By Aaron Rosenberg
(All photos unless otherwise specified courtesy of Fishing-on-Orfu)
There are just some festivals you really don’t feel like writing about – no, not because they’re bad but, quite the contrary, because they’re so good – and so unspoiled by tourists – that you feel worried about spreading the word and ruining it by turning it into a popular destination. Do an internet search with the term ‘music festival’ and it’s not very likely you’ll find the oasis for youth and contemporary rock to which I’m alluding. On the other hand, if for some odd reason you happen to enter the word ‘fishing,’ ‘summer, ‘music’ and ‘Hungary’ into google, you may inadvertently stumble on Fishing On Orfu.
Hungary is awash with festivals. In the summer, a veritable monsoon. Besides the world-renowned rock/pop week-long extravaganza, Sziget, and quickly growing Volt and Balaton Sound, the country boasts many regional gems. Name a theme, a location, a mood and there’s bound to be a festival somewhere in close proximity celebrating it: Palinka (a schnapps-like local hard drink) has a festival in Tihany, Szeged – a theater festival, the Tokaj region – a wine festival dedicated to its namesake. Now take a deep breath and… Eger has a historic Bull’s Blood wine festival, Dunaújvarós boasts a rock marathon, Lake velence has the Effot Festival for students, the baroque setting of Veszprém hosts a world-music and jazz festival, Bánki Lake has a cultural festival with music, art and theater, the volcanic slopes of Badacsony are home to a folklore festival, Balatonboglár has a world music festival, and there’s an endless battery of obscure villages with even more obscure street festivals, including one specifically celebrating busking.
Inhale slowly and…. Debrecen has a woodland festival, Lake Balaton -the ‘valley of arts’ Kapolcs Festival, the small village of Ozora has an annual psychedelic tribe festival akin to Burning Man but with, perhaps, less burnouts. There is also a fishsoup festival, a Goa-type festival, a folkdance festival, a Strand Festival, a Balatonfüred Swine Festival and the list goes beyond my capacity to recite or yours to listen.
Every few square miles, every other lake, every second product, and every single region seems to have a festival of its own – many sporting several at once. Basically, any excuse for a celebration will do since Hungarians love vacationing in their own country whether or not foreigners show up. When they do, all the better since Hungarians love company. But of all the singular and lesser known but remarkable festivals, the little publicized Fishing on Orfu is a treasure chest for musical discoveries.
Located just beyond the historic city of Pecs, a UNESCO world heritage site and the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese – a remarkably well kept historic city with two thousand years of history – the site of the festival is found in the Carpathian Basin, bordering both the mountain range of Mecsek and some of the finest vineyards in the country. Though getting to the Festival can seem a bit confusing, given that it is miles off the main road, all one need do is ascend the slopes, head into the wildernes and follow the scent of the thick leafy woodland garlic and the occasional group of bicycling or trekking young adults.
Once in range, one quickly realizes that the area is a watery haven with cold springs and lakes ideal for anything from swimming, sailing, canoeing, windsurfing and, as the name of the festival indicates, fishing. With pike, pike-perch, carp, grass carp, asp, goldfish, an assortment of bream, trout and a myriad of other local fish, it takes almost no time at all to notice the many local restaurants and cheap food joints serving up some exquisitely tasty fish. As for the festival area, it is a ‘roughing it gourmet style’ atmosphere, an odd place in the middle of nowhere where the best Hungarian bands, food, atmosphere and educated young people from cities all over the country seem to congregate.
It all started a few years back when the singer and founding member from Kiscsillag, one of the most renowned alt rock bands in Hungary, had an urge to throw a concert near his hometown, namely Orfu. After realizing what a hit it was with friends, he started an annual festival with the intention of giving back to the community from which he hailed. Soon, all the best musicians began to show up and the festival took on the proportions of a major musical event for those in the know, drawing some of the finest indie, progressive, alternative and art bands in the entire country.
since appreciating the region remains a concern, the festival boasts just under 30 different specialty food kiosks – more accurately, micro-bistros surrounded by a bevy of local fine wine kiosks whereby all the grapes in the region are represented. Whether it comes to fish, home pastry, local meat dishes or vegetarian fare, the quality is guaranteed to be top notch while the prices are more than reasonable.
Eating my way through an assortment of fishes and drinking my way through several vineyards, I soon notice that the youths present are an extraordinarily healthy lot – high on music, buzzing with summer-love, well-fed on fine food, a bit tipsy on an astonishing selection of brilliant local wines, the audience is almost entirely devoid of drugs. The festival really is exactly what it espouses to be: a music festival for people genuinely interested in hearing both old and new artists, a place where music professionals come to show one another what they’ve been working on year round.
