Tcha Limberger: Gypsy In the footsteps of Bela Bartok
The hair of the bow gently caresses the string catching an “A,” high on the upper register, then in a series of sweeping glissandos descends the diatonic scale in a minor mode. I am caught in its downdraft like a bird on a rapidly cooling thermal, falling… falling through air thick with saddening notes. The violin is never alone. It is pursued and coaxed ever onward by the dense clusters of notes played by the bracs of Olah Norbert, the second violin of Ruszo Istvan, the glorious moaning of Szegfu Karoly’s cello and the low, weeping counter-melody of Csikos Vilmos’ double bass. Lukacs Csaba’s clarinet breaks through the cloud of music briefly, then disappears, while Faher Istvan’s cimbalom flutters as the wings of the music as it sears through a fog of sound. Then breaking through is a clear tenor of Tcha Limberger as he sings letting his brilliant violin soar occasionally above the primordial sadness as the song courses, mixed in with the blood in my veins.
The music is “Bura Termett Ido,” a Magyar Nota melody, revived resplendently from probably a hundred years ago. It is the centerpiece of Bura Termett Ido (lejazzetal, 2009), a seminal work that walks in giant footsteps. That is, the album is brimful with music that no one has pursued so relentlessly since Bela Bartok and his fellow-composer and one of the earliest ethnomusicologists, Zoltan Kodaly swept the Hungarian countryside documenting and collecting Hungarian folk songs at the turn of the 19th century. That alone makes this eponymously titled album, produced by the British guitarist and ethnomusicologist/producer, Dave Kelbie of lejazzetal one of the most important musical documents— in any musical idiom—in decades.
Tcha Limberger’s voice flies upward with incandescent majesty, egged on by the glittering notes of the violin:
“Times darkened by sorrow,” he sings “The wind bearing fog. /The past few years have consumed me.
“If only I knew/which way I should take/I would plough through it with a/ golden plough/I would sow it with fine pearls. /Then I would drench it with my/Pouring tears.”
Tcha Limberger is a young multi-instrumentalist who has descended from a long line of Romani musicians—notably the violinist, Piotto Limberger, his grandfather, Vivi Limberger also a fine guitarist in the Romani tradition whose czardas and jazz performances have wowed audiences throughout Europe for years and his uncle, Biske Limberger, a robust bassist in the Romani tradition. The Limbergers originated from the Belgian Gypsy clans and traveled with their glorious music throughout Europe.
But Tcha Limberger was always different. A prodigious talent for music was discovered when he was three years old. By six he had learned the first two chords on guitar from the Belgian multi- instrumentalist, Koen de Cauter and by eight he was already giving solo concerts. He soon became the rhythm guitarist in De Piottos, his father’s gypsy orchestra and made a fine record–Gypsy Passion, an album of standards, original songs and a clutch of classic Hungarian, Romanian and Russian folk songs, produced by the heir-apparent to Django Reinhardt, guitarist, Fappy Lafertin. Soon the restless mind led the teenaged Limberger to dig deeper into the sound that beckoned from his heart and soul.
The Road to Magyar
The journey was long and challenging, far removed from the “Flamenco” musician that Limberger had dreamed he would be, ever since he could play a guitar. Yet, at every turn there were amazing milestones. Early in his career, Tcha Limberger had developed into a fine guitarist. He brought considerable attention to himself across Europe when he made two successive albums with the Herman Schamp trio. The guitarist from Flanders wrote spectacularly lithe music for two guitars, an occasional violin and bass. The trio comprised Limberger on guitar and violin, Schamp on guitar and a magnificent- sounding Bas Cooymans on double bass. The first album wasSchemer (I-C-U-B4-T, 1996), in concept, a work that describes the adventures of a kind of “Musical Scarlet Pimpernel”. And it is the sliding quality of the music that is largely improvised that crowns the album with considerable glory. The folk/gypsy character of the music is palpable, but there is a loftier dream being pursued as the legend of “Schemer” is born. Outstanding work by the musicians is heard throughout, especially on the long piece, “Raga” and the brief, but brilliant, “Pavane”.
On “Tussen Hemel en Aarde” (I-C-U-B4-T, 1998) again a trio recording featuring the same personnel, the music is more probing and ponderous. Tcha Limberger’s playing—both on guitar and on violin—and his singing as well, is much darker in tone. It is in these new and denser textures that the searching began to get stronger. “Engelen,” on this album, is a sharp example of this new turn. Bas Cooymans also shows why he is one of the finest bassists to grace the art of music. His solo on “Schemer” and the counter melody he plays as Limberger sings is truly memorable.
