Several Hungarian blues bands

One of the recent arrivals on our faculty is a Hungarian combinatoricist, who I hang out with a fair bit, since we’re both junior faculty and in closely related fields. It took him a whole 5 months to discover that I was a dangerously obsessive Magyarophile, which says something either about my restraint or his powers of observation (I’d like to think it’s the former). Instead of fleeing from the crazed stalker like a sensible person, he’s been kind enough to give me a chance to listen to his excellent collection of Hungarian blues musicians. So now I have impressions to write up about the albums I’ve been listening to.

The tl;dr version: Blues Fools has one album and it’s an awesome harmonica-driven blues work. Charlie’s a pop-star with a gravelly voice who’s not actually a blues artist. Ferenczi György’s albums are hit-or-miss but occupy a nice funk-blues place on the spectrum. Hobo Blues Band is at their best a Muddy-Waters-esque rhythm-driven classic blues band, but in the late 80s branched into some experimental and progressive work which is unusual if not artistically sterling. Mátyás Pribojszki Band is basically Blues Fools dragged in a jazzy direction. The Takáts Tamás Dirty Blues Band is a creative Chicago-style blues band often wandering out of that mold. Tóth Bagi is competent but missable. Tűzkerék is fundamentally hard rock, not blues.

Blues Fools: Blues Fools is the original late-90s group featuring harmonica player Mátyás Pribojszki (see below), and performed a contemporary blues-rock heavy on alternating guitar and harmonica solos. Their Fools in the Blues rocks a lot harder than I’m used to the blues being, but they mostly make it work. The vocals are unspectacular and the intonation makes it clear English isn’t their first language, but those are very minor niggles on what is mostly a well-arranged and tightly performed collection of original works, with killer guitar and harmonica. The only really atypical piece on the album is the downtempo and almost soporific “Lookin’ Through the Keyhole”; the rest of the album is hard-driving blues, most well exemplified by the instrumental “Mattack!” and the wailing “Little Boy Rock”.

Charlie: It’s actually hilarious that Charlie is in a blues collection, because Charlie’s music is really very poppy. Yeah, he’s got a raspy voice, and “Jég dupla whiskeyvel” is actually authentically blues, but for the most part I would place the music on the albums Charlie and Mindenki valakié outside the blues spectrum. It’s not bad music, but it’s mostly pure pop, with a few songs like “Hé, Nővér” bleeding slightly into a jazz-funk spectrum. A significant number of the songs are awfully ephemeral, to the point that I have no real memory of having heard them. “Mindenki valakié” is one of his more memorable works, on the bluesy end of pop music, but a lot of his material is more akin to his cover of Cini Zalatnay’s “Könnyű álmot hozzon az ej” (which is even less bluesy than the usual treacly version of this song; if you need a version with a bit of an edge, try Zorall’s cover).

Fun fact: Charlie represented Hungary in the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest, and did so unspectacularly that Hungary didn’t come back to the ECS for seven years.

Ferenczi György és a Herfli Davidson: Ferenczi is a harmonica player whose genre I’d basically classify as rock-and-roll/funk. The Live album might have an unfortunate mix in consequence of being a live recording, but I couldn’t help but notice the extent to which the bass was up front, which did no favors either to the songcraft (in which the bass line was far from the most interesting part) or the talent exposition (it was a competent performance, sure, but the frontman’s bluesharp is what we all really want to hear). The rock-spectrum pieces are fairly pedestrian, but funk always brightens up my day and it works surprisingly well with harmonica solos. The pieces particularly worth a listen are “Ugyanaz a Blues” and “Hogy érzem magam” (the latter particularly with some surprisingly subdued and unusual harmonica sounds); the least funky (and in my opinion, dullest) song on the album is “Azért édes”. The underlying songs have varying levels of interest (“Valami baj van” never goes much of anywhere, for instance, and “Ferike, Lacika” is a change of pace but not one that showcases Ferenczi’s skills), but Ferenczi’s own performances are often interesting, extracting sounds from the harmonica which are quite different from the usual blues fare.

Hobo Blues Band: Most of HBB’s oeuvre predates the end of Communism, so it arguably comes from a different social context than the many other bands which were to a greater or lesser degree directly imitative of American blues; even under the liberalized regime of the 80s, trade was still quite tightly controlled, and capitalist cultural influences were “discouraged”. In light of that cultural pressure, 1980’s Középeurópai Hobo Blues has a surprising amount of straightforward rock-and-roll (including an anemic Hungarian-language cover of “Hey Joe”) mixed up with sparse and oppressive, sparse slow-blues numbers like “Leples Bitang”. This album puts little except for László “Hobo” Földes’s vocal skills on prominent display; the instrumentation is mostly guitar-driven and not too ambitious. 1981’s Kopaszkutya, by way of contrast, is a particularly peculiar case of what writing and performing under Communism meant; it was the soundtrack album for a film (starring HBB as, more or less, themselves), and while the film had public release, the soundtrack was banned and only saw release twelve years later. It’s clearly imitative of American blues, and several of the songs are bluesy covers (e.g. “You Gotta Move” and “Tobacco Road”); it’s a peculiar enough work that I’d consider it an aberration, creativity-wise, since the entire underlying conceit is that it’s an album of deliberate imitation of American styles, although I guess I should watch the movie to get context.

