2023 Grateful 49: The gift of experience

When it comes to gifts, I’m a massive fan of consumables. If it can be imbibed or ingested I’m all for it. If it can be experienced, so much the better. From where I’m sitting on the measuring tape of life, possessions are more a hindrance than a help. I’ve enough stuff. Too much, in fact. Yup, I’m all about the gift of experience.

When we received tickets to a gig in Budapest in late January – a trad session – I had reservations. Traditional music isn’t my thing. I wouldn’t know a jig from a reel and as for a hornpipe! I don’t dislike it but I’d never seek it out.

In a former life, I was involved in organising the first Irish music festival in Alaska. Partly because I was Irish but mainly because I couldn’t say no to Eileen Monaghan. As musicians like Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill said they’d come and play and then Seán Keane confirmed, we were on our way to having a proper festival. It was a blast. While I mightn’t be the biggest fan of the genre, there’s no denying the skill that goes into making fiddles and bodhráns and tin whistles talk. It’s a talent I appreciate. It’s mesmerising.

Garden setting. Glass walled building with a curved roof held up by myriad pillars. Underside of the roof is a mass of gold stars and large circles. Paved pathways meander through grass verges marked with solar lights.

So there we were, in Budapest’s new Magyar Zene Háza (Hungarian House of Music), for the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the Hungarian traditional band Muzsikás.

MUZSIKÁS pioneered the global popularity of Hungarian folk music that is now a well-established niche in the roots and world music scenes. Due to their unique musical skills, instrumental knowledge and musical versatility, they can cope with playing on different music scenes, collaborating with various noted musicians and groups, from folk and world-music to classical, klezmer and jazz, and even to alternative rock music. They have already presented their exceptional live performances at the greatest festivals and in the most significant concert halls, such as the Carnegie Hall in New York.

A collage of four photos. Across the top a lineup of musicians on stage waiting to take a bow. Audience in the foreground with phone cameras held high taking photos. Bottom left - two older men playing fiddles. The one on the right this wearing a black hat. In the middle, an older man in a black hat and suit with a black scarf sitting on chair playing a fiddle. To the right, an older man with white hair and mustache dressed in a white shirt under a black vest (waistcoat) with a brown belt standing at a standing mic playing a fiddle

I fell in love with their faces. Their characters. Their personalities. Their talent. Their dexterity. They’re amazing. One of them played the gardon, an instrument I’d never seen before.

The ütőgardon also called a gardon, gardony, ütősgardony, tekenyőgardon, is a folk musical instrument played in regions of Transylvania and Hungary. It is similar in appearance to a cello, but it is played percussively: instead of using a bow, the player plucks and beats the strings with a stick.

A vague notion stirred in me that perhaps having failed with the piano, the violin, the recorder, and the accordion, there might still be an instrument I could manage.

The boys had a series of special guests, including two of Ireland’s finest musicians Andy Irvine and Donál Lunny, who arrived on stage with yet another instrument I’d never seen.

The Irish búsúcaí is an adaptation of the Greek bouzouki. The newer Greek tetrachordo bouzouki (4 courses of strings) was introduced into Irish traditional music in the mid-1960s by Johnny Moynihan of the folk group Sweeney’s Men. Alec Finn, first in the Cana Band and subsequently in De Dannan, introduced the first Greek trichordo (3 course) bouzouki into Irish music.In the early 1970s, Andy Irvine gave his Greek bouzouki to Dónal Lunny, who replaced the octave strings on the two lower G and D courses with unison strings, thus reinforcing their lower frequencies. Soon after, on a visit with Irvine to the workshop of luthier Peter Abnett, Lunny commissioned a 4 course bouzouki with a three-piece, partially staved back. This was the first bouzouki built specifically for Irish music. Since then, the instrument has been adapted for Irish traditional and other styles of folk music.

A collage of three photos - on the left an older man in a black hat and a red scarf in a black shirt and waistcoat (vest) playing a jardon (a percussion instrument shaped like a cello). On the right, a seated musician with white hard and beard plays a bazouki. Bottom right, another white-haired musician is seat also playing a bazouki - he's wearing a blue shirt with white dots.

Of course, I knew none of this at the time. I mean, I recognised the names – you couldn’t lay claim to being Irish and NOT recognise the names. But I had no idea how far their influence had spread. They were right at home in Budapest and seemed to be well in with the lads. At one stage I found myself doing the math and reckoned that I was watching and hearing more than 500 years of collective musical experience. Mindblowing stuff. But what really struck me was the respect they all had for each other’s talent and contribution. Oh if only the world could mirror their behaviour on stage. They were having fun. Doing what they do best. Applauding each other. Giving the nod. The stage was bathed in a palpable sense of love and appreciation. It did my heart good.

Two older musician stand side by side, arms on each others shoulders, both holding bazoukis. They're turned to face each other, smiling.

The auditorium seats 320. The back wall is glass from floor to ceiling giving a spectacular view of the trees and the castle outside. It’s a lovely space. It was open seating so the queue started early. When it came to my turn, I approached the ticket checker, coat in hand. The young lady told me I would have to check my coat in the cloakroom.

I told her I’d rather not.

She told me I had to. It was the rule.

I smiled and replied that I was menopausing and that I had no idea whether I’d be hot or cold or both or neither.

She hesitated, frowned, and threw her eyes to heaven before somewhat ungraciously allowing me to pass.

Someday, I thought, someday my girl, you’ll remember this brief conversation.

A glass wall, floor to ceiling, behind a stage on which sits five pink chairs, mics, and what looks like a pink piano. Through the glass we can see lights and trees.

From th eoutside looking in. Through two trees in the foreground, we see a lit auditorium. Through the floor to ceiling glass wall we can make out a stage and people walking inside.


I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and am grateful to the lovely LS for the invitation and the gift of experience.


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