt it was but firmly recalls that it was worth US$1500 and was so good that the band took it onstage and polished it off during the concert. Not to worry, they were taken to the museum after the concert where they were given another bottle of the mysterious malt. And, funnily enough, they finished that too.Ernest was also given a magnum, one-and-a-half litre malt to take home. He can’t remember what that was either, except it was a special millennium bottling.We discuss the mystery malt, ascertaining that it has spicy and toffee flavours , and when I suggest ‘The Macallan’, he cries: “That’s it! Yes, I like that. I’ve kept a bit of it at home.”Whisky now acts as a bonding agent for the band. If they are stuck for a malt then a J&B will do the trick.“We will drink a J&B and we will remember those times when we were working on building up the music and that’s when we were starting to drink whisky. It may not be a great whisky but it sets up the association with those times,” says Ernest.I ask if, like a lot of eastern Europeans, the band got into toasts in a big way. But no, the band explain, there’s no time for toasts, it gets in the way of the drinking!The band bonds in other ways too. Certain kinds of music come to the group’s attention allowing them to relax. Current favourites are jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and classical composers Mahler and Tchaikovsky. What has been outlawed is any music that’s too close to home. So there’s no Bartok for the time being because they are about to record something which could shake up the gipsy music world and they want to keep it fresh.The small, tight and portable ensemble will soon grow to a thirty piece orchestra that they intend to tour with. There will be string sections , of course, but also clarinets, the Hungarian reed instrument the tarogato and the flute. The flute is not strictly traditional but the band includes it for the sound it wishes to create. If they are lucky they might create a wave of public appreciation for the new sound.And Ernest has another idea - he wants to take 20 cimbalom players to Hong Kong for a project he has in mind. The band, by the way, is immensely popular in Japan and other parts of Asia. Whether it’s in the studio, or in the dressing room, there’ll be a bottle there (maybe a few bottles if the orchestra gets off the ground). It will be a malt - but the identity will be a surprise.Preferably, it should be smoky and peaty. And for the purists Ernest points out that only one of the band takes his malt with Coca Cola - a combination he personally finds disgusting. That’s something he will never have trouble recalling.