A year later, Tcha Limberger returned to make another significant album with one of his biggest musical influences, the gypsy multi-instrumentalist, composer and thinker, Koen de Cauter. The album was Terug (MAP Records, 1999) and was a songbook that relocated the poetic works of the 19th Century Catholic priest, mystic and bard, Guido Gezelle (1830-1899). Of course the record was ignored by all but a few segments of the cognoscenti. It simply did not have the flash and package that modern marketers desire for bin-sales—especially across the Atlantic, in North America. However, the album bristles with genius. Father Gezelle is considered one of the most important Dutch poets of his era. His work is considered as important as that of Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe, but the musical interpretation by Koen de Cauter—who also plays soprano saxophone, guitar and sings the program—his sons, Dajo on double bass (an arco genius) and the unbridled talent of Myrddin on clarinet and guitar, and of course, Tcha Limberger on violin and alto violin.
This album may very possibly have been the turning point in Tcha Limberger’s artistic life. Firstly, Koen de Cauter played a big part in mentoring the young Limberger at a critical point in his career. Although he may not have compelled him to pursuing deeper studies in gypsy music, he certainly helped fire up the young and restlessly probing mind of Tcha Limberger. He would have to wait a considerable time longer before he could dive into the world that beckoned from Hungary, but his studies with de Cauter continued and Tcha was taught great lessons in tone and other jazz styles—typically the music of New Orleans. An album, Ombre et Lumiere (Munich Records, 2004) with Koen de Cauter’s Waso Quartet resulted. This was one of the last albums that featured Tcha Limberger on guitar and his playing is outstanding throughout. Egged on by the splendid, wail of de Cauter’s soprano, punctuated by percussive rhythm guitar, courtesy another fine Gypsy musician, Xavier Bronchart and the swinging bass playing of Dajo de Cauter, Tcha Limberger’s pensive style rises to new heights of technical excellence and expressive dynamics.
Meanwhile, on tour in Budapest with Koen de Cauter, Tcha Limberger—who once dreamed of becoming a flamenco guitarist—decided to return to Hungary to study the roots of Gypsy music. He began by studying also studied Gypsy melody under Kallai Zsolt in Belgium, then, at twenty-three years of age he began to study Hungarian and became a pupil of the great Horvath Bela, remaining under his tutelage for a year and a half. Perhaps he did not know then, but this was a path last seriously trod by Bela Bartok, with his friend, Zoltan Kodaly around 1908.
The Bartok-Kodaly Expedition
Had it not been for Bartok and Kodaly’s musical expeditions around this time and again, around 1911, when he returned to the Carpathian Basin, where he notated Hungarian, Slovakian, and Romanian and Bulgarian folk music until the outbreak of the First World War. In 1908, Bartok’s made his first foray into the world of Hungarian folk melodies. This move was inspired by both his own and Kodaly’s interest in folk music and by the contemporary resurgence of interest in traditional national culture. So Bartok and Kodaly travelled into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. Their findings came as a surprise: Magyar folk music had previously been categorized as Gypsy music. The classic example of this misconception is Franz Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, which were based on popular art-songs performed by Gypsy bands of the time. In contrast, the old Magyar folk melodies discovered by Bartok and Kodaly bore little resemblance to the popular music performed by these Gypsy bands. Instead, they found that many of the folk-songs are based on pentatonic scales similar to those in Oriental folk traditions, such as those of Central Asian and Siberia.
Bartok and Kodaly quickly set about incorporating elements of real Magyar peasant music into their compositions. Both Bartok and Kodaly frequently quoted folk songs verbatim and wrote pieces derived entirely from authentic folk melodies. An example is his two volumes entitled For Children for solo piano containing 80 folk tunes to which he wrote accompaniment. Bartok’s style in his art music compositions was a synthesis of folk music, classicism, and modernism. His melodic and harmonic sense was profoundly influenced by the folk music of Hungary, Romania, and many other nations, and he was especially fond of the asymmetrical dance rhythms and pungent harmonies found in Bulgarian music. Most of his early compositions offer a blend of nationalist and late Romanticism elements.
Much of this folk music—certainly folk song, Magyar Nota (Hungarian Song) had already been adopted as art music almost a hundred years earlier, at the beginning of the 19th century. Much of this was composed and played in residences and homes of Hungarian noblemen. Typically they would hire Gypsy musicians to perform the tunes they wrote because they cost less than classical musicians and because of their extreme dexterity with the musical instruments required. Much Gypsy music came to be absorbed into the literature of Hungarian folk music at this time and thanks to Magyar Nota, Gypsy musicians and their orchestras flourished beyond expectations. This music flourished for over two hundred years—even through the harsh repression of the Nazi years and Stalinist Communism. Tragically its popularity began to fade away dramatically in the latter half of the 20th Century, with the advent of MTV culture.
