19.03.2014 – Shrewsbury Coffeehouse
Fire, passion, excitement and instrumental brilliance. An entertaining and absorbing live performance
‘This gig was part of an extensive British tour featuring the seven piece Gypsy Orchestra led by the remarkable violinist Tcha Limberger. Born in Belgium into a celebrated manouche musical family Limberger has been blind since birth but is a phenomenally talented musician who also plays guitar and clarinet. Now in his mid thirties he didn’t take up the violin until he was twenty one but quickly fell in love with the instrument and with the gypsy music of Hungary known as Magyar Nota, which approximately translates as “Hungarian Song”. Such was Limberger’s fascination with the music that he learned to speak Hungarian and spent some time living in Budapest playing and studying with leading Hungarian musicians. Now he has become so assimilated that he is now the leader or “primas” of a band otherwise consisting of entirely Hungarian musicians, these being the leading exponents of the Magyar Nota style.
Limberger has played gypsy jazz in the Django Reinhardt style but the music of the Budapest Gypsy Orchestra is emphatically not jazz. As the affable Limberger explained Magyar Nota is a music that developed in the homes of early 19th century Hungarian noblemen who hired gypsy musicians to play at dances and balls. The folkloristic elements that the gypsy musicians brought to the music were combined with the classical styles, particularly those of Vienna, that were preferred by their affluent patrons, to produce a unique musical hybrid that was extraordinarily popular in its heyday. Thus much of the music played by Limberger and his colleagues was written in the early 19th century but they bring a very contemporary fire and passion to their interpretations that rivals the best Argentinian tango. Tonight dramatically dark, slow, pathos laden passages were interspersed with almost impossibly fast (“friss”) instrumental breaks featuring the fiery playing of the principal soloists, Limberger on violin, Lukas Csaba on clarinet and Feher Istvan on cimbalom. With no drums rhythmic duties were largely assigned to a quartet of string players, Ruszo Istvan on second violin, Olah Norbert on viola, Szegfu Karoly on cello and Csikos Vilmos on double bass, the latter highly rhythmical but always played with the bow. Norbert is actually credited with playing “bracs” (from the Italian word “braccio” meaning “arm”). The bracs style of playing sees the viola being held semi vertically and being deployed almost exclusively as a rhythm instrument, the player frequently striking the strings with the bow in a percussive manner. The bracs is the engine room of this particular band.
The title of the group’s 2009 live album “Bura Termett Ido”, recorded at three different UK venues during May 2008, translates as “Times Darkened By Sorrow”, an indication perhaps of the smouldering passion exuded by this band. This was literally given voice by Limberger’s singing on the second tune of the evening, the only true vocal piece of the night but one which encapsulated the sometimes desperate romanticism and passion of this music as Limberger sang with an almost operatic intensity. Elsewhere it was the intensity of the instrumental playing that captured the defiant spirit of the Hungarian gypsies. Not that Magyar Nota is a miserable music by any means, many of the tunes played tonight were written specifically for dancing and the first half closed with a set of rollicking dance tunes that Celtic folk musicians would describe as a set. Here Karoly was to be seen twirling his cello around in a piece of showmanship that recalled the bass player in Bill Haley & The Comets. Maybe Magyar Nota is the new rock ‘n’ roll.
Limberger is a hugely talented musician and his solos combined an often astonishing technical expertise the kind of cathartic passion alluded to in previous paragraphs. Not that it was just about the “primas”, over the course of two sets and a sold out and sweltering Coffeehouse there were also set piece features for Karoly on cello, Csaba on clarinet and Feher Istvan on cimbalom, each one seizing his moment his relish and aplomb. Csaba and Istvan also featured relatively prominently throughout their set, their pithy solos almost matching those of Limberger himself in terms of both excitement and technical ability.
