My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.
This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.
BUDAPEST – In yesterday’s post I said that open mics and open jams were not really much part of the culture in Hungary. I have to take it all back. Or, rather, I have to redefine what an open mic and open jam session is, and say that they are very much alive and well in Hungary. I stumbled into one last night in a kert in downtown Budapest, but this is strictly, totally, a Hungarian form of what my blog is all about.
I heard the music from the street, violins, a bass fiddle, some smacking and stomping. So I entered the kerf – a beer garden of a kind that Budapest is full of, using mostly ruined buildings or the foundations where buildings used to be – and followed the sounds of the violins into a small sub-bar off the edge of the kert. There I saw a fabulous vision of three young guys in their 20s and a young woman in her 20s playing what sounded to me like Hungarian folk music. In front of them danced a man in a crazy body slapping dance I’d already seen in a completely different context.
I took a beer and sat and listened, and when the band stopped, I decided to ask if it was an open jam session, even though I knew that if it was, it was strictly Hungarian traditional music. I asked the right violin player of the three present – the woman played the bass – because he immediately launched into an explanation of the entire history of the location AND the music, and told me what it was all about.
The Hungarian Dance House Craze, Part of a Folk Revival
It’s called a Dance House, and Budapest has five or six ones that run different days of the week, according to this violinist. The music comes mostly from Transylvania – yes, yes, Dracula and all that – and is part of a Hungarian and Romanian folk tradition that goes back hundreds, and even thousands of years. In more modern times, Bela Bartok, the great Hungarian composer, began collecting the music and preserving it, and soon the phenomenon of the Dance House, or Táncház, was born basically from the 1970s onward, in a Hungarian folk revival period.
The musicians now get together to play this traditional music, they share the songs amongst themselves, and they play it in the many Dance Houses around the country. But it is essentially a kind of gypsy music played in villages. My interlocutor – who is a music student from Transylvania, by the way – told me that even the gypsies that play gypsy music in the cities do not necessarily know this kind of music, which is different.
He said that in some villages the musical sessions usually at peoples’ homes Dance Houses and at weddings can go on for days on end, with dancers and musicians even taking shifts – going off to sleep while another group returns to celebrate.
Last night several other musicians showed up, more and more dancers joined in, then some people began singing to the pieces, and for once I did not take my guitar out of my bag, but rather hit the dance floor and spun my partner round and round – or rather, I think that she spun me.
I made my way back from Budapest yesterday to Paris and then crossed town to the Batofar open mic, which happens so rarely that I decided I had to attend despite it being on the evening of the great Coolin open mic. Oh, and I must not forget to mention the last night in Budapest: Again I saw how open mics and open jams are such ephemeral things that from one year to the next you never know if they will still exist. The great and wonderful and extraordinary open jam session that ran on Sunday nights at Szimpla Kert in Budapest is no longer running. I went to Szimpla and met some musicians from Greece – one with an oud on his back – and they told me the jam no longer exists thanks to noise. They have to stop the music at 10 PM. These musicians, one of them said, had taken the jam slot for their group and they play there on Sunday nights. Anyway, back to Paris.
I was very happy that I made the most of my time at Becketts on Saturday, but I was really looking forward to playing again, having not played on Sunday. So I went to the Batofar, that great boat venue on the Seine, only to discover it was closed…but that the terrace of the Batofar located on the quay opposite the boat hosted the open mic. Or rather, it was the genial Vincent Lafleur on keyboards and vocals who hosted the evening.
The sound was clear and strong as I approached, and I found a nice duo of women singers with Vincent on piano. I bought a beer, then went up a few minutes later and played several songs, had a guy doing tambourine along with me, and one of the women singers joining in occasionally. Then I listened to a few more bits, including Vincent, and then I left for Coolin.
Oh, not far down the quay three clochards who had heard me playing and liked it, asked if I could sing them a song. So I sang, “Miles From Nowhere,” by Cat Stevens, which seemed appropriate, and then “Jealous Guy,” which was not appropriate, but they wanted a Beatles – and that was the closest I could come.
Took a cab to Coolin, listened to a few acts and then did my own. Just when I was certain Coolin would run out of steam and customers – it being right in the middle of the summer – I found the place just buzzing and jumping with customers and musicians. In fact, it got more and more raucous as the night went on, with people dancing all around the pub by the end. And for some reason, after they said the open mic was finished, someone then pumped up the house music and everyone continued singing and dancing to the recordings…. Another cool’un at the Coolin.
I have not updated the blog in a few days not out of laziness, but because I did not attend any open mics or do anything spectacular in the last few days. That said, I flew to Budapest and spent my first two nights either seeking or dreaming about where I would find a place to play music here. My two previous best experiences were at an Irish pub called Becketts and at the extraordinary Szimpla Kert, a wild alternative world of a bar complex.
So last night on my first real free night – after I attended a dinner on Thursday night – to go and chart out future territories, I decided to check out both Becketts and Szimpla. In fact, I had not been to Becketts since 2009, and I feared it might not even exist anymore. Thinking I might be wasting my time going there, I almost did not go. Thinking I had dinner at a place closer to Szimpla, I decided first I would check out Szimpla first.