In the Footsteps of Bartok
Magyar Nota, has, however remained prevalent in rural Hungary in a small and shrinking number of fine artists. It was to this endangered group that Tcha Limberger felt drawn—both musically and spiritually as well. Fortunately he found a willing ally in Dave Kelbie, founder and producer of lejazzetal, United Kingdom. Kelbie, a fine, percussive rhythm guitarist who has p[played with the great Fapy Lafertin and Bireli Lagrene has been a champion of Gypsy music for decades, performing with the Angelo Debarre Quartet for several years. Good fortune brought him together with Tcha Limberger. However, to understand the full impact of Limberger’s wonderful achievement it pays to review how Limberger’s great artistry gained him almost impossible entry into the insular culture of that region.
Becoming a primas or concertmaster of a Gypsy orchestra, playing Magyar Nota in Hungary or Romania is usually a legacy passed on from father to son. Thus, Ratz Bal, a primas from the early 20th Century passed his legacy on to his son, Ratz Laci the 36th who apprenticed with him until ready to wear the mantle of concertmaster of the Gypsy Orchestra. Similarly, Jaroka Sandor Sr.— venerated for his style and timing—handed over the torch to his son, Jaroka Jr. Tcha Limberger had no such legacy. But his playing with Horvath Bela was so staggering and brilliant that he was chosen primas for an orchestra that eventually became the celebrated Budapest Gypsy Orchestra comprising Ruszo Istvan, 2nd violin, Lukacs Csaba, clarinet, Olah Norbert, bracs, Szegfu Karoly, cello, Feher Istvan, cimbalom and Csikos Vilmos, on double bass.
Tcha Limberger returned the priceless favor handsomely. “About the music I intend to play,” he said, “to start off with, this music deserves to be re-appreciated in its essential form and for that reason I don’t intend to create a new style immediately. It should again be played by musicians who really want to play it. Of course, we will not try to sound like a Gypsy band out of 1920, but also we will not play current versions either. I would like to bring these elements together that made me want to study this music that still inspires me, even when it seems to be dead already.”
And then Tcha Limberger proceeded to bring all this Magyar Nota back to life. In his glorious high and lonesome slow, andante passages, he recalled the elemental sadness of a lonely life and in the brisk passages played at a giddying pace, his prima violin captures the bright excitement and dance of a people with a robust yen for living in the glory of the sun.
“Bura Termett Ido,” that exquisite ancient work appears to have taken a leaf from Koen de Cauter’s book on Terug, the Guido Gezelle album, in that it creates the noir mood around the seeming disappearance of a way of Hungarian life. It also sets the perfect tone for the manner in which the rest of the repertoire of the region is played—in a powerful unison of strings and clarinet, with the only percussive element being the melodic percussion of the cimbalom an instrument closely related to the Persian santour and the medieval English zither. Limberger is outstanding throughout. His playing is sensitive and yet carries regal authority as he bends and flutters notes, swirling in brilliant flashes in upper and lower registers. In his playing a whole era of the proud musicianship of ancestral greatness comes to life. The command of his Gypsy Orchestra is complete. In Olah Norbert’s bracs (derived from the Italian, braccio, meaning “arm”) is bowed in unison and the density of his textural playing and the multiplicity of the notes he plays make up make up more than half the orchestra. Ruszo Istvan’s violin provides brave support to the instruments in this register. Szegfu Karoly’s cello adds brilliant counterpoint throughout, never interfering with the lead, or primas voice of Limberger. Csikos Vilmos’ double bass plays in darting arco con brio movements throughout, adding a dark, rich color to the rest of the strings. Faher Istvan’s Cimbalom adds percussive color to the music, his notes gently rising barely above and receding below the melody. Lukacs Csaba’s clarinet darts in and out of the melody, adding brilliant flashes of singular personality and brilliant color to the repertoire.
Tcha Limberger turns Nota on its head here as traditionally most of the singing was by non-Gypsy people. Here, however, he combines the typical rubato playing with precision vocals— extremely hard to weave in to at precise points when the melody is so seductive and fluid. And, of course, his violin work conjures vivid images of Paganini.
Bartok with Wings
Sadly, Tcha Limberger—despite a brilliant project that brought to life music thought by many to be dead—found that the existing literature of this Magyar Nota, although related to folklore, was not true to its (folkloric) origins. On the other hand, a higher level of poetic mastery existed in a much older form of Gypsy folk music at the heart of the Romany Nation—and this was located in the Kalotaszegi region of Transylvania, in Romania. “When I told my young Hungarian friends,” he says in notes as his expedition proceeds deeper into the Carpathian region, “that I wanted to learn about it (Magyar Nota) they strongly suggested listening to and learning the much cooler, nicer and really great traditional music from Transylvania—a style that was definitely considered to be Hungarian folklore… Listening to this music, which generally doesn’t play many other styles, it seems more alive and much deeper. Another very nice discovery for me was that the musicians here are much more willing to play at any time of day and I was lucky to be accepted as one of them, by all those musicians I liked most.”
