BUDAPEST — Without the strains of lively Gypsy music floating up to Paulay Ede Street, the dark, brick-walled basement tavern would be easy to miss. But the unassuming venue known as Giero Pub holds one of Budapest’s best-kept open secrets: some of the finest Romani musicians the capital has to offer.
Inside, Gyulane Farkas — known by all as “Aunt Gizi” — shuffles between tightly-packed tables dropping off shots of palinka, a strong Hungarian schnapps, and draft beers. During slow moments (of which there are more than a few), she settles back into a corner table outfitted with many of the comforts of home.
On a quiet night, Gizi, a compact woman in her late 60s, might be enticed into sharing some of her life story, as she recently did for The Times of Israel with the aid of a skillful interpreter.
“I’m not entirely Gypsy,” Gizi confides. “My father’s mother was Jewish. She got to know a handsome double-bass player and married him, and that’s how we got the Gypsy double-bass tradition in our family.”
The pub is named for Gizi’s father, Giero, and an old black-and-white portrait of him in his younger days hangs prominently over the bar. Half-Jewish, half-Romani, Giero followed in his own father’s footsteps and made a name for himself playing the double bass.
But tragedy would strike the family when Giero was just a young man during the Holocaust when his Romani father was taken to a work camp, where he died.
“My father was orphaned at 13 years old,” Gizi says. “It wasn’t just Jews, they took Gypsies, too. I didn’t even get to know my grandfather or his family — I just knew that they were great musicians.”
Not to be confused with the more traditional Roma genre, Gypsy music is an interpretation of Hungarian folk music that, in its heyday in the early 20th century, was ubiquitous in restaurants, coffeehouses and pubs throughout Hungary and beyond. Prior to World War II, about one-quarter of Budapest’s residents were Jewish, and klezmer made its impression on the style, too. (While the term “Gypsy” is a pejorative, some Romani people in Hungary still use it today, and it loses its negative connotation when referring to the musical style.)
These days, Gypsy music is still commonly performed, though it has an air of nostalgia and is often marketed to tourists. Giero Pub draws its share of those, but is also beloved by the city’s cultural elite — movie stars and journalists, musicians and chefs — along with a devoted group of locals in the know.
“I opened in 1990. Since then, I’ve become quite famous. I’ve been featured in books, articles — do you see this one here?” Gizi says, holding up a clipping written in Hungarian. “The headline says I’m only visited by good people. Do you know Ivan Bacher? He’s a very famous reporter who worked for Nepszabadsag — also Jewish, like you. Here, look at this, I was about to have it framed, he wrote a long article about me in 1998.”
Gizi claims to have made a name for herself in Israel, too, and whether that’s true or not, the appreciation of an Israeli crowd would be well-deserved. Recognizing this reporter — a Giero Pub regular — the band strikes up a virtuosic medley of Shabbat songs, then rolls smoothly into Hava Nagila. Pleas for traditional Roma songs fall on deaf ears; the musicians are clearly used to playing to the crowd.
Gizi’s nephew Istvan Feher leads the band at the cimbalom, a horizontal string instrument played with two handheld mallets that’s something of a cross between a piano and a harp, and emblematic of Gypsy music. (“I have no children of my own,” Gizi says, “but this is a family business.”)
Feher was a cimbalom prodigy and his playing has won him a string of awards. Joining him on double bass and viola are his sons Aron and David, who despite being only teenagers are also starting to win at international competitions. On piano is Istvan’s brother, Bela Feher, who plays at lightning speed and with acrobatic flourishes reminiscent of Chico Marx.
Istvan Feher says the Jewish songs the band plays were seared into his memory from a young age.
“There was a Jewish boy in my class at music school, a friend,” Feher says. “And I used to go with him to the synagogue. I fell in love with these prayer songs right away — they just touched me, I felt them in my soul.”
Feher never forgot the music, and later went on to create intricate arrangements for it on the cimbalom and accompanying instruments. And while Jews and Roma in Hungary do share an unspoken bond as a result of the mutual genocide of the Holocaust, perhaps Feher’s connection to the music may be owed to his grandfather Giero.
Gizi herself seems to approach her roots from the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. “My father was Jewish, but I’m not,” she says, pausing for a moment. “But maybe I inherited the business sense.”
Gizi has been minding the store for 32 years, and has spent most of her life as an entrepreneur. She moved to Budapest from her birthplace of Balassagyarmat, near the Slovakian border, with her family when she was 14 so her father Giero could play music there.
“I have had shops since ‘81,” Gizi says. “I’ve had a variety shop, a boutique shop, a vegetable stand. This was originally going to be an antique shop, because I loved, and I still love, antiquities. Everything that’s old, everything that’s vintage, I love it.”
“We just try to make ends meet because here in Hungary there is a lot of racism against Gypsies, it’s not good here,” she says. “It’s really hard to keep the business running because there are big fish around me. Many people have tried to put me out of business.”
As in much of Europe, Hungary’s Roma community faces prejudice and disadvantage in nearly every aspect of life, with women and children especially likely to be on the receiving end, according to a recent study. Roma are overrepresented in terms of poverty and the number of children taken from their parents into foster care; they are sometimes segregated into separate classes or even entire schools; and they are frequently victims of housing discrimination — in addition to the everyday prejudices they suffer regardless of social status.
“I’m not going to say that Communism was better,” Gizi says. “But the hate that exists today was absent then. I’m not going to cry for Communism back because they say we’re free now, but for us Gypsies, we have to do so much more to be accepted in every aspect of life.”
“If there’s a job available and nine Gypsy people apply and one white person, they’re going to take the non-Gypsy white one,” she claims. “So I’ll tell you, there’s enough trouble. And not only with Gypsies — the Jews also have plenty of problems here. But with us, we’re a different caste. If our younger generation learns, it can be different — the only way out is to learn, learn, learn. But it’s really difficult even that way, with all the school segregation here.”
If there is one area where Hungarian Roma — albeit a small number of them — are held in high esteem by mainstream society, it is music.
Gizi holds up another photo from her collection. “The reporter who took this picture of me, she’s a journalist in a Fidesz newspaper,” she says. (The ruling Fidesz party is considered by many to be less than sympathetic to the country’s Roma.)
“She always told me that Aunt Gizi — that’s me — teaches the young people of Budapest what good music is. This is Hungarian music, but Gypsies made it world music, because it is world-famous.”
Ironically, Gizi says the very fact that she’s Romani puts the music pub at a disadvantage.
“Yesterday a famous Hungarian film star and his entourage came in, and they were sweethearts. And the foreigners find this place because this is an area with a lot of foreigners, and they hear the music so they come in,” says Gizi. “But I’ll tell you, if this business belonged to someone who wasn’t a Gypsy person, it would go better.”
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