An interview with Sándor Fodor
by László Kelemen (translated by Peter Laki)
Sándor Fodor or “Neti,” as he is known, is the great old man of folk music in the Kalotaszeg region. At 78, he is still active as a performer, teacher, and a frequent guest at folk-music camps and workshops. His playing can be heard on three CDs and countless field recordings. His repertoire is seemingly inexhaustible: every time I see him, he surprises me with a tune I have never heard before. He is a small, stocky man; his eyes are full of life and his mien extremely expressive. When I first saw him play, I noticed that he was making music with his face, with his body, with his whole being. When I first met him I was a student and I used to go to Kalotaszeg to collect music. During the breaks of the recordings I picked up the viola and we played together. Later he invited me to do weddings with him; I accepted, as this allowed me to learn the living Kalotaszeg music from the inside. We stayed in touch even after I moved from Transylvania to Hungary. We regularly invite him on tours and recordings with the Ökrös Ensemble. During the long years of our acquaintance I heard him tell many interesting stories about old Kalotaszeg, about musicians and his own life full of struggles and adventures. I wrote as he spoke:
I was born in Gyalu (Gilau), Kalotaszeg, but I didnt stay there very long, for my parents got divorced and we moved to Szucsák (Suceag). I have moved around in Kalotaszeg all my life. I even lived in Hungary for a while, near Székesfehérvár, when we had to flee during the war. We were very poor. I had to work. At twelve, I already played first fiddle at weddings. My father was also a musician but he didnt care about us. I was named after my mother, who was named Neti. My uncle introduced me to Feri Csipás, the Left-Handed, who taught me, along with his own son. He was the best-known musician in the whole area; he played in the hotel restaurant at Bánffyhunyad (Huedin). He got the most recent sheet music from Budapest every month, and even played in a movie (The Madonna of Kalotaszeg). He was very strict and demanding. But the toughest lessons were the weddings where he took us with him: we had to sit on the musicians bench and watch the music. Then after we got home we had to play what we remembered. I was scolded very often, Ill never forget: “Sanyi, youll never make a first fiddler”—I did, anyway! I remember waking up in the morning under the musicians bench: we were full of dust from all the dancing, so that we couldnt even open our eyes until we washed them. Well, that was my education, but it was a good one because I still live by it. My sons fate was different: he went to a music school. We bought him all the instruments. He can play on these new-fangled instruments that Ill never learn, but these days he often accompanies me on the organ, because the world has changed. This year I havent played a single wedding with viola accompaniment, only electric ones.
When I met you guys, I was surprised: why would these young folks, my sons age, want to learn to play the old Kalotaszeg music on the old instruments? Why dont they just go after their own music, why dont they play the guitar, the drums, the organ, like the rest of the young people? Then I understood and now Im glad to be able to pass along what I have in my head and my hands, as I learned it from Csipás and the other musicians of the old days. A lot of people come to my house—young people —I welcome everyone and no one has ever left me without a song for the road. Under Ceausescu it was forbidden to put up foreigners; whats more, I live right across the street from the police station. Even in those days, I had guests, so security came to tell me Id be punished because Id had foreigners stay at my house. I told him, this isnt right that you cant receive guests in your own house. One word followed another. I offered him a glass of brandy, I played some music, and at the end he said: “Uncle Sanyi, you put up who you want, just let us know so we can look the other way”—and left. I was never pestered again, even though I had many visitors, even Japanese and Americans. Then Ceausescu was finished, and now I can travel, too. I often go to Kolozsvár (Cluj) to the táncház (“dance house”), to help out. I love to play for the young people, because theyre looking for the old things; I like to teach them so that this music may be preserved. I go to Hungary every year to teach at camps, or just to play. Ill go for as long as I have the strength. Its hard because Im old and it hurts everywhere, but Ive hardly ever been sick in my life, even though Ive been smoking since I was a kid, and I eat and drink what I want. Other people have all these grains and mueslis for breakfast to stay healthy, but I start the day with a good shot of brandy, coffee, and a cigarette.
When I was young, I travelled on foot a lot. There were no taxis (in Kalotaszeg people called a car a taxi). The train was expensive, often I walked home three villages away after two or three days of exhausting playing.
Uncle Sanyi, you’ve lived through a lot: war, Communism, capitalism. What do you think: has the world changed?
Well, a lot has changed and nothing. When I was a kid, we were very poor. People had no money, so they gave you produce for playing: wheat, potatoes, or they would give you labor. Todays young people have everything, yet they dont always appreciate it. Nor do they always appreciate us musicians! Today, its this disco stuff everywhere: easy music, easy dancing, they turn on the tape recorder, they turn off the lights, nobody cares how they dance. Sometimes I come with “pig” bands that I feel ashamed of: saxophone, drums, and organ. The older people pull away, they say: “Sanyi, Sanyi, what kind of band did you bring?” But what am I supposed to do if thats what the young people want? Thats how the world has changed.
Yet music is power even now, but only if you serve people. You have to cater to people, do as they wish. They valued me for my music, and they still do. But I keep learning even to this day. I learned a lot of songs from you guys. I dont need much time—I hear it once or twice and I know it already. I teach a lot, too, because the more people know your music, the more people will talk about you. Poor Csipás has been dead for ten years, but people still know him through his music. Or Kömös of Tura is still known for his songs, even though he was a lead fiddler in the past century. If I have a chance to go into the world, I have to bring the songs of these long-gone musicians as well. I have to show Burálós legényes, Csipáss csárdás or Nonikas virtita. They are always with me, they guide my hand and hold my bow when I play. And maybe you guys, too, will say some day: “This is Netis legényes or csárdás.”
Hungarian Music, Gypsy Music, Folk Music by László Kelemen ð
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