Revival for the art of Hungarian Song

The Budapest Gypsy Orchestra
The Budapest Gypsy Orchestra
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Musician Tcha Limberger plays in many musical styles, then he discovered traditional Hungarian Song. Yvette Huddleston spoke to him.

“I am half gypsy, half Flemish – I am Manouche and they play the music of Django Rheinhardt,” says virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Tcha Limberger. “I grew up in this tradition and then I discovered through some friends a style of Hungarian gypsy music played by Hungarian musicians that was different and exciting.”

Limberger’s band The Budapest Gypsy Orchestra has a growing reputation worldwide and they are currently on an extensive tour of the UK which includes two Yorkshire dates later this month. Limberger himself is now fast becoming one of the most recognised gypsy musicians of modern times.

The son and grandson of renowned Manouche musicians – his grandfather was the legendary violinist Piotto Limberger and his father Vivi a singer and guitarist – Limberger, who is blind, began playing the clarinet at the age of 12. He joined the family orchestra The Piottos who specialised in the so-called ‘gypsy jazz’ music of Django Rheinhardt.

Now in his mid-thirties, he is a much sought-after musician involved in several musical projects but he is particularly passionate about the Magyar Nota (Hungarian Song) style – a haunting combination of classical, gypsy and traditional Hungarian folk music.

He first became interested in Magyar Nota when he listened to some music by Toki Horvath, a renowned gipsy violinist and eminent practitioner of the genre. “I got very intrigued and wanted to find out more about it – that was what prompted me to want to learn the violin,” says Limberger. “I thought I could do it just as a hobby and quickly realised that I had to learn to play it properly.

“At around that time I went to Budapest with a band I was playing with and I heard this fabulous music played by very good players. It was so intriguing and so intense – it felt like sitting in a warm bath of music. I thought ‘this is what I want to learn how to play’. So I decided that would be my project.” He sought out some Hungarian musicians in Belgium and went to hear them play. While listening to them, he had a sudden startling insight. “I thought ‘you will never be able to play this music if you don’t speak Hungarian’ because of the rhythms and cadences of the language. When a violinist plays a tune, I can hear whether he speaks Hungarian or not.” Already fluent in seven languages, Limberger set about teaching himself the eighth. He then contacted musical prodigy and world-renowned Hungarian violinist Bela Horvath and took lessons with him. Back in Belgium, with the help of jazz musician, producer and promoter Dave Kelbie, and a Hungarian-born musician living in Brussels, Limberger began to gather together musicians from Budapest, experienced in playing the Magyar Nota.

There are seven in the band – double bass, cimbalom (a traditional stringed instrument, played with wooden hammers, popular across Eastern Europe), cello, clarinet, viola, lead violin and second violin. Limberger says that seven is the minimum number for this kind of music and in the past Magyar Nota bands would have had two violas and a third violin – and sometimes even flutes and trumpets.

Although The Budapest Gypsy Orchestra don’t perform together that regularly – Limberger lives in Belgium and the rest of the musicians are mostly Budapest-based – the band very quickly tune in to each other’s playing when they meet up again.

“That’s mainly thanks to the great musicianship of the band members,” says Limberger. “They are still quite immersed in the style – they live in Hungary and still play every night. Although there were 75 restaurants in Budapest with musicians playing every night before the fall of Communism, now there are only five – and they are not always the very best bands. That’s also a reason why the music has become less popular. The band members fortunately play quite often. The bass player, who lives in Brussels, has always been totally committed to this style of music – he plays world music and jazz but Magyar Nota is his favourite. It’s a very important element of the music that you all have access to it. Me, as an outsider, I keep in constant contact with the music by listening to it, trying to find recordings of it and listening to old recordings.”

As well as Magyar Nota, Limberger has also had his interest sparked by another kind of music of the Central European region. “I really love the ancient Hungarian music of Transylvania,” he says. “And the Transylvanian musicians love Magyar Nota because it is a music that can be considered purely Hungarian. Otherwise Transylvanian music has a certain Romanian influence.”

Limberger plays with a number of other bands and has recently returned to playing the guitar after a long break from the instrument. “I play mostly old style jazz – I don’t like the term gypsy jazz,” he says. “I am much more interested in more free and deeper ways of improvising on acoustic guitar and violin.”

As for the Budapest Gypsy Orchestra, with its growing fan base, Limberger is hoping to play and tour with them more often. “My idea for this band would be to start playing at classical music festivals,” he says. “All the musicians have some classical training and Magyar Nota is based on classical ideas of harmony. The trouble with trying to play at gypsy music festivals is that this kind of music is delicate. lt is better in intimate venues.”

Tcha Limberger and his Budapest Gypsy Orchestra play at the Montgomery Theatre, Sheffield on March 23, Tickets £12/10 on 07835 966810 or and at The Venue, Leeds on March 29, 0113 222 3400 or