By Sasha Margolis | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
There is much history between the Roma people and the violin. In the past, some—Roma and outsiders alike—have even speculated about a mystical connection. According to legend, in Transylvania, remote villagers once thought the secret to becoming a great primás (leader of a Roma band) entailed sleeping for six weeks with an egg under one’s armpit, then rubbing its yolk on the violin’s strings and uttering an incantation to summon the aid of dark powers. In this less superstitious era, the lightning-quick technique and soul-stirring pathos of a great Roma violinist can still seem otherworldly.
The Roma experience in Europe has been a difficult one, encompassing near-constant daily prejudice, centuries of enslavement in Romania, and mass death in the Holocaust. Music has been a bright spot. Hungarian Roma musicians, along with folk fiddlers of Romania and Sinti/Manouche jazz players (Roma sub-groups in Central and Western Europe) who carry forward the style of Manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt, all have gained levels of acceptance and even adulation from the population at large, while enjoying elite status within their own communities.
Magyar Nóta of Hungary
One of Hungary’s most legendary violinists—in a land of legendary violinists—was a Roma woman, Panna Czinka (1711–72). Czinka’s playing, tales tell, could make “the very stones shiver.” Her bow “drew sparks.” Upon her audience, she exerted a “magical force.”
Czinka’s enchanted listeners were Hungarian nobles, and much of what she performed was sophisticated music geared to noble tastes. Playing behind her was a band, formed after she married, that included her husband, brothers-in-law, and eventually, sons. With its instrumentation of violins, bass, and cimbalom, this is considered Hungary’s first true Roma band—which made the beautiful, pipe-smoking, man’s-uniform-wearing Czinka history’s first primás (leader).
As a woman, Czinka was an anomaly among Roma primáses; almost all since have been men. But otherwise, she paved a precise path for her successors, achieving mythic status while playing for an ethnic Hungarian audience as part of a dynastic ensemble, in a repertoire neither quite classical nor folk, neither strictly Roma nor purely Hungarian.
In Hungary, this repertoire, known as magyar nóta, was long ago adopted as a national music. (It also inspired innumerable classical pieces in the Brahms Hungarian Dance vein.)
Certain elements of the primáses’ art are easily appreciated: the rapid-fire coordination, the slides covering ample real estate, the soft-hearted but hot-blooded vibrato—and sometimes, a two-fingered vibrato called kecskézés (roughly, “goating”), in which one finger is placed atop another, so as to trill a slightly higher pitch while the lower finger vibrates.
Other aspects are trickier to discern. A good example of this may be the playing of Sándor Járóka (1922–84), “Primás of Kings and King of Primáses,” who was so respected by his peers that, at his funeral, they spontaneously formed the Budapest Gypsy Symphony. For casual listeners, Járóka may not sound too different from his peers. Why, then, did those peers hold him in awe?
An explanation comes from the remarkable violinist and multi-instrumentalist Tcha Limberger (b. 1977). (Limberger is a Belgian player who excels in the Manouche jazz tradition he grew up with but has also immersed himself in Transylvanian music and magyar nóta.) “Magyar nóta,” he observes, “literally means ‘Hungarian song.’” With a repertoire based in vocal music, often, he says, “there’s no meter. The only guide you have is not measures or beats—it’s the lyrics. You don’t have to know what the song is about, but you have to know how the rhythm of the Hungarian language works to be able to time it. Járóka is mostly praised for his expression, and the expression lies exactly in the timing of the phrases.”
Limberger also notes that, despite the lack of meter, “when a band is really good, it sounds like one [person] playing.” This unanimity results from the clarity of the primás’ bowing and body language. For example, says Limberger, some primáses indicate dynamics by leaning forward and backward. A master like Toki Horváth (1920–71) “could make signs with his pinky on the bow while playing, to egg them on or quiet them down.”
It is a tradition that has produced a long line of dazzling stars. After Czinka, magyar nóta’s next famed exponent was János Bihari (1764–1827) of whom Franz Liszt wrote, “The sweet tones drawn from his magic violin fell like drops of nectar on our enchanted ears.” Bihari is an ancestor of the seven-generation Lakatos dynasty, whose members include the spectacular Sándor Lakatos (1924–94) and current international star Roby Lakatos (b. 1965).
There have been a few examples of a great primas’ musical story becoming slightly overshadowed by a rather spectacular personal life. As legend has it, the handsome Pali Rácz (1815–85) served as a spy during the 1848 Italian Revolutions, rescued a captured Russian prince, married an Italian heiress, and decided only after his wife’s dowry was spent to become his era’s greatest primás. Of his 36 children, the youngest became a violin wizard himself, and was known as “Laci Rácz 36” (1867–1943). Jancsi Rigó (1858–1927) had an affair with an American millionairess, and it is in his honor for which the Rigójancsi torte—chocolate, rum, and apricot—was invented.