The 1982 album Oly sokáig voltunk lenn is an album of original work which is self-consciously imitative of Muddy Waters’s style with a raw, ragged edge and prominent guitar rhythm: presumably, after the Kopaszkutya debacle, HBB was probing for exactly what they could get away with (the answer being apparently an awful lot, as long as it’s in Hungarian). It’s solid work, but not extraordinarily imaginative. That prize goes to 1983’s Még Élünk, which moves out of the mold and crosses genre boundaries while remaining at core blues-oriented: the vocals become more complex, and the instrumental performances become more imaginative if still understated. This album may be the most distinctive of the ones I would actually classify as blues, occasionally straying out of genre, although I’m not sure how I’d classify where it ends up. The style I’m going on about here is probably best exemplified by the several transitions in “Mindennek Vége” and “Batthyány Tér Blues”.

1984’s Vadászat is a rather odd duck. From what I can tell, it’s actually a concept album, and as such isn’t terribly true to its genre. Since I don’t understand the lyrics, I may have missed the point completely. The music is definitely quite unconventional, more on the talky end of progrock than blues; as such, despite its creativity as a progressive-blues album, it’s not actually a terribly good fit for the band. It’s well worth experiencing such untraditional songs as “Mesél az erdő” and “A zsákmány terítéken, szépen elrendezve” if only for their novelty. Esztrád, released in 1986, is an eccentric collection which bounces maniacally from straightforward slow modern blues and guitar-driven blues-rock pieces like “45-ös blues” to martial music like “6:3” or rinky-dink novelty piano bits like “Túl az Óperencian” or “És jött a két Latabár”. It’s hard to get a grip on it as a whole, but when the guitar’s up front, it rocks nicely and is well-suited to Hobo’s gravelly vocals.

Mátyás Pribojszki Band: This band is the eponymous harmonica player’s solo project; previously he was with Blues Fools (see above). The background instrumentation on Flavours ranges from basic twelve-bar blues (as seen on “Mátyás Walks”) to smooth jazz (“She’s 19”). It’s not bad music, but it’s largely unmemorable, and on the jazzier end of the spectrum is disappointingly short of harmonica, giving Pribojszki a lot less opportunity to shine. The rest of the band does a good enough job, but is hardly inspired. A quick look at a more recent performance by Mátyás Pribojski indicates that he’s drifted back into the more welcoming embrace of straight-up classic blues, so it’s possible that Flavours is actually an atypical album.

Takáts Tamás Dirty Blues Band: The Takáts Tamás DBB is another harmonica-intensive band (it may be worth mentioning that my colleague is himself a bluesharpist). DBB is notable in that their harmonica player isn’t also their primary vocalist, so there’s a lot more instrumentation under vocals. They generally present a really interesting sound, which balances traditional influences, funk-flavored instrumentation, and their own little imaginative bits of arrangement.

1993’s eponymous “2.” album presents a fresh take on classic blues styles: for instance, “Világvége Blues” provides a pleasingly deep and complex sound built on a basic 12-bar frame, and “Pocsolyába Léptem” is a somewhat delta-styled Muddy-Waters-esque number melded with modern rock-blues and with some persistent and impressive harmonica work (fun fact: both of those links are live performances in the same club, but with fairly different video qualities). There are some fizzles, though: the sax-polluted self-indulgent cover of “Trouble in Mind” is pretty missable. Húzom az igát, released in 1995, features a spectrum of distinct blues styles, from a somewhat modified traditional 12-bar blues in “Komoly, nagylány” to a pop-rock sensibility, like “Sem a testem, sem a lelkem”, to the slow and funky “Hol a Határ”. In all, it’s a nice ramble through a variety of subgenres, all suited to the ensemble and their skills.

1996 brought us two Takáts Tamás albums: the first is Indulok tovább, which brings a somewhat formulaic straight-up rock sensibility to the table with its title track. Mercifully this trend doesn’t last and such songs as “Vigyázz magadra, asszony” and “Ez a nő” take us back to the nice guitar-driven rough-around-the-edges blues we know and love. They’re unfortunately interspersed with poppier slow numbers, which don’t really play to the TTDBB’s strengths, and reasonably creatively-arranged covers of The Beatles’ “Come Together” and Locomotiv GT’s “Várlak”. Less creativity, but greater technical skill, is shown in 1996’s other album, Élő Blues, a collection of faithfully performed (modulo lightly fractured lyrics) Chicago blues classics, mostly Robert Johnson songs. The entire album’s excellently executed even if not particularly innovative.

Lastly, we have 1999’s Megöl a vágy, which starts out weak with disappointingly bland rock and pop, but veers quickly into country blues, as on the title track and the well-titled “Country”, with occasional dips into standard Chicago-flavored harmonica-intensive blues as on “Politikus” and “Kemény kézzel”.

Tóth Bagi Band: Crazy Clock is an album of (English-language) covers of guitar-intensive American rock-blues of the 60s. They don’t, to be honest, bring anything particularly new to the table, either skillwise or arrangementwise.

Tűzkerék: My notes say that Tűzkerék was the band backing guitarist Béla Radics which broke up almost immediately only to reform a couple times, and that their 1993 album Radics Live (recorded after Radics’s death) is a tribute to his songcraft and guitar skills. It’s much heavier and more rock-oriented than most albums in this collection; I’m not sure I’d actually classify it as blues, but rather as straight-up rock. Admittedly it’s pretty decent rock, but I’ve heard a fair amount of decent Hungarian rock.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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