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Tucson Weekly Gypsy Feat

Ökrös Brings The Spirit Of The Nomad Musician Back To The Desert.

By Mari Wadsworth

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  LIKE SWEATER VESTS, banana seats and horn sections, traditional music seems to be enjoying something of a retro resurgence. Here at the end of the century, as pop music (and pop culture, for that matter) hovers on the verge of being so formulaic as to look like a cloning experiment gone awry, enterprising young musicians are looking further back than ever for something new, something relevant, something inspirational.

America has certainly spawned its own new-folk heroes and heroines, from the bluegrass, banjo-toting Gillian Welch to more underground successes like New Orleans' Klezmer All-Stars and Tucson's own Crawdaddy-O Brass Band. Jamaican ska, Mexican mariachi music, Spanish flamenco, Tibetan chanting, Australian digeridoos -- all have made their way into the texture of pop, sometimes in the most unlikely places. Everything new, it seems, is old.

Enter the Ökrös Ensemble, a seven-member band that's traveled all the way from Budapest to bring the so-called Gypsy music of Hungary and Transylvania to the masses. Hopefully, they'll come. Because centuries before documentary filmmakers and the Internet, the musical world's info highway owed a debt of gratitude to the nomadic Gypsy musicians who traveled from Northern India to Eastern Europe, North Africa and Spain, creating as well as preserving a variety of sounds and instruments as they did.

Folk is the original pop music, historically played in villages and on street corners, in dancehalls and at weddings, in every corner of the world. And Ökrös, led by violinist Csaba Ökrös, is the leading folk revival band in Hungary. Just as The Chieftains have for Celtic music, so has Ökrös, in collaboration with some of Eastern Europe's best musicians, brought a new and revitalized infusion of regional folk and jazz influences to audiences in Europe and North America.

Joining Ökrös in Tucson was Ági Szalóki, a young vocalist whose avid research (including long hours traveling from village to village to learn songs from the last surviving informants of those traditions) shines brilliantly in vocals that are beautifully refined and deeply emotional.

Hammered dulcimer (cimbalom) artist Kálmán Balogh, a graduate of Budapest's Liszt Academy of Music, is a concert and jazz musician as well as disciple of the Gypsy music tradition. Internationally acclaimed, he's helped establish the Hungarian cimbalom as a contemporary instrument.

Paired with violinist Sándor Fodor (a.k.a. Neti), himself one of those vital mentors at age 78, the Ökrös ensemble achieves a truly unique musical experience -- an intensity and authenticity that takes the best of Ökrös' young, virtuoso musicians and forges it with the passion and vibrancy of Neti's six decades of experience, recalling a world centuries old, when music was the mainstay of both artistic expression and entertainment.

To hear them play is to hear history resonate and exhale, on the taut strings of fiddle, lute, viola and bass; and in the haunting melodies of Szalóki's mesmerizing voice. It's good music for the nomadic at heart: part requiem and part siren song, it'll make you long for places you've never been, as if they were calling you home.


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