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Restless Rhythms

Gypsy music and the cimbalom mystique



By David Witter

A fiddler known only as Valez draws his bow across an old violin, playing a slow, haunting melody that brings visions of Hungarian villages or horse-drawn wagons traveling through the countryside. Then he hits a high note, and Alex Udvary increases the tempo on his cimbalom. Udvary's small mallets fly across the instrument's strings, bouncing off them like grasshoppers. With two mallets in one hand, he uses the other to pound out a backbeat on the piano beside him, driving the violinist to a furious pace. The crowd begins to stamp their feet and shout as Valez and Udvary run up and down a scale, playing the joyous and unique music of the Gypsies.

Tonight Udvary is playing at Paprikash, a Hungarian restaurant at 5210 W. Diversey. He's dedicated his life to the cimbalom. More than the guitar or fiddle, the cimbalom seems to embody the culture of the Gypsies, perhaps because its sound suggests both Arabian and European music. Ornately carved, this traditional instrument is a cross between the piano, the harpsichord, and the vibraphone. Its small wire mallets are wound with cotton at the ends, and when they strike the strings, it sings in a tone that's both familiar and exotic.

Like his father before him, Udvary makes his living with the cimbalom; he's performed on 12 albums, recording with symphony orchestras in Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. "My father, who was born in Hungary, settled in Detroit, where he lived in Delray, a neighborhood with a large population of Hungarians and Gypsies," Udvary says between sets. "In our community music was a way of life. If you didn't play you didn't fit in. When I was a kid, musicians were always coming over and practicing until all hours. By the time I actually began playing it was almost second nature to me."

Udvary gets his Gypsy blood from his mother. Gypsies--who call themselves Romany, or children of God--began migrating west from India by the 11th century. Known for their extravagant yet transient ways, they also have a unique reputation as skilled musicians. Through the years the Gypsies have taken the music of almost every region they've occupied, mastered it, and made it their own. "Gypsy music is really modified folk music," Udvary explains. "They basically took the folk music of Russia, France, and Spain and changed the harmony to take the dissonance out of it and make it more pleasant. Like jazz, they also added spontaneous improvisation, which I believe is a natural outgrowth of the culture."

Udvary, who maintains that Hungarian Gypsies are less transient than those from other European countries, moved from Cleveland to Chicago 17 years ago to play an extended run at Miomir's, a Serbian club formerly located on Lawrence. He says that back then Chicago's Gypsy community was based around Southport and Lincoln, near Saint Alphonsus Church. Old-timers tell of large gatherings and horse-drawn funeral caravans traveling from as far south as 67th and Halsted to the Bohemian National Cemetery on North Pulaski.

"The women made their livings by telling fortunes," says Udvary, "and the men mostly did roofing or fixed cars. It was the women who made the money." He says that Americans are far less prejudiced against Gypsies than Europeans, but Chicago no longer has a concentrated Gypsy community. "The younger ones all spread out," he says. Yet the culture endures. At places like Columbus Hospital, Udvary says, you will still occasionally see large families gathered in the lobby, sometimes occupying waiting rooms for hours or days in support of a family member. At funeral homes like Rago Brothers on Irving Park or cemeteries like the Bohemian or Montrose, Gypsies still hold traditional funerals, complete with drinking and dancing. But according to Udvary, the musical traditions are quickly being assimilated into the mainstream.

"Many of the younger musicians are playing jazz now," he says, citing the influence of Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. "In a lot of ways the musics are very similar, but they are still not the same." Udvary and Valez incorporate little or no Western pop into their playing. Valez, a well-traveled man of 70 who speaks Hungarian, Italian, and Romanian but little English, launches into another set comprised mostly of Hungarian music and eastern European folk songs. The largely Hungarian audience sings along, but the fast Gypsy music is what stirs them to shout and raise glasses of slivovitz, a plum brandy.

"The Gypsy songs we play don't really have any names," Udvary says after a particularly raucous number. "They are simply handed down through the generations and recognized only by the melodies."

As the night wears on, a pair of violinists from the Houston Symphony, a cellist from the Grant Park Symphony, and two jazz players arrive to jam with Udvary, who leans over the cimbalom in a near trance. By midnight he has played off and on for almost five hours. But the players pass around tumblers of dark beer and platters of salami, cheese, and crepelike palescinta. Valez strikes the high notes of the fiddle, and the frenetic music rings through the air. Somehow, it seems as if the night has just begun.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alex Udvary photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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