In 2011 Simon Broughton discovered the story of Hungarian tambura band, Söndörgő, prior to their Songlines Encounters performance. Four years later the band’s music continues to be met with critical acclaim.
Söndörgő will be on tour in the UK from November 12-27. Find out more here.
The kid was just four years old, and playing with all the singleminded concentration and enthusiasm that young boys have when they are gripped by something that fascinates them. In his hands wasn’t a toy car or a football, but a tambura – a small mandolin-like instrument. As he noticed everyone was looking at him, he stepped into the limelight at the centre of a circle of onlookers and musicians and played like one possessed. More than anything, this was evidence of the healthy tradition of tambura playing here in the south of Hungary.
The tambura is typical of the Serbian and Croatian communities in Hungary – and over the border in Croatia and the Serbian province of Vojvodina. As an instrument it is fast, agile and precise – and its music is very catchy. It’s like a meeting of Greek bouzouki and Hungarian violin, delicate yet fiery, as a tight group of strummed strings sparkle together. The music has an irrepressible spring to it. I’m listening to tambura players in Mohács in the south of Hungary.
Söndörgő have described what they play as the ‘Lost Music of the Balkans’ and it’s true. Hungary is famous for its Gypsy fiddle music, Serbia is famous for its brass bands, but here lost in the cracks between them is the delicate and distinctive sound of tambura music that’s virtually unknown.
In Hungary, Mohács is notorious for the battle that took place here in 1526 when Hungary was defeated by the Ottoman troops of Suleiman the Magnificent. It marked the end of Hungary’s golden age and the beginning of Turkish and Habsburg domination – the Turks left in 1699 and the Habsburgs were in control until World War I. In Hungarian ‘ More Was Lost at Mohács’ is a resilient expression meaning ‘Things Could be Worse.’ On a more cheerful note, Mohács is also famous for its Busójárás Lenten carnival with sheepskin costumes, scary masks and lots of tambura music. According to popular belief, the tradition started after the Turkish occupation when the population carved themselves masks, re-entered the town making lots of noise and scared away the Turks.
Most of the South Slav population in Hungary came because of the Turks. In the 14th and 15th centuries, as the Ottoman empire expanded into Serbia, many Serbians fled north up the Danube. The South Slavs founded a number of towns along the river which had, and in many cases still have, a strong Serbian or Croatian flavour. These include Mohács, Ráckeve (with the most beautiful Serbian Orthodox church in Hungary), and Pomáz and Szentendre, close to Budapest. Szentendre is a popular day trip for visitors to Budapest and is where Söndörgő are based.
The tambura probably came to Hungary with the Turks. The small lead tambura (prímtambura) usually has five strings, with the two top strings doubled to emphasise the melody, plucked with a plectrum. Then there’s the bigger bass-lead tambura (basszprímtambura) and the guitar-like contra tambura which plays accompanying chords. Down in Mohács, the bass is traditionally a bass tambura (tamburabőgő), which looks deceptively like a regular double bass, but is played with a plectrum and has frets.
Söndörgő came to Songlines’ attention in 2008, thanks to a fantastic live CD they did with Macedonian saxophonist Ferus Mustafov, one of Europe’s greatest Gypsy musicians. Being interested in South Slav music, the band were huge admirers of Mustafov and, when they were able to get in touch, went down to meet him in Macedonia. “We went to his rehearsal in Skopje and it was incredible,” says Söndörgő’s leader Áron Eredics. “Once he’d finished he just said ‘Now you play!’ and we were terrified. But it went quite well and we both had the feeling it would be good to record a CD together. So we arranged to come back for ten days practice together followed by four or five concerts at which the CD was recorded.”
“They drank a lot and so you couldn’t really rely on them, but they knew some really old tunes”
Söndörgő are almost literally the songs of the band Vujicsics who from the mid-70s pioneered the professional presentation of South Slav music in Hungary and had one of their records released on Joe Boyd’s Hannibal label in 1988.
The family background is mixed. They think the Eredics name is Croatian, but the family now only speak Hungarian. Kálmán’s grandmother was Serbian (and the last Serbian speaker in the family), but she married an Austrian (and there was some anger in the family about this). Kálmán married a Jewish wife from what is now Ukraine and they are proud of their totally mixed ethnicities. It certainly means that their commitment to the music can’t be described as nationalistic
Kálmán and his brother Gábor Eredics grew up in the town of Pomáz, just next to Szentendre. It was there they formed a band in 1974 inspired by a local group playing South Slav music for weddings and parties, but “they drank a lot and so you couldn’t really rely on them, but they knew some really old tunes,” explains Kálmán. This coincided with the folk revival in Hungary and the start of the táncház movement. Also living in Pomáz was a composer and ethnographer of Serbian background called Tihamér Vujicsics (1929-1975) who composed for the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble and collected Serbian and Croatian tunes from the communities in Hungary.
Sadly Vujicsics was killed in an aircrash in 1975 and the band (pictured right in 1981) adopted his name in his memory. “We’d been given this horrible official name – the Pomáz Young Folk Group of the Minorities – so we were very glad to get rid of that,” Kálmán chuckles. Before his death Vujicsics had virtually completed Musical Traditions of South Slavs in Hungary, a collection of melodies and songs, which was published in 1978. It was from this book and from the tunes they’d learned from the drunken old-timers that Vujicsics built their repertoire.
They released an award-winning debut CD in 1981 and became one of country’s best ensembles and the only professional band performing the music of the South Slavs in Hungary.
So the next generation of Eredics brothers grew up in an environment where this music was just a part of everyday life. “My father bought me a tambura when I was five years old,” says Áron, “although I didn’t play it at that time. It was when my cousin Dávid said they wanted to start a band at school that we began in a serious way.”
Like the Vujicsics Ensemble, Söndörgő have also drawn on the collections of Tihamér Vujicsics, but they’ve also connected with traditional players like József Kovács in Mohács and also taken tunes from other parts of former Yugoslavia and arranged them for tamburas. Paradoxically their repertoire is both more adventurous – arranging tunes from other regions of former Yugoslavia – and more traditional – with old tunes that have been preserved in the communities in Hungary – than the local tambura bands in Vojvodina.
But Söndörgő’s real passion is for the music of József Kovács and other musicians from Mohács who are the bearers of a living tradition. This shows in their ability to create a party with their playing, whether it’s on a concert stage in Budapest, or playing, whether it’s on a concert stage in Budapest, or amongst the community in Mohács. While they have an amongst the community in Mohács. While they have an illustrious background behind them, they are committed to doing things in their own way.
Excellent Vujicsics debut with vocals by Márta Sebestyén amongst others.
(Vujicsics Association, 1997)
Great Croatian and Serbian tunes, one from the field recording by Bartók.
Live album with Ferus Mustafov, a Top of the World selection in October 2009 (#63).
(World Village, 2011)
New album with tambura player József Kovács and singer Kátya Tompos and Antal Kovács.
(Riverboat Records, 2014)
The band added Macedonian melodies and a nod or two to Béla Bartók to their South Slav musical background.