"A few months ago I saw a delightful documentary on BBC4 about a Hungarian Gypsy village band called, on the film, Parno Grass. The next time I saw my friend Ian Anderson, I asked him if he'd seen it; he said he had - and also had their CD. Then, a few weeks ago, that generous man sent me a spare copy he'd unearthed from what must be one of the largest collections of records in the country - so here it is, up for review.
But first I'd like to return to the film for a moment; I called it delightful - and it is, in so many ways. It begins, on May Day morning, 2002, with the band's leader, József Oláh, leaving his house on foot to meet up with the other members, preparatory to the day's musical activities. The 'other members of the band' being, in this instance, practically the whole of the village of Paszab - for this is a real village band, numbering from the core 7 members, up to 20 or so, depending on who's around. The local touring version is 17-strong, including ten dancers of three generations - from 10 to 71 years old! In the course of the morning we climb on board a wagon pulled by the parno graszt, the White Horse of the CD's title, and meet the band's great-grandmother - yes, all 17 share the same great-grandmother!
We learn about life in the village, how they earn a living, how the band has made them more prosperous and more self-assured, and about their recent trip to a festival in Holland where "They treated us like Princes!" - and we realise that this means that their hosts treated them just like any of the other guests ... not something they are used to. A visiting local politician is told of the "only slight" racialism of their Hungarian neighbours; "They still hate us, but they don't burn our houses."
We also discover that, back in the late-1950s, a far-sighted village elder decided that their music and dance culture was both valuable and important, and in danger of being swamped by new influences from outside - and set about encouraging the participation of the youth of the community. Today's vibrant village culture, and Parno Graszt, is the result of his labours. In the film we see young dancers huddled round a TV watching, with great enthusiasm, films from half a century ago of their now elderly relatives dancing and playing - with some of these same relatives in attendance to instruct them in the subtleties of their art.
But the most delightful, and surprising, thing of all is the music. We are used to the stereotypical images of the Hungarian Gypsies; the café violinist, the cymbalom orchestra ... but this is only how some of them earn a living in a country where little else is open to them. Here in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg, the most underdeveloped, and"...read more here