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Scream, Shout

I’ve had a string of bad news lately. Death and dying are featuring heavily in my conversations. Death notices are more frequent than marriage announcements and funerals more commonplace than weddings. It sucks.

It sucks to see people spirited away before they’ve had time to finish what they’d started. Granted, many of us haven’t a clue what it is we want from our time on this earth, other than some vague notion we have to be happy. More of us as so focused on the next goal that we lose sight of the life unfolding around us. All too few of us manage to strike a workable balance.

Thinking about drive and ambition, what came to mind was a seesaw, with that duo balanced by the twins, value and worth. I recalled an interview I did about a year ago with a 22-year-old from Gyomaendrőd who was set to take the music world by storm. She goes by the name of AGGI (the caps are all hers). What struck me about her was her determination to be herself, not a carbon copy of some other 22-year-old, pressurised by expectations to fit someone else’s preconception of who she should be. She didn’t want to be told what she should or shouldn’t do with her life. She had a plan. She knew what she wanted. In need of affirmation that the world was working for someone, I thought I’d see how she was getting on.

Photo by Bardócz Letti

She’s still writing, still recording, still singing. She went back home in April and topped the bill at the Gyomaendrődi Nemzetközi Sajt és Túrófesztivál and was thrilled to see her 91-year-old great-grandmother up front and centre along with 700 or so proud locals who’d come out to see their girl on stage. In May, she played a more intimate live gig at Legenda, and in September, she opened for The Hooligans when they played Barba Negra Tracks. That’s some progress. AGGI comes into herself when she’s on stage. She has stuff to say and she wants the world to hear it.

Already a regular on local and national radio, a sponsorship deal from a Japanese guitar company, Guyatone (and another with their US parent company DeMont), led to AGGI getting lots of airplay in Japan of all places. They love her. She has a regular slot on Radio FM RaRa (in English) on the third Saturday of each month and judging by the amount of fan mail, her 10-gig Japanese tour scheduled for spring 2019 will be a sell-out. ‘My voice is in Japan’, she told me, understandably excited. People 9000 km away have heard her sing, like what they hear, and want to hear more.

In February, on her birthday, she got the present of her dreams – a record deal from a record company in Italy. But AGGI chose not to unwrap that particular gift. Rather than jump at the deal just to have a deal, she and manager Terry V decided to hold off and wait for the right one to come along. And it will. It’s just a matter of time. The girl has plans. And she’s making them happen.

Last time we spoke, she told me she was doing her dissertation on Stephen King’s novel, Rose Madder, in which he deals with the bruising issue of domestic violence. I remembered that she’d had a keen interest in gender issues and woman power and was determined her voice would be heard.  I asked her if she’d graduated, if she’d finished the dissertation. The completer-finisher in me was a little disappointed to hear that she’d taken a gap year to focus on her music, and was only now returning to complete her final year of study. ‘But’, she said proudly, ‘my voice was heard.’ She and Terry V had written a song to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Scream, Shout was released on 25 November and for a few hours that day, AGGI’s video featured on the UN website. It tells the story of a young woman who takes back control and finally says Enough! It’s a simple, powerful video that stands on its own.

Although she’s not yet a household name, AGGI seems far too grounded to let the recognition that comes with national and international airplay, the sponsorship deals, the live gigs, the upcoming tour, the strong video following on YouTube, and her growing fanbase go to her head. But while she likes the intimacy of smaller gigs, she thrives on big crowds. When facing a teeming audience visibly engaged with what she’s doing on stage, she’s in her element. ‘It’s feedback’, she said. ‘I need feedback.’  At one gig, a former colleague came up to congratulate her on how far she’d gone since they’d worked together. She was chuffed. A classmate who’s also studying music told her that hearing her play gave the younger girl the confidence to keep pursuing her own dream. Her family is still as supportive as ever and goes to all her gigs. Her brother and sister have been in both her videos. She’s playing to nobody’s tune but her own.

Photo by Bardócz Letti

AGGI, along with her co-writer and manager, Terry V (guitar), Bence Kocsis  (drums), and Benedek (Beni) Nagy  (bass), has been busy doing what she told me she’d do. She’s making things happen. Listening to her music, it’s evident that she has a very strong sense of worth. At 23, she knows what she wants and knows the hard work it’ll take to get it. But most importantly, she wants it all for the right reasons: She has a voice, she has something to say, and she’s determined to be heard. Music was her hobby. Now it’s her life.

Is the world working for AGGI I wondered? I think it’s more case of AGGI making her world work for her. An example to us all. Catch her at Dürer Kert on 22 November.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2018

I just can’t get enough of this man

There’s a lot to be said for falling for a younger man (even if he does look older than his years and has crammed more into his life to date than your average person is liable to do in three lifetimes). There’s even more to be said when every time you see him, he transports you to new heights and for a few hours, catapults you into a world where everything is possible. I first met him back in March of this year. And it was love at first sight. But I was just one of many in the audience and while he seemed appreciative of my applause, it didn’t seem to reach the inner recesses of his soul. Havasi Balázs has played in front of 12,000 people in Bejing, 4000 in Bucharest, and last night in front of perhaps a crowd of 2000 people here in Budapest, he received so many standing ovations that you could see he was visibily moved.There’s nothing quite like being appreciated at home and the pride the people felt in their boy was tangible.

The man is not yet 40 and yet has a talent that fuses rock drums with classical piano in a way that seeps to the very marrow of your bones. Partnering with Endi, the dummer from the Hooligans, the pair have just released a new CD and DVD of their piano and drum project. Obviously the best of mates, they make an unlikely style duo – a little like tats and chains meets Armani.

This was the first time I’ve seen Havasi playing with a full orchestra and the sheer variety of instruments pushed me to the pin of my musical collar. Is there such at thing as a miniature cello or was the versatile conductor able to extract extraordinary sound from a simple violin? Perhaps the most impressive piece –The Storm – was utterly beguiling for so many reasons, chief among them that fact the tiny sound of the tin whistle (Ír furulya) stood out above all others. Now, I don’t know much about musical composition but to be able to hear the haunting sound of Szabó Dániel above everything and everyone else, for me, was masterful.

The video backdrops perfectly complemented the music. The video of Unbending Tree (music here) took me back to Africa and disturbed all sorts of hidden memories in my mind. Very, very powerful stuff. He’s also updated his video background for My homeland to scenes of maurading Huns, yurts, and open plains. Completely mindblowing. I think I would have no problem at all sitting through a feature-length video on the history of Hungary set to a Havasi soundtrack.

In fact, it struck me that although Leonard Cohen (the other great music love of my life) was phenomenal in Amsterdam, amazing in Budapest, and great in Zagreb, I’ve seen him now and am happy to have done so three times. With Havasi though, without words, there is so much introspection to his music. This sounds odd coming from someone whose life revolves around words but for once, for two hours on 3 December, I didn’t need any.