Then I said, “no, try Becketts.” It was the kind of decision that may have made all the difference to the success of the weekend, as I arrived just at 22:00 and found a jam session on the terrace just ending. I managed to film the last two words or so of the song, and I watched as the guitar player and singer ran into the pub as if seeking shelter.
I decided to follow him, and when he re-emerged from the back of the pub I realized it was John Murphy, the very man who had given me the microphone in 2009 for a full set of my music, on the break that he had taken with his guitarist. John has been living in Budapest for something like a decade now I think, and he plays music regularly at Becketts. He invited me to return tonight where he may be playing in full band mode, and where he said I could probably play a song with his Hungarian guitar player as part of my effort to play and record with a local at every country I visit this year.
Imagine if I had arrived two minutes later? I’d never have recognized or even seen John Murphy, no doubt.
Well anyway, from there I went to Instant, another bar, and checked it out, but found no music. Then on to Szimpla, where a man behind the bar confirmed that there would be a jam session on Sunday night as there was last year. But his English was so bad, I am not convinced I will find a jam.
So after two nights in Budapest, I keep my fingers crossed that this will not be the first country where I fail to find a place to play….
It is Szimpla mad this weekly open jam session in Budapest, Szimpla mad! Before I went to Budapest I was very worried that I would encounter the first country of the year where I would not find an open mic or open jam session. I had barely managed to find a place to play last time I went, and even when I did it was a “possibly” open mic at Becketts Irish pub. Not something to get the Hungarian paprika juices flowing. But this time, oh my God, did I ever find a jam – and a half!
There was supposedly two jams on Sunday night but I decided to settle for one, once I saw how mad, manic and amazing it became. When I arrived at the Szimpla kert, which is a kind of beer garden with a massively alternative flavor to it, I had to ask around at 8 PM where the jam was. It was written up on the web site, and we eventually found a small stage area with instruments in their cases. I was sure this was going to be a jam that might not even take off. I was so wrong.
As the evening progressed the jam became a wild Bacchanal of music, rhythms, audience participation and audience dancing and free-for-all on the stage. Szimpla is owned and operated by a couple of musicians, and it is very hippie, as is the jam. There is a fabulous music studio on an upper floor, there is a VIP room – not very hippie, but cool – there are bars and narguile pipes and video screens and a full-fledged 16mm movie projector showing old arty films on the wall… there is an open air area, winding staircases, art works on all the walls, weird shell corpses of cars to sit in. If my prose feels muddy, it is because the atmosphere at Szimpla is muddy, and wonderful. Anything goes.
The jam consisted of people sitting around on the stage mostly in a circle, and playing all sorts of instruments in unison: guitars, drums, bongos, accordions, violins, triangles, a flute, singing, hand clapping, dancing. And some vocals. And at the same time, I was allowed – and Vanessa was allowed – to do simple songs, cover songs, formal songs. It is supposed to start every Sunday at 7 PM and finish at 10 PM. It actually starts closer to 9 PM and sometimes finishes as late as 3:30 AM. (I think it went until close to 2 PM last night.)
The feeling was as vibrant and chaotic as some of the moments I have felt in Istanbul and Sao Paulo; but there was something unique about this, particularly in the way the audience participated, and how the music although jammed and unprepared, held together. But freedom and free-for-all have to be the key words. And the crowd was young and hip and hippie and alternative. And other.
But I never did get to go and check out the other Sunday night jam at the other art space, called Cökxpon Café Theater. Maybe next year. But if you are there next week for the Sziget festival, be sure to check out the Szimpla Sunday night jam. Boy did this renew my faith in Budapest after a down year….
I am caught in another bind of time in Budapest. A full night ahead, a full day behind, but last night was just so spectacular and promising that I have to put down a few words before I speed off again into the adventure of the Budapest night. We went looking for places to play music and that led us to all sorts of bars and clubs, with the most remarkable being this underground thing I forget the name of at the moment, but will put in later. There we found made Hungarian folk dancing that made me think the dancers had all taken LSD. But the greatest discovery was the vast underground – in a different sense – so-called-cafe known as Szimpla.
If I thought the folk dancers were on acid, Szimpla made me feel like I was on acid. It looks like a squat, but I do not think it is. It has a web site, an events calendar, and just too many little bars and businesses inside to really look like a squat. But it is so hip and cool and vast, with its music, wall decorations of every nature, infinite variety of private rooms, narguile pipes – chicha – and fashion statements, that this place cannot be defined in a few words here.
The greatest news, however, is that Szimpla has an open acoustic jam session every Sunday from 7 PM to 10 PM, so I have finally found a bona fide open mic or jam session in Budapest and I will definitely be attending. As it was, Vanessa and I sang several of our songs together last night, playing my guitar and singing in our corner in one of the many rooms, and a few people sang along, and we just had a great little private jam session going on. Despite the loud music that meant few people could hear us. But that is the free nature of this dynamic “cafe.”