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Dancin’ in the Táncház (Dance House) in Budapest – To the Rhythms of Transylvania

July 26, 2014



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.

Cool Time at Jack Doyle’s Open Mic in Budapest

July 25, 2014

jack doyle's budapest

jack doyle’s budapest

BUDAPEST – Budapest is one of the coolest, swingingest and musical cities I know of. It is one of the cities with the seemingly youngest hippest populations. There are sectors of the city that look like Berlin ( – or rather, what I imagine Berlin to be like, since I’ve never been there!!!!). But there is the weirdest thing about this city: I have a hard time finding open mics here, year after year. Open mics and jams and their venues last such a short period of time that they disappear fast. Or maybe it is just not in the mentality of the place – but that seems unlikely, since the open mics I HAVE attended have always been great.

Last night, therefore, I was really pleased to see that the open mic I discovered last year – or whenever it was – and that takes place at the Irish pub called Jack Doyle’s, right near the busy pedestrian tourist trap street of Vaci, still exists.

Jack Doyle’s is a pretty typical Irish pub, with the nice touch of a little library and reading area at one end, and a small stage located centrally in the room so providing great viewing and excellent sound for all spectators.

In fact, the sound system last night was really amazing, and I don’t remember it being that good last year. The vocals came through so crisp, so clear, and you could even hear yourself singing and playing. The guitars might have done better to be a little louder, but that was ok.

It turns out that the Irish owner/manager of the place used to work in the Coolin in Paris! It turns out he is friends with John Murphy, the once upon a time MC of the musical activities at the once upon a time Beckett’s Irish pub in Budapest, that was closed in January. So it is a small, small world – well, especially in the international world of Irish pubs!

A Szimple Little Jam at Szimpla Budapest

July 29, 2013

Szimpla Facade Budapest

Szimpla Facade Budapest

BUDAPEST – For my last night in Budapest last night (watch out for the Gertrude Stein repetitions of phrase), I was delighted to discover that the Szimpla jam was back in action. Szimpla is one of the hippest alternative spots in Budapest, and I had taken part in one of the most amazing jam sessions I ever experienced there two years ago when I discovered it (and they put up my video from that night on their site). Then, last year, the Szimpla jam was szimply closed in favor of some boring band of some kind.

But last night it was back, and has been for a few months, now run by Zsolt, an IT professional in his day job, who likes to use the other side of his brain in the jam in the evening…. It was a little different formula than two years ago, in fact a lot different. This time the accent was more on free jazz, rock fusion sort of stuff. But that may only have been due to the particular musicians who showed up – a guitarist, drummer, saxophone player, bass player.

My problem was that I showed up far too late. Two years ago it started late and went to beyond 3 AM. Now, it seems that pressure from neighbors means that it runs from 9 PM to 11:30 PM. I had stayed late at the race track for various reasons, and then I went out for a pizza after first confirming that the jam was happening. But by the time I got there to play, after my meal, it was almost 11:30. Zsolt, however, keeps the spirit of the Szimpla jam as I knew it open. He invited me to play anyway, despite the lateness, but also deciding not to use the electric guitar and bass. And after the drummer began on drums, he turned to bongos.

I did not want to abuse their kindness, so I only played two songs – my guitar plugged into an amp and my vocals going through a mic. In any case, the vibe was great, and I enjoyed the two song jam immensely. And the audience was pretty big and applauded, so the whole thing was a great capping off to my weekend open mic foray, especially as the first two had been in Irish pubs, and this one in a bona fide Hungarian kert (beer garden thing).

Szimpla: Part of a Hungarian Phenomenon of Abandoned Buildings Becoming Bars

The Szimpla garden bar area is located in a building that used to be a factory and was slated for being torn down. It then got turned into a series of bars, a recording studio, a beer garden, a place for films and lots of music and the jam session on Sunday nights.

Here is a great description from the web site: “The opening of Szimpla Garden in 2002 has been literally and also symbolically a milestone in the alternative life of Budapest. Converting an old factory into a huge open-air cinema and pub, we were able to create a unique framework for hosting concerts, theatre shows and many different cultural events. Szimpla defines itself as a ’cultural reception space’, indicating our intention to embrace genres and performers off the mainstream, presenting them in an informal atmosphere. Moreover, with constantly supporting initiatives for urban sustainability, Szimpla has been serving as an ultimate incubation house of green ideas from the very beginning.”

