Hungarian Rhapsody

The polymath virtuoso Tcha Limberger is the king of gypsy music

by Garth Cartwright (The Sunday Times)

Tcha Limberger, at first glance, might appear just another Gypsy fiddler. A handsome man with a thin moustache and sharp suit who, when he strikes bow to violin, is obviously a virtuoso. Then he stops playing and speaks and I realize that the 37-year old Belgian is a musician of uncommon intelligence. Limberger speaks eight languages fluently while being a master of flamenco guitar, jazz clarinet and Hungarian violin. As he sets out to lead his Budapest Gypsy Orchestra on a comprehensive UK tour he delivers a mission statement of sorts.

“I’m frustrated that people think Gypsy music’s defined by loud brass bands or ridiculous DJs and rock bands pretending to be Gypsies. I come from a musical family where tradition and skill is valued. And this is what I aim to continue.”

I then ask how Limberger defines Gypsy music today, considering it appears to encompass everything from East European waltz to Andalucian flamenco to Django Reinhardt-style jazz. And beyond.

“Let me start by saying for me Gypsy music does not really exist. Serbian Gypsies will play Serbian music – they want to make money so they know not to play Croatian music. Same in Romania etc, etc. Maybe the Gypsies bring a melody from one place to another and so make a melody popular in a place that didn’t know this before. Gypsies bring a certain flavor to music they play but not a new music.” He pauses then says, “something to do with daring, courage, commitment – maybe that’s it. Daring and a kind of search for freedom in the way you make interpretations different every time you play it. But only in the style. You don’t change the style. Gypsy musicians want to earn a living so they know in Serbia to play Serbian music and not Croatian. Same in Romania. Same everywhere. Play what people like.”

Ironically, Limberger tends not to play “what people like” (ie rock and pop) but specific vernacular music forms he values. And what is a Brussels-based musician doing leading a Hungarian band? Limberger explains how, as a teenager, he fell in love with a Hungarian music form called Magyar nota and not only shifted to Budapest to learn the music but set about learning the Hungarians’ incredibly difficult language too. But let’s get to that later. I first asked Tcha to tell his life story.

“I was born in Bruge. My mother is Flemish and my father a Manouche Gypsy guitar player. The Manouche are a splinter division of the Sinti. The Roma who now arrive from Eastern Europe speak a very different dialect of Romani from that which we speak in Belgium. Aged six I started learning how to play flamenco guitar. Aged 13 I joined my uncle’s band playing clarinet and we played Gypsy jazz – which borrows a lot from New Orleans – and some Hungarian music too. In my teens I got very interested in Hungarian music. My father and I went to Budapest to play. It felt like sitting in a hot bath – it just felt so good! I knew then – at 19 – this is what I wanted to do. The Budapest style Hungarian music uses a classical basis which is contrary to other Gypsy music styles.”

Tcha became so immersed in Hungarian music he began learning Hungarian (via braille and a tutor) then shifted to Budapest. With his Budapest Gypsy Orchestra Tcha has reawakened interest in a music form that was almost extinct. The Budapest Gypsy Orchestra’s album Bura Termett Ido (Lejazzetal) is a beautiful document of an eloquent East European music full of moods and shadows. That a Belgian shows such passion for a music form now dying in its birthplace is, Limberger understands, seen as a little odd by many Hungarians.

‘The end of communism has seen a rush across Eastern Europe to discard what they have had for many generations and replace it with glossy Western entertainment. While I understand this desire to be like everyone else I don’t endorse it. Instead I call it ‘a corruption of the mind’. The folk music is still strong in Transylvania as it has not been as corrupted there as in many other places. Budapest is horrible now. People are swayed by drugs and money and all this nonsense.”

Hungarian politics has, in recent years, become extremely nationalistic with rival political parties endorsing WW2 era fascists and promoting anti-Semetic and anti-Roma policies. This, I’m guessing, has also had an adverse effect on music making, considering the nation’s long history of Gypsy musicians?

Limberger visibly flinches then replies, “it’s just awful. The extremists are setting the agenda. People are scared and there’s no money.” He then adds that he is not a politician and has no wish to become embroiled in any of the disputes underway. Instead, he would rather talk about music.

“The music still lives every time we play – just as it once did in the ballrooms of Budapest. Come and hear us!”

Tcha Limberger’s Budapest Gypsy Orchestra tour the UK March 12-29 http://www.lejazzetal.com/web/content/tour.php?artist_id=16

Buy tickets for their Exeter concert here: http://www.exeterphoenix.org.uk/events/tcha-limbergers-budapest-gypsy-orchestra/