During the interval your correspondent and several other curious audience members went to examine the mysterious cimbalon. As Limberger explained during the second set the instrument is a descendent of the Persian santour, versions of which occur throughout Asia and the Balkans. Istvan’s magnificent 150 year old instrument, a concert cimbalom, superficially resembles a small piano but is in fact a rigid box filled with resonant strings, these positioned crossways to the seated player who strikes them with soft head hammers. Thus the cimbalom can be viewed as a cross between the piano and the dulcimer, it even has a piano style damper pedal. However we counted even more strings than a piano, around 120 at a guess in groups from one to four, they were all so close together we kept losing count. As somebody observed “it must be a bit of a bugger to tune!”. There are doubtless smaller, more portable versions of the instrument and I assume that this beautifully hand carved model, bearing the English legend “Made In Budapest” was specifically made to fulfil the demands of Magyar Nota. The noise it makes is akin to a somewhat wonky piano but it’s highly effective, an exotic if somewhat arcane sound that captured the imagination of the Shrewsbury audience. The cimbalom can be used effectively as both a solo and accompanying instrument and Istvan’s speed and dexterity as his hammers glided over the strings reminded me of the best jazz vibraphonists. He played exclusively with two hammers which set me wondering, would a four mallet technique be possible or even desirable on the cimbalom? Whatever, I thought Istvan’s contribution was superb, indeed the three front line musicians, Feher Istvan, Limberger and Csaba, were brilliant throughout.
Although Limberger talked entertainingly and informatively throughout the performance there were no actual tune announcements, which was probably just as well as my Hungarian is non existent. Thus this isn’t the usual blow by blow account that usually forms the basis of one of my live reviews. Instead I hope I’ve been able to capture something of the fire, passion, excitement and instrumental brilliance of this entertaining and absorbing live performance. Seeing this music performed live has certainly enhanced my enjoyment of “Bura Termett Ido”; when I reviewed the album back in 2009 I initially found it hard to understand and to come to terms with some of the aspects of the music, here was a sound largely unfamiliar to Western ears. But it’s clearly a sound that many UK listeners have come to love, tour manager Dave Kelbie described the Orchestra as a kind of “East European Buena Vista Social Club” and it’s true that Limberger has developed something of a cult following for his extraordinary music, most of the dates on the tour have been very well attended, sometimes totally sold out. I don’t envisage Limberger and his colleagues becoming quite as mainstream as the Cubans (they don’t have Ry Cooder on board for a start) but performances such as this will surely see them continuing to grow their British fan base. And Limberger converts tend to come back for more, many here tonight had seen his previous visit to the Coffeehouse as part of a trio playing the folk music of rural Romania.
As previously mentioned this tour has been organised by Dave Kelbie, rhythm guitarist non pareil and the driving force behind the Jazzetal organisation. Gigs featuring Kelbie’s bands tend to be both entertaining and educational (all very Reithian) as evidenced by both the Limberger Orchestra and clarinettist Evan Christopher’s Django a la Creole band who last visited the Coffeehouse in 2012. The latest edition of Christopher’s band, including Kelbie on rhythm guitar, has just completed a UK tour and a review of their performance in Worcester can be found elsewhere on this site.
Interestingly many of the bands Kelbie is involved with are notable for the absence of drums. Both the Limberger and Christopher bands are superb examples of how to generate interesting and propulsive rhythms without recourse to actually hitting things. Perhaps even more significantly the Limberger Orchestra was 100% acoustic, a rarity these days even for the guy with a guitar down your local pub. Tonight there was no PA, no amps, no mics, no pick-ups, just seven highly talented musicians who had no difficulty making themselves heard in an intimate space with a receptive audience. It was all highly refreshing.
My thanks to Dave Kelbie and to Jessicah Kendrick and Chris Quinn of the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse for accommodating me this evening. It was my first visit to the Coffeehouse for quite some time and it was good to catch up with Chris and Jess and to make the acquaintance of sometime Radio Shropshire presenter Tony Fry as well as hearing some great music.
The Tcha Limberger Budapest Gypsy Orchestra tour continues and Dave Kelbie tells me that is the intention to record the final two dates for a future live album, something that on tonight’s evidence will be well worth hearing.