Gypsy Spirit is a musical voyage through the history and the vast geographies traveled by the Roma, the Gypsies of Europe. Migrating from northern India about 1,000 years ago, eventually making their way into nearly every part of Europe, the Roma absorbed the music around them, often lifting it to levels of breathtaking virtuosity. Gypsy Spirit brings together many of these traditions: exotic Turkish and Macedonian melodies, Spanish flamenco, Hungarian csárdás, fiery Bulgarian tunes, French jazz Á la Django Reinhardt (himself a Gypsy), and more.
Gypsy Spirit’s tour guide through this enormous musical landscape is Kálmán Balogh. His ten-piece Gypsy orchestra includes bass, guitar, accordion, trumpet, clarinet, violins, a singer, and Balogh himself on cimbalom, a stringed instrument played with mallets. Depending on the type of mallets used, it can sound like a banjo, a grand piano, or a classical harp, and it’s so percussive that no cimbalom band needs a drummer.
Classical composers from Bartk to Liszt to Stravinsky have written for the instrument, and Balogh has performed their works with symphonies all over the world. He is to the cimbalom what Joshua Bell is to the violin: there may be a few others who are as good, but there is probably no one better. In addition to his technical mastery, Balogh has also studied deeply the traditional folk and Gypsy music of his native Hungary and the Balkans. He was in Ann Arbor last year accompanying Muzsikás, the Hungarian folk band, in its joint concert with the Takács Quartet.
Speaking recently from his home in Budapest, Balogh said that his Ark show on Thursday, March 25, while including some traditional folk and authentic cigány (Hungarian for Gypsy) tunes, is mostly “city entertainment.” “Think of it like jazz,” he said, where musicians use songs for improvisation and displays of technical brilliance — a Transylvanian folk tune with a bossa nova rhythm, a Romanian hora that medleys into a spoof of a 1950s rock ‘n’ roll tune, the Ellington jazz standard “Caravan” played Gypsy style, or that warhorse of every Gypsy band, Monti’s Csárdás — which Balogh’s band takes at an even faster, string-singeing speed than you usually hear. “Each musician in the band is a virtuoso in his own right,” says Balogh. The band’s virtuosity is especially evident on “The Lark,” a Romanian showpiece on which Balogh’s mallets fly faster than a hummingbird’s wings while his violinist creates the sounds of a whole forest of birds.
Balogh’s orchestra, accompanied by the Budapest Ensemble folk dance troupe, also performs at EMU on Friday, March 19.