Besides a few unexpected entries – such as USA’s stoner metal band, Red Fang and full-on punk/noise rock band ’68, – the festival sports several UK-based artists, including the astonishing experimental Indie alt-rock band of Pulled Apart by Horses – one of the most exciting and original bands from Leeds in decades. Other UK bands include hardcore Punk Metal Heck, the prog-rock Black Peaks, rock duo Gallery Circus, and folk rock The Midnight Barbers. Besides another small selection from neighboring Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia or Romania, nearly all the 155 odd bands and/or artists are Hungarian. Even more surprisingly, for a small, musically well-educated westernized nation that boasts an unlimited number of genres, Hungary appears rich in bands and artists that sound nothing like their international counterparts. Highly original, many seem dead-set against imitating preexisting artists despite being diehard fans of their music.
Celebrating ten years of a Fishing on Orfu, Kiscsillag, the band whose singer began the entire festival, gave a rollicking inspired performance, that was less a nostalgic tribute to great earlier days than a portend of even more progressive compositions to come. Playful, inventive, and replete with social commentary and sarcasm, it’s helpful to know something about the Hungarian lyrics when gauging the value of his ever-altering music. With enough romanticism to allow for sardonic motifs not to drift towards the cynical, Kiscillag remains youthful, energetic and forever in search of nuances.
Another of those bands that hail from the 90’s is the alt-rock band Quimby, some of whose songs have resurrected Hungarian folk and schlager tradition by redressing them in contemporary urban arrangements while filling the lyrical content with contemporary concerns. The charismatic lead singer of the band, together with the very talented trumpet player and smart VJ-ing, make for a theatrical experience that is both moving and likely to make one move. A Kutya Vacsorája – roughly translated as a Dog’s Dinner – is a meal fit for… well, if not for pet owners than at least for an entire generation that followed the Pet Shop Boys, especially those that left synth pop behind and hungered for the funk-hungry vocal cadences of Faith No More and productions reminiscent of Garbage.
As for signature arrangements that have as much vision, humor and emotive capacity as the melodies themselves, there was little to compare with Peterfy Bori and the Love Band, where the actress/singer bearing the marquee moniker of the band, manages to deliver each song with less artifice and more personality than often seen. As for the Love of the band’s namesake, it is clearly the off-beat mind and beating, sometimes palpitating, but always pumping heart of Ambrus Tövisházi. When it comes to telling a story, engulfing oneself in a genre, or merely creating enough tension to get one’s attention, Tövisházi’s music is a cinematic force capable of creating a more persuasive stage and set than most actresses are afforded in a lifetime.
And what of the new generation, seemingly uncurbed by linguistic barriers? Soul-inflected but with a persistent air of indifference, Blahalouisiana presents a crisp, icy variation of Amy Winehouse-like blues within a country vibe where indie comes by way of self-consciously stylized sound – one that recalls small country roads, rolling river and the earnestness of an era gone by. Of course, this is not the real past as much as it is an ironic version, not natural as much as it is idealized nature, and not country as much as it is a retro-postcard app created on an urban child’s iphone. The sensibility is summer camp for smart city children where one badass girl, dressed like Agnetha Fältskog from ABBA who has her AM radio tuned to Shania Twain in an effort to convince her parents that she’s only having innocent fun.
Despite the down-to-earth Sheryl Crow arrangements, the ever-shifting beats of Blahalouisiana move in the way of Metric through a series of unexpected moods. Is the band primed for an international audience? After a bit of research, I discovered that they had, in fact, released songs in English earlier on – the problem at the time being that the “International IT-generation English” employed was so riddled with pop clichés that it forced their music into far more predictable patterns that reeked of faux Americana. The new Hungarian songs don’t suffer from this flaw.
For a Budapest-savvy fusion-laden take on hip hop, there’s Akkezdet Phiai, an underground (in name alone) trio that blends ethno-folk motifs, urban groove, big band attitude and sophisticated poetic images into a cohesive whole – one that is filtered through a Portishead-like production capable of transcending era and locale. Here, slam poetry, spoken word segues and a love of music – not as background but as rapture in its own right – creates a clearing, devoid of contemporary devices and trends. At its best, it is a pop response to Carter Burwell’s collaboration with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, while at its worst is still enough to prove entertaining and thought-provoking.