The jam has been on and off, so don’t get your hopes up. But if it is on, don’t miss it. An open stage where anything goes; sing your own songs or join into the free-for-all with lots of musicians on all sorts of different instruments.

Worldwide Open Mic Thumbnail Guide: Budapest Edition

July 28, 2013

szimpla kert budapest

szimpla kert budapest

BUDAPEST – For my 11th city installment of my worldwide open mic guide today I am loading my Budapest page. As a reminder, it all started with my now very popular Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music, and due to that guide’s success, I decided this year to do a similar guide for each of the cities I travel to during my worldwide open mic tour.

The Musically Interesting Budapest is Not a Great Place for Open Mics

Budapest is a musical city with lots of folk music and classical music and some popular music, and one of the biggest rock music festivals in the world: Sziget. But it is not a city that is strong on the tradition of the open mic and open jam. Having said that, it is the location of one of the best open jam sessions I have ever attended, at the Szimpla Kert, and it has its mainstay Irish pubs that have open mics, or open MCs and bands.

Worldwide Open Mic Guide Philosophy

The only guide I am really in a good position to update regularly is that of Paris, since I live there. But I decided to do guides to all the other 20 and more cities on my worldwide open mic tour in order to give the knowledge I have personally of each city’s open mics. The guide has links to sites I know of local guides that may be more up-to-date, but I have chosen to list the open mics or jam sessions that I have played in myself. There may be others that I know of, but if I have not played there, I will not include it on the list. That way, the user learns a little of my own impressions. But I cannot be as certain that the guide is up-to-date – so check before you go.

So here, now, in any case is the Thumbnail Guide to Budapest Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music. Please do help me whenever you have information to give me on venues.

Becketts in Budapest – Another Irish Night on the Danube

July 27, 2013

becketts budapest

becketts budapest

BUDAPEST – All right, all right. My worldwide open mic musical adventure is not supposed to be the worldwide Irish pub tour. But when all else fails in a city where there seems to be no open mic, open jam scene, sniff out an Irish pub. On Thursday I played in one as mentioned in the previous post, and last night, thanks to my friend John Murphy (guess what, he’s Irish), I played on the neat stage at Becketts Irish Pub, named after the Irish playwright Samuel….

I first discovered Becketts and met John Murphy in 2009 on my first year of travelling the world and playing in open mics, and we have met up every year but one – I think – since then. And each time, John has offered me the stage for a few songs, despite Becketts not really being an open mic.

John himself, and sometimes in duet, and sometimes with his band, plays Becketts, entertaining with his powerful voice, his emotional renditions of all the popular modern hits, and a few Irish songs thrown in for good measure. Last night, with just his guitar and vocals, he really got the crowd moving at Becketts – despite the horrendous heat that has descended upon the city.

I took to the stage during his break – after his first set of more than an hour – and I did four or five songs. It’s a pleasure to play in Becketts, with its high ceilings, vast windows onto the boulevard, and receptive crowd mixing expats and locals in an Irish pub atmosphere. In fact, it turned out there was a couple visiting from Ireland for a few days in the table next to mine, and we spoke much of the evening.

Tomorrow I hope to put a break on this Irish pub stranglehold of my visit to Budapest, performing in a Hungarian jam. But for the moment, the Irish pub is always a great old friend wherever I go in the world….

Another Open Mic in Budapest – Another Irish Pub…. Another Lesson Learned

July 26, 2013

jack doyle's budapest

jack doyle’s budapest

BUDAPEST – Just when I thought I understood the Budapest open mic and jamming scene, after coming here now for my fifth year with my guitar and looking for places to play, I learned a new lesson. My feeling last night after I arrived in this beautiful city that I have always said does not have an open mic, open jamming scene, even if it does have a lot of music, was that I probably would find one or two places to play maximum in the four days of my time here. But as I set out to eat my dinner, I decided not to despair that I had no place to play on Thursday night, but take my guitar, keep my eyes, and above all my ears, open. And who knew?

So it was that I set out toward a specific, cool restaurant from my hotel, and I let my internal GPS and open-mic sniffing device lead me through the streets. I decided at one point that I was on a main boulevard and would never find any music unless I got off it. That led me into a very cool area where I found a lot of bars, and ended up completely by accident passing in front of the most amazing one of the city, the Szimpla Kert, a multi-level, multi-media, collection of bars, studio, smoking rooms and garden, where I played in the past in the most amazing jam session in Budapest, and possible in the world.

