Török Testvérek: A Dynamic Hungarian Trio

While the rest of the U.S. stampedes to mass arenas for rock concerts, I gravitate toward classical and folk music in small places. Some of my favorite musical experiences have happened in venues not much bigger than a classroom. I love the

Török Testvérek

Tilla Török

informal rapport that develops as the musicians relax, talk and even laugh with the audience. If the musicians are foreigners and struggle with English, for me it only adds a sense of cross-cultural sharing.

Two weeks ago I attended a joyful concert of this kind. The performers were Tilla Török, Flóra Török and Ádám Török Dancsó, a sibling trio of Hungarian folk musicians. The concert was sponsored by the Hungarian American Association of Washington (HAAW) and was held in the Phinney Neighborhood Center, where HAAW often gathers for folk dancing.  As I arrived for the concert, a farmers’ market was closing up in the parking lot, and artists were displaying their work in the hallway. What a cultural meet-up!

Török Testvérek (the Török siblings) gathered at the front of the room to perform, wearing clothes embroidered in traditional Hungarian patterns. The trio’s repertoire includes music from Hungary and the larger Balkan region. The various group members play violin, zither, different types of flutes and whistles, lute, drum and the Transylvanian gardon (somewhat similar to a cello). All of them sing.  The leader, Tilla, has a beautiful voice. Their music also incorporates the shouted chanting typical of the region.

Flóra Török

During the concert the musicians introduced each of their songs in Hungarian, and an American translator interpreted their comments. Clearly, the group loves the music and honors its traditional roots. They have been acclaimed for their ethnographic research as well as performance.

Their music exudes a wonderful energy, even in the passionate slower pieces. Because of the whistles and the drum, which is similar to a Celtic bodhran, I was sometimes reminded of Irish folk music.  Yet Hungarian and Balkan music is different, frequently set in a modal pentatonic scale. If you’ve listened to Bartók or Kodály, you get the idea.

I bought their CD, Naphasadás (Birth of the Sun). The music definitely sounds foreign to American ears, but it is vibrant and sensitively

Ádám Török Dancsó

interpreted. My favorite piece on the CD is a deeply compelling Kyrie. This group has done a wonderful job of preserving and adding to the musical heritage of Hungary and the Balkans. Check out their website and Facebook page. 

Photos in this post were taken by Márta Horváth.

Re-examining an American Mindset

This essay (minus the photos) was published under a different title in The News Tribune of Tacoma, February 9, 2015.  To see the TNT article, click here.  

In recent years two of my three sons embarked on international life journeys, and in a smaller way, so did I.  My son Brendan and his wife moved to Peru in 2009 as missionaries.  In 2011 my son Patrick and his family left for Yaoundé, Cameroon with the U.S. State Department, and two years later they moved again to Manila.  Meanwhile I was writing a novel set in communist Hungary.  Since 2006, between visiting my sons and doing research, I have traveled to Cameroon and the Philippines, to Peru five times and Hungary three times.  After walking around in countries scarred by poverty or fear, I find myself rethinking our proud American optimism.  We don’t realize how blithely we live.

No matter how we complain about medical costs, Americans can plan on a fairly long life.  What if we couldn’t?  In Cameroon my son Patrick saw African lives ending early: his middle-aged secretary died, and so did the five-year-old daughter of an embassy 146mechanic and the baby of the local banana seller.  A sad fact of Cameroonian life is its shortness.  What does this do to a nation’s worldview, encountering sorrow with harrowing regularity and having to say, “If I live, if my children live . . .”?  We Americans don’t realize how much we have, just to be able to assume we will raise our children.

As Americans, we are an entrepreneurial bunch, loving to dream big.  If something is a good idea, it must be possible, right?  Not everywhere.  In Andean Peru, expanded markets for poor farmers would certainly be helpful.  But simply transporting goods can be nightmarish: the roads, where they exist, sometimes wash out in landslides; drivers don’t abide by safety regulations; cops expect Peru-July-2011-291-smbribes.   So the Andean people carry on with subsistence farming and hope that a bad crop season won’t wipe them out.  In Cameroon trade is even more difficult.  Systems of management and leadership hardly even exist.  As one African told Patrick, “Sir, if you asked me to take ten cows to the top of Mt. Febé (a nearby peak), I could do it.  If you asked me to take ten men to the top, we would never arrive.”

In America we have spent our whole history building up the systems of leadership, communication and infrastructure needed to take almost anything to the top of Mt. Febé, so to speak.  Here, new ideas can be tried out because the basics “work.”  Until I visited places where the basics are despairingly difficult, I didn’t realize how thoroughly American systems have made ingenuity possible.  We can scoff at fear of failure.  Such scoffing is dangerous in cultures where failure is almost inevitable—and very costly.

Whether or not we realize it, Americans are used to believing things will work out.  Not all countries share our optimism.  This became especially clear to me in a recent email conversation with a woman in Hungary.  Her nation has a reputation for pessimism—which is not surprising,  since Hungary’s history is full of invasions, lost wars and

View Across the Danube from Castle Hill, Budapest

View Across the Danube from Castle Hill, Budapest

unwanted regimes.  My Hungarian acquaintance, Judit, had read the manuscript of my novel about her country.  She enjoyed the story and said it was well-researched and accurate, but it seemed American to her: “optimistic, in spite of the difficulties,” she said.

By American standards, my novel is not optimistic.  The characters give up their dreams.  Yet they manage to create a meaningful life, and maybe that was what Judit was calling optimism.  I prefer to call it hope.   Optimism is based on good circumstances; hope, as Václav Havel said, is based on the belief that life and our deeds have meaning, even when things go badly.  Do we believe that?  If so, then we Americans are people of hope, and that is our greatest gift in this hurting world.