In terms of experimental with dramatic edge, there was Kamikaze Scotsmen, a band whose aesthetics were informed by a very diverse palette. With ethereal vocals reminiscent of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and a relentless drumbeat from a far more danceable world, songs veered in style from a jazz-inflected Audioslave to prog-rock. Though their name owes everything to the bagpipe-wielding lemmings in Monty Python, their ‘art of noise’ interludes are not only brilliant interjections of mayhem in music but make those listening want to jump, shimmy, pop, lock, rave, and sway in full throttle. But energy, dynamics and drama withstanding, it’s true that some of Kamikaze Scotsmen’s songs would have benefitted from more hooks or, at least, from choruses with more of an emotional core.
As luck would have it, there was one standout artist whom I hadn’t expected to see at Orfu but one whose impeccable sense of timing, inexhaustible energy and radically experimental and progressive vision was known to one and all in Hungary. With a classical range that would likely make the world-renowned pianist, Andras Schiff, envious, and a level of virtuosity that ran the gamut of nearly every genre, the very indie-edged genius that bedazzled adoring fans (me included) on that balmy summer day was none other than Zoltan Mucsi (aka Kapa). This rockstar of a comic actor relies neither on pumped-to-the-max speakers, special effects nor even an orchestral background to get his message across. A few precise and highly personalized gestures, a singular facial expression here and there, a phrase articulated in an unexpected way, or even a single pause at the “perfectly wrong moment” is enough to move one from laughter to tears and back to laughter again.
With an innate ability to make the tragic seem oddly comic and the comic bear the full weight of tragedy, Mucsi is a larger-than-life figure capable of identifying with every down-and-out as easily as he can with every successful CEO. With an uncanny ability to play anything from a demagogue to an abused victim, a schlemiel, a sadist, a sensitive artist or clown, Mucsi possesses the rare gift of making us feel sorry for those we might otherwise despise or feel disgust towards those we spent a lifetime celebrating.
Hailing from a small town from a family who had nothing to do with the arts, this self-taught theater marvel went from countryside phenomenon to being a lead actor for the world celebrated film director Miklós Jancsó in a matter of a few years. Going on more recently to play the main role in the Hungarian rendition of the TV show Office, he remains a favorite of old and young alike, an artist as likely to take on a role in a play performed for juvenile delinquents at a charity based school as for visiting diplomats and cultural figures. With over 106 stage plays, 55 films, and 16 TV shows to his credit, this many-times-over nationally acclaimed actor – a recipient of two Critics Circle awards for Best Actor in a Film as well as 8 other prestigious awards – turned a small Orfu stage into a main attraction. Appearing in the company of his very own Nézömúvészeti kft. theater company, Mucsi did what he has always done: played our heartstrings, tuned our brains, and made us hear the music of our own existence.
As for filling the vacuum in terms of memorable melodies, it came in an utterly unexpected form as the youngest new member of Kiscsillag, singer/songwriter/composer David Szesztay, introduces his own compositions on one of the festival’s smaller stages. With a singularly moody and mellifluous voice, a playful sense of phrasing, and a compositional integrity devoid of mannerisms, Szesztay is a romantic with a minimalist’s sensibility.
As a self-taught musician, Szesztay spent years overcompensating for a nonacademic background by mastering every conceivable instrument and genre. This project has the feel of a deconstructive adventure – a journey into discovering the simple impulses that catalyzed his own complex evolution, a quest to find the basic emotions behind all our more complex thoughts.
On first listen, Szesztay’s works sounds as unadorned and comprehensible as the rotation of a merry-go-round in a school playground. But although the ride seems innocent enough to board, by the time the spinning stops and you get off, you realize you are somewhere unfamiliar. Years have passed and you are in another stage of the lifecycle. The seeming repetitiveness is an incantation, the circular motion – an ancient ritual that lulls. Though mothers rock babies to sleep, and children spin until their dizzy to feel happy, and teens indulge in self-destructive cycles to cope, and adults latch onto routines to feel balanced, these are merely different forms of escapes and we slowly realize that although cycles may be infinite, those living them are not.
Halfway through the set, Szesztay introduces his featured artist, a young Scandinavian singer/songwriter Karo (Karo Alanko). Szesztay who had, over the course of the first few songs, morphed into a nearly transparent auricle is suddenly noticeable again. Karo’s arrival has shaken us from the state of introspection summoned forth by his songs, her presence lending just enough turbulence to have us break free of the ever-tightening melodic circles spinning about us.