While it was not happening there last night – or even last year – I still hope that I may find it happening on Sunday. Suffice it to say that last night I just glanced in and then kept on my route. I decided to follow the most interesting streets right toward the center of town near the restaurant where I was headed, and I heard some musicians in bars along the way.

Stumbling Upon Dick Doyle’s Irish Pub in Budapest

As I arrived at V. Pilvax koz, 1-3, and thought I should turn right to get to the restaurant where I was going, I heard some music on the sidewalk ahead. I also saw it was one of the streets leading into the tourist trap road of Vaci Street. But then I noticed on the corner a pub called Jack Doyle’s, and I wondered if the music was coming from in there.

It turned out it was NOT coming from inside there, but in my exploration, I found that it was announced on a sign on the side of the pub that every Thursday night there is an open mic! So I entered the pub, asked at the bar, and found that it was indeed an open mic on Thursdays. If I came after 11 PM, I’d get a chance to play.

On Friday nights it has traditional Irish music and on Saturday nights a mixed night of a band and also, apparently, a fairly open stage….

So I returned after eating my meal at the restaurant, and I found the musicians who animated the evening playing, and they asked when I wanted to play, and I said any time after them. So I took to the stage around 11:30 and the lead guitarist stayed up with me and we played around six or seven songs or more, and while I played, a work colleague saw me from the street and came in and had a beer and we listened to the music together after my set.

Budapest and its Hard to Find Musical Open Stages

Then there were other singers who took the mic and sang, and the band returned, and having a very busy weekend ahead, I left well before the end of the open mic. But what a lesson: I have continually said that Budapest is not a great open mic and jamming city, but in fact, I continually find places to play. The key is never to give up, keep the eyes and ears open, and explore the most likely small streets with bars and restaurants with live music. I have a sense I may have passed another open mic at one point too, but it looked a little too dreary for me to find out….

In any case, it was a night to remember and led not only to a place to play and hear other musicians, but a discovery of a wildly animated Irish pub – yes, yes, another Irish pub! But this was run by Hungarians, with a Hungarian duo playing mostly western pop music, and a mix of expat, foreign and Hungarian clients. Check it out!

Micro-post from Budapest: Remembering and Feeling a Beethoven Expression

July 25, 2013

chain bridge budapest

chain bridge budapest

BUDAPEST – Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I have not been writing as much lately, and I have not been playing as much music in open mics lately. In fact, I have not even been playing as much music at home as I usually do – although I have managed at least one song a day, with the exception of one day where I did none – and while part of me has felt dejected, destroyed, messed up and worried about losing the movement of these passionate fun things I do, TODAY, having arrived in Budapest, a city of much classical music, I was suddenly reminded of an old aphorism once said by Beethoven to a student:

“Habit may depreciate the most brilliant talents,” he said in 1812 to his pupil, Archduke Rudolph, who he warns against too zealous a devotion to music. I’m quoting from an Internet source on Beethoven on that, but I had written the same quote in one of my “Nothing Book” diaries when I was 17 or 18, and I recall my translation as having been: “Habit may depreciate even the finest of talents.”

In any case, I do not consider myself either one of the finest or most brilliant talents musically, but I have always remembered that quote since I thought it could apply to any form of artistic endeavour, or even any profession or job anyone does. And today, after travelling to Budapest and doing my day job and finally finishing everything that needed doing, I finally picked up my guitar in my hotel room and I played for half an hour. And I felt so refreshed, so happy, so powerful playing my songs and cover songs, and strumming the guitar and being liberated once again in a hotel room at the beginning of another of my open mic adventure’s faraway locations, at the beginning of a weekend of musical and other fun.

And I thought, there’s no panic on the blog, no panic in the music, shake it up. Shake it all up. Do what you love doing, and make it fresh and fun. Don’t fall into habit for habit’s sake.

Many regular readers of this blog may also have noticed that in recent weeks I have been filling out other parts of the blog, while not doing as many open mics as usual. That’s part of the same effort to break the habit…at least momentarily. There are plenty of open mics and gigs and musical adventures to come – starting, I hope, with the coming days in this beautiful city….

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