The Arty Semite

For Gypsy Travelers, All Roads Lead to Budapest

By Itzik Gottesman

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A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

Bob Cohen

For musicians traveling through Eastern Europe in search of the authentic Gypsy experience, all roads lead to Bob Cohen in Budapest. A fiddler, scholar and gracious host, Cohen could tell you in which Transylvanian town you can still find an old-time band, or just a lone fiddler. Heck, he could tell you where a fiddler used to live 50 years ago.

This week Cohen arrived in New York to participate in the annual New York World Festival, whose the theme this year was “Music Around the Black Sea,” featuring artists from Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine, as well as immigrant musicians from those ethnic communities.

On Monday, Cohen spoke at the Center for Jewish History about “The Hidden Musical Treasures of Romania,‟ and on September 25 he will introduce a band that he cannot stop raving about at the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant — “Tecsoi Banda,‟ which is making its U.S. debut. The group is a family band from Tyaciv, Ukraine, in the Carpathians, and plays a diverse range of East European folk music, including Jewish music.

Cohen is known to a wider audience as the leader of the klezmer band “Di Naye Kapelye‟ (The new band), which is based in Budapest but usually features Portland, Ore., clarinetist and vocalist Jack Falk. His popular blog Dumneazu (subtitled “Ethnomusicological Eating East of Everywhere”) skillfully combines his two passions, music and food.

In our conversation, Cohen had no problem using the word “Gypsy.‟ “There are political reasons that the term Roma is preferred, but only when the Roma speak to each other do they use that term, otherwise, they use the local language equivalent of ‘Gypsy,’” he explained.

Personally, Cohen is quite fed up with the romanticization of Gypsy culture which seems to happen, he says, every 20 years or so, with the appearance of a new film or book. Hundreds of kids then take off to travel as Gypsies through the East European countryside. He points out, however, that in contrast to the stereotype of the wandering Gypsy, in the Carpathian Mountains, at least, each group had its marked out territory and would stay within that area.

One of Cohen‘s most important projects in his travels through the towns and villages of Hungary, Romania and Ukraine is piecing together the musical intersection of Jews and Gypsies. In Poland before the war, he said, the Jews would not accept Gypsies in their musical scene, but in Marmarus, Romania, Gypsy bands would greet the Hasidic rebbe at the train station. Now that the older generation of musicians who remembered the Jews before the war is dying out, Cohen finds himself spending more and more time in municipal and national archives to further his research. Together with Zev Feldman and others, he has recently turned his attention to reconstructing Jewish dance in Eastern Europe, which more of the older residents seem to remember.

So if you‘re ever in Eastern Europe and need a reference for a good Gypsy band or a good meal to eat, give Bob Cohen a call — he won‘t steer you wrong.


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