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Understanding Hungarian Pop Music: Then and Now

In Budapest

Photo by György Palkó / House of Music

“They Wrote the Song for Us!” is a temporary exhibition at the House of Music, Hungary. It explores what it calls the “heroic” age of Hungarian popular music and its effect on society in this country from 1957 to the regime change and the first Sziget Festival in 1993.

The exhibition’s starting point is Martiny’s “Itt a Roki,” which it calls Hungary’s first rock and roll record, released in 1957. “Itt a Roki” sounds far more like jazz to me, but the most important thing is the effect it had on Hungary’s youth at the time. It’s on YouTube so, if you’re as pedantic as I am, you can compare it to “Rocket 88,” often called America’s first rock and roll record and “Bad Penny Blues,” the United Kingdom’s first.

“They Wrote the Song for Us!” really gets going with the 1960s and ’70s when jazz, which was apolitical, was coopted by the authorities and beat music was seen as a potential threat to the established order.

The 900 square meter exhibition space is divided into eight thematic blocks that give an insight into the everyday life of the period. Space is given to the most prominent artists, bands, emblematic hits and key pop history events of this politically charged era. But the exhibition also goes much further.

As co-curator Béla Jávorszky tells me, “We explore the fan subcultures, the media that played such an essential role in the spread of popular music, the institutional system that imposed such strong political censorship on musicians, the milieu of clubs, tours and musical instruments, and the changing relationship between popular music culture and the performing arts.”

Jávorszky ensured the exhibition was “pop-historical perfect and balanced,” while co-curator Márton Horn mainly focused on creative presentation.

Music is played on jukeboxes and piped in. Key clubs and live venues in beat-era Budapest are listed. Film clips, including of the first ever Sziget Festival, play. We get a sense of the social context of the music.

Transgressions Punished

Unlike the United States, United Kingdom and free Europe, Hungarian beat music bands and their fans weren’t just dealing with entrenched attitudes to hair length and tie width. They were up against a fearsome communist state apparatus that regulated every aspect of life and punished even the most minute transgressions.

Getting into an event in the 1960s required ravers to conform to strict dress codes. Censorship was rigorously enforced. When avant-garde rock and later punk reached Hungary, bands and their fans could be imprisoned if there was the slightest whiff of criticism of the powers that were. As recently as the late 1980s, album covers could be censored by the authorities.

It is a very different scenario to what exists today in Hungary.

The idea for “They Wrote the Song for Us!” was born when popular music experts Attila Koszits, Bence Csatári, Tamás Rozsonits, Norbert Vass, Zsolt Bajnai and Jávorszky began to dream about mounting an exhibition.

From the beginning, as Jávorszky said, they decided it “should be about not only the musical heroes and songs of those days but should also give an insight into the everyday life of the period.”

By calling them heroes, Jávorszky means that these Hungarian artists and groups “must have worked in totally different conditions than today. They were in a so-called one-dimensional system where every aspect of popular music was monopolized by the state. If you didn’t fit in, you didn’t exist.”

Who were these heroes? Jávorszky lists them. “Illés, the first group to play their own songs in Hungarian. You might say they created national beat music. Omega was the most well-known in Europe and was always technically advanced. Zsuzsa Koncz, Kati Kovács and Sarolta Zalatnay were the most important beat girls. In the ’70s, the most famous bands were Bergendy, Piramis, P.Mobil and Beatrice. For the ’80s, it’s Hungária, KFT, Első Emelet and the Hobo Blues Band. There are also underground movements such as Kex, Mini and Syrius, or later Bizottság, Európa Kiadó and Trabant.”

Financial Filter

Jávorszky tells me, “After the change of regime in 1989, anyone could play their music and release anything. But a political filter has been replaced by one that’s financial. For example, before 1989, only one record company existed. Many were launched after that, but they failed or were bought by the international majors and became subsidiaries.”

Today, it’s still the case that in mainstream Hungarian pop, if you don’t fit in, you don’t exist. Artists critical of the status quo in this country, such as some of the hip-hop acts, don’t get played on the radio and are excluded from opportunities like playing on the relatively lucrative Hungarian summer festival circuit funded by local governments.

The hopefuls that make it to televised talent shows such as “Megasztár” on TV2 and “X-Faktor” and “Hungary’s Got Talent” on commercial TV channel RTL Klub most often vanish. If they win, they might end up touring Hungary or become judges on talent shows themselves.

Having said that, there is interesting pop music being made in Hungary, from hip-hop to electronic music. The way to find it is to follow the time-honored tradition of wandering into an independent record shop or asking a switched-on Hungarian music fan what they’re listening to.

I was recently turned on to the terrific band Margaret Island. Their sound is difficult to pin down but incorporates elements of Hungarian folk, rock, and a light Brazilian feel. The Emma Nagy Quintet mixes jazz and improvised music in an intriguing, somewhat unclassifiable way. Then there’s Mörk, who I’ve written about before, who play a kind of psychedelic light funk and soul.

Hungary still has musical heroes. You just have to look for them.

More at www.ligetbudapest.hu.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of June 16, 2023.

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