Clearly, this well-placed jolt is precisely what Szesztay intends. Time may be orbiting around us, it’s grip getting firmer on our lives, but we are not alone. Karo, a punk-styled flower-child living very much in the ‘now,’ is here with us. It is those like her who make us smile at our own self-importance, calling into question our lifelong obsession with ‘trying to make sense of it all.’ Her presence reassures us that even if there is an eventual void facing us all, what matters most is that there’s plenty of champagne along the way and that we remember to dress for the party.
Running through a spectrum of facial gestures in less time than it takes to grab the mic, this featured artist represents the antithesis of Szesztay. In contrast to his moody nonchalance and finely-tuned and well-honed musicality, Karo is ‘verb’ incarnate – an oddly beguiling remedy for subtlety. Her highly intuitive delivery and restless state is outdone only by her persistently goofy presence. A sexually-charged and charismatic figure, Karo is proof that tastes and moods are best when left in perpetual motion. After all, embracing the flux may be the most sensible thing any of us can do.
Without detracting from Szesztay’s lush and hypnotic sound, Karo injects an element of danger with her edgy harmonies and delivery. There is a sense of alarm in the casual, an angst in the melodic, an element of in-your-face that redefines sensitive moments, and a neurosis that begs catharsis. By turns exuberant, by turns vulnerable, but rarely short on attack and cadence, her voice canters between a girl-to-childlike tone while her phrasing gallops from utterly sweet to sharp to instructional, evincing everything from native American ritual to cartoons in the span of a single song. The results are inspired. And the two performers give off a unique, if not always polished, glow.
In the work Szesztay presents, sentimentality and pathos never crowd out highly emotional moments or devolve into kitsch. The natural tension in his songs is similar to the heightened dynamics between the two onstage personalities. It remains electric and and potent throughout.
Reminiscent of the idiosyncratic energy PJ Harvey injects into Mark Lanegan’s Bubblegum album, Karo punctuates Szesztay’s darkly melancholic and brooding moments like an ascending fiddle – bolting from reassuring to cautionary to all-out piercing siren. Similarly, another Szesztay song about the recurring nature of domestic arguments benefits greatly from an insouciant skipping-through-the-forest counter-melody. Here, the jaunty but eerie childlike melody sung by Karo rests against the bridge that Szesztay sings in a way that recalls Todd Solonz’s brilliant use of Lullaby, an ethereal tune by Nathan Larson & Nina Persson that Solondz puts to haunting effect by placing it into the darkly allegorical world of his film, Palindromes.
It’s hard to miss the complex emotional struggle going on in the song, Awfully Awesome, where a blithely childlike vocal is used to contrast the bleak story of a destructive relationship. Together the contrasting moods seem to suggest: while recurring negative cycles in our daily lives can be very harmful, they are, nonetheless, very addictive and oddly reassuring. The repetitive nature of our problems, struggles and even pains gives us solace. Though often terrible, they are, nonetheless, familiar and capable of evoking a false sense of security.
While facile comparisons can be made to Elliot Smith, Rufus Wainwright and Nick Drake, when describing Szesztay or to MØ, Zola Jesus and Ladyhawke when describing Karo, the truth is that Szesztay’s material – as well as his and his featured artist’s performance – contains a highly seductive and original feel that can’t be reduced to its influences. Neither tainted with artifice nor religious to any given genre, Szesztay’s songs create an evocative universe all their own. With lyrics rich in images and ideas- both in Hungarian and English! – and compositions replete in moods and melodies, Szesztay’s world is symbolic of the festival itself: unpredictable, bold, inventive, memorable, and with a vibe very much its own.
As the final song comes to a close, Karo gives way to a merrily clumsy curtsy and, in response to the applause, erupts into a giggles-gone-haywire aria that begins with a titter and ends on a Disneyesque witch-like laugh. As a parting bon mot, Szesztay remarks that although he’s thankful for the praise he is, nevertheless, in a hurry to catch some other bands.
I couldn’t agree more. The number of gifted musicians, worthwhile bands, and uniquely creative performances is emblematic of Orfu. It is a place that benefits the audience as much as it does consummate professionals since it has the feel of a summer camp for experimental songwriters with easily affordable fine wine and sumptuous food.
Defying comparison, it’s no overstatement to claim that Orfu is Hungary’s best kept Festival secret: the hidden lake in the mountains is a perfect place to go fishing for Hungary’s up-and-coming talents. When it comes to affordable music-vacations, Orfu is a region fertile in music, dance, food and wines. It is a tree-lined valley thick with ideas, a rolling green landscape that grows flowers and songs.