Limberger’s modesty is typical. Actually he immediately forges a relationship with the legendary Neti Sandor, who actually stopped him on a road one day, because he “thought I might be a Gypsy.” That night Limberger and Sandor got together to jam and they played until dawn. It was then that they paid him the ultimate compliment, referring to him as “Lakatos Sandor,” a name that seems to have stuck with him forever now. But from the early part of the 21st Century Limberger began to immerse himself in this music, playing with Neti Sandor until his untimely demise in 2006.
He also learned that over the centuries of this music’s existence the lines between Hungarian, Romanian and Gypsy has blurred. He often found that slow Hungarian tunes could be turned into quick Gypsy dances and a Hungarian czardas into a Gypsy lament. Although he finds the purity of the folk melody that Bartok sought, Limberger finds a much enriched source today that is pure in its folklore, but enriched with the passage of time and the mingling of all the cultures that came to be colored by the influence of the magical wand of the violin that the Gypsy virtuosos seemed to have waved over it for centuries. And it all happened in the Kalotaszegi, Carpathian region of where Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria meet.
Here he also met Neti Sandor’s accompanists, the great bassist, Berki Viktor and the bracs player, Toni Rudi. After some itinerant traveling and deep study, immersing himself into the soul of the region. “What I like very much about the music of Kalotaszeg, is that it is a mixture of two cultures, very well mixed as if they would always have lived in peace next to each other,” Limberger proclaims. “(These were songs traveling around the country… ornamentations (that could have been) Hungarian, Jewish, Gypsy or Romanian. If I fell in love with the music of Kalotaszeg, this is, of course, because of the beauty of the country, the pure air and the warm hearted people all around, things I can hear through the music.” The music beckons Limberger even when he was not there in Kalotaszeg. “It is as if it were a kind of home-sickness,” he says, “It even helped me, indirectly, but surely, in my research and struggle to learn and play Magyar Nota.”
What Tcha Limberger has given back to the music that seduced him fifteen, maybe twenty years ago is an album of utter genius, memorable and quite permanent. A Hajnali Csillag Ragyog (lejazzetal, 2010) is a triumph like few recorded documents in the history of the music of our times. The title of the album translates, very much the soul of the project as it awakens the region with the magnificent purity of its sound: “The Morning Star is Shining”. A collection of eight masterpieces— laments, czardas and Szaporas (the latter two, traditional folklore dances gloriously performed by the Gypsies of the Transylvanian region of Kalotaszeg.
Tcha Limberger’s playing here is at its peak. His bow strokes are relaxed—almost as if there were no bow at all and it was really his arm whipping and swirling the air around the violin to create the music out of thin air. He makes notes weep and wail, then dance interminably as the strings get more animated. When telling an autobiographical story of the “bad guy” in the village, in “En Vagyok a Falu Rossza,” his playing is rapid, darkly colored and delightfully roguish. Ever the griot of the village, he extols the architectural beauty of the local church and its floral surroundings with chorus after grand chorus. On and on he plays, seemingly like an ancient Gilgamesh en route to and reaching out to a sort of Holy Grail, willing himself with unabashed love for the prize. The notes—his, Berki Viktor’s deeper ones and the broad glissandos of Toni Rudi’s bracs –ascend upward like thick clouds of emotion as the music pirouettes into thin air dancing… then vanishing into the blue. The record is memorable.
“My aim,” Limberger said, “by playing this Kalotaszegi music is absolutely not to change it. I was very honored when Viktor asked me to play and to take them to Belgium on a tour. Some day, after a long gig, with a glass of palinka (homemade plum brandy), Rudi told me, according to him my tone is very similar to Neti (Sandor’s). He said, since Sandor died (in 2006), I am the primas whom he prefers to play the slow “lamentos” with. He was very emotional about it and for a foreigner primas it was the biggest compliment”.
This was a moment to cherish. So was the violin of Tcha Limberger, soaring above the sadness of Neti’s death: Bartok with Wings…
I owe a great debt to Marie-Lourdes Saldanha, my aunt and first great teacher at Trinity College of Music, London. She first fired my imagination about so many of the great composers—including Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly.
Thanks to Dave Kelbie, lejazzetal, for his tireless work in advocating for and promoting the music and culture of the world of Romany. Dave Kelbie also introduced me to the music of Tcha Limberger and I have not stopped flying since then. Thanks for bringing these two wonderful albums, Bura Termett Ido and A Hajnali Csillag Ragyog for true fans of music to cherish.
Finally—and most importantly—thanks to Tcha Limberger, for opening your extraordinary life and music to my scrutiny and for everything you shared so generously.