It was not, of course, solely in Hungary that the primas’ art was appreciated. The world’s leaders and leading musicians counted among their admirers. Béla Radics (1867–1930) was a favorite of Austria’s emperor, Germany’s kaiser, and the Prince of Wales; his Budapest funeral drew 150,000 mourners.
Radics’ son-in-law, Imre Magyari (1894–1940), had fans in Pablo Casals and Arturo Toscanini, and Yehudi Menuhin called his playing “wonderfully clear, his tone comparable to that of the greatest violinists.”
After World War II, under Communist rule, Budapest boasted 75 restaurants with in-house ensembles—Roma bands were a staple of city life. One star of the era was Toki Horváth (the master bandleader who impressed Limberger). Horváth, in the recollection of Pinchas Zukerman, “could do some absolutely amazing techniques with a violin. Seriously! I tried to do some of the things he did, and I simply couldn’t.” Lajos Boross (1925–2014) impressed Menuhin with his relaxed coordination: a film exists of the two comparing starkly different versions of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 17.
Since the end of Communist rule in 1989, magyar nóta’s economic viability has waned. Young Hungarian Roma violinists today often gravitate toward jazz or classical music—or increasingly, toward the music of Transylvanian Roma, a rustic, heavily ornamented genre whose great exponent was Sándor Neti (1922–2004). Meanwhile, just as magyar nóta began to languish, another Roma genre was making an international splash—southern Romanian muzica lăutărească.
Muzica Lăutărească of Romania
Roma identity in Romania had been suppressed during Communist rule, especially under Ceaușescu in the ’70s and ’80s. Lăutari (folk musicians) such as violinist Nicolae Neacșu (1924–2002) were living in poverty. But in 1989, Ceaușescu was overthrown and executed. At once, European musicologists and music promoters descended on Neacșu’s village of Clejani. A new taraf (band) of violins, whistle, bass, accordions, and cimbaloms was formed: Taraf de Haïdouks. In the ensuing years, their thrilling music would be heard in movies and packed auditoriums worldwide. (A favorite tune, sung by Neacșu, was “Ballad of the Dictator,” about Ceaușescu’s downfall.)
The music of Neacșu and his younger colleague, the joyful Gheorghe “Caliu” Anghel (b. 1960), is a folk art, transmitted orally. According to Neacșu, “You don’t learn this job; you steal it. A true lăutar is one who, when he hears a tune, goes straight home and replays it from memory. The one who plays it certainly won’t teach you.” Violinistic features include complex, rhythmic grace-note ornamentation; fast, virtuosic bowing with abundant rosin and cellistic bow holds; and sparing, but some two-fingered, vibrato. Special techniques include ponticello harmonics, termed ca cavalul (“shepherd’s flute style”); and la fir de păr (“hair without bow”) in which, instead of bowing, the fiddler ties a horsehair to the G-string, and holds it between rosined finger and thumb to play.
Neacșu’s precursors include brothers Dumitrache (1807–80) and Năstase (1835–1906) Ochialbi, who rose from toiling in a boyar field to become prominent violinists. Sava Pădureanu (1848–1918) brought a taraf to the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, and grew so popular on Russian tours that champagne and cigarette brands were named for him. In the early 1900s, Cristache Ciolac (1870–1927) was recognized as Bucharest’s best fiddler; his repertoire was a source for George Enescu’s compositions.
Jascha Heifetz is said to have called Grigoraș Dinicu (1889–1949) the best violinist he ever heard. Composer of “Hora staccato,” Dinicu performed both classical and popular music, while advocating for Roma rights. And, to be filed under the “unusual career boosters” category, under Communism, Ion Petre Stoican (1930–94) scored a record contract by spotting and reporting a suspicious-looking audience member—who turned out to be an American spy.
Sinto and Manouche Traditions
Romanians and Hungarians were also the most popular Roma violinists in Western Europe for much of the twentieth century. The region’s Sinto and Manouche musicians tended to emulate their styles until 1967, when Schnuckenack Reinhardt (1921–2006) began, with his band, to re-popularize the swing jazz of Django Reinhardt. Schnuckenack was a German Sinto who, deported to Poland during the Nazi era, disguised himself as an ethnic Hungarian musician. Caught by Polish police, he avoided transfer to the S.S. by charming his captors with his playing. Post-war, he performed Hungarian-influenced music until 1967, when he set out to revive the mid-century Django Reinhardt style: swing played by guitars, violin, and bass.
A cultural awakening followed, with Django-inspired jazz embraced as an emblem of Sinti/Manouche identity. More recent jazz violinists from this community include the German Stadel Weiss, whose extreme, wide vibrato, unanchored at the fingertip, was traditionally Sinto; French guitarist-violinist Dorado Schmitt (b. 1957); the Dutch Wattie Rosenberg; and Limberger, whose grandfather played with Django, and whose family never lost its connection to his style.