Joie de Vivre at the Festival of Music & Dance in Kanjiza

Jazz, Improvizative Music, 11th – 13th September 2003
by Vid Jeraj

Day One

I leave for Kanjiza in Vojvodina, the Northern part of Serbia and Montenegro from Zagreb, Croatia on Thursday, September 11th, on a trip that involves changing from train, bus, train and finally sweating down the road on foot (if I hadn’t also wished to document the traditional craftsmanship of producing wooden barrels in a small city located on Croatia / Serbia-Montenegro border along the way, I would have taken a train to Belgrade, and then straight to Kanjiza with a touch of comfort). By 10.30pm, after unsuccessfully trying to convince a hip young hopper – Eminem’s influence grips the local youth here too – to come and catch Anthony Braxton (music fan turned missionary: are we all preaching for the same utopia?), I luckily hitch a lift from some guy who mistakes my middle finger raised in despair for a thumb. I have to get there quickly – I’m expecting to meet Josef Nadj, the famous choreodramatist, and Zoltan Bicskei, the most dedicated free-jazz impresario I know of. I begin to doubt whether pianist Simon Nabatov and trombonist Nils Wogram will wait for my arrival, and realise I’ll probably miss the Chet Baker tribute too. Standing in the valley wind so long, feeling lost, I think of Baker. Chet who needed it so bad, he even wrote a song for it – “Let’s Get Lost”.
Arriving in Kanjiza I hear the sound of jazz-guitar spreading around the town, coming from the basement. There’s a cliché: music coming from the underground. I step down into the sea of smoke and sound. If it wasn’t for the marble, aluminium and advertising, I could be back in the be-bop era. A post-concert jam session is in progress, and the local combo, a straight-ahead quartet with sax and guitar is warming up with some standards. I manage to meet everybody I came to see, book Nadj’s interview for the following day, and sink into grapevine gossip with some jazz critics from Belgrade.
Meanwhile, the musicians are starting their second set, the shady vibrato of brass sending signals through clouds of smoke. Nils Wogram’s trombone spits over the drummer’s brushes knitting a bluesy “Equinox”. Everyone sitting with me quickly rises in surprise – “These boys are serious!” – and run to get a look at the master whose wails are coming from the other side. The pianist catches Wogram’s sketches in a finger-breaking uptempo; girls’ hips begin swinging with open eroticism.
Kanjiza, a city of 15,000 inhabitants, is the province’s unofficial cultural centre; it lies on a border with Hungary (and is not so far away from Romania either) and is populated mostly by Hungarians. I’m surprised to see that such a small, “semi-urban” community has such a strong interest in new music and contemporary dance. As the evening winds to a close, I meet Szilard Mezei, Serbia and Montenegro’s only avant-musician in the true sense of the word, a viola player who has moved to France to play in Nadj’s productions in Orleans, and returns home once a year. With a degree in Composition from Belgrade’s Academy Of Music, he’s set himself the task of trying to create an improvising ensemble with classically trained local musicians. “My oboist is a fantastic player. She improvises like a master!” he explains, with the common gesture of someone going crazy with arpeggios. “But she says she doesn’t believe it comes out spontaneously. She needs something notated. So I drew her a wavy line, and she plays the wave!” he grins.

Day Two

In the alarmingly kitsch festival dining room, saxophonist Akos Szelevenyi [‘s’ is pronounced as ‘sh’, whether ‘sz’ is pronounced as ‘s’, that’s why Universal decided to sell him as ‘Akosh S.’ —VJ] is eating lunch with his family, unsmiling as ever. I decide to share my goulash instead with the members of Del Alfoldy Saxofon Egyutes (“Southern Lowlands Saxophone Ensemble”) and Egyszolam. As Del Alfoldy’s reedman Burany Béla comes from neighbouring city of Senta, we can talk a little, while charismatic Romany double-bass player Robert Benkö sits beside us.
After lunch, off to the city’s centre to catch buses for Jaraš, a locality of mythological significance in the area, where “Blato i muzika/ Sar es zene/ Mud & Music” (tri-lingual title, very democratic), the event of the day is scheduled to happen. Since it’s been raining almost continuously, proceedings have been moved to the local cinema, where five different crews from TV Novi Sad are already in waiting. (It’s hard to miss Peda Vraneševic, erstwhile founder member of the electronic group Laboratorija Zvuka – “Sound Lab” – cursing like an old drunk as he checks the PA. Bearded, bald, a black hat hiding a ponytail, dressed in a black leather overcoat à la Master Crowley himself, he quickly gets the technicians into line.)
The performance is a Teatar Jel & Friends’ production, with some of the musicians involved in Eden, Nadj’s work-in-progress to be premiered at next year’s Kanjiza festival. Egyszolam stand stage right, behind the soprano-double-bass-percussion DASE outfit, while the others sit stage left, with Akos S. behind them. Zorz* Grujic, Belgrade’s Renaissance Music specialist, hides in the scenery. Egyszolam, a duo of wooden-flute and gördon (a cello-like instrument which is dragged and struck with a bow-stick, as seen at Muzsikas’ concerts), and folk-singer Berecz Andras, have been invited only for “Mud & Music”. Meanwhile, Akos S. Unit’s hurdy-gurdy player, who will play in Eden, is someplace else.
The performance begins texturally, with Robert Benkö’s arco bass solo way down yonder. Three actors are lying under white sheets, their feet touching, forming a kind of Mercedes Benz logo (without the surrounding circle). A sudden surprise comes with a shriek from a displaced soprano. From the balcony behind, Akos S. calls DASE’s Agoston Béla. The two straight horns echo across the space, one strength, the other subtlety. Szelevenyi’s pushing it to the limit – his face is as red as turkey gizzard as he comes onstage. DASE answer as an ensemble, with drummer Gerolyi Tamas playing rims and cymbals on his Yamaha rock kit.
During the awkward silence that follows, three other actors arrive from the mise en scène and revive the prostrate ones with air and water blown through long thin tubes. They slowly rise. A throaty folksong kicks in, the taps of the gördon giving way to Agoston Béla’s solo, coloured pentatonic by the loud, proud sound of droning bagpipes. Throat singing gradually makes way for normal arching melody lines. The closing sequence is pure joy: the Szentmihaly brass band! Six old men enter from upstage, playing a dance melody in a key all their own. The audience is surprised and delighted at this outpouring of melody, an unexpected (yet perfectly logical) ending. Quite a difference from Akos S’ unaccompanied tenor solo in the second scene.
Preoccupied with chasing up a rumour buzzing about that Anthony Braxton might have forgotten to turn up, I miss most of Szentmihaly’s set. It is, as Alan Silva would put it, “the “vernacular”: traditional songs (even “Glory, Glory Hallelujah”) for the community. As I chat to local writer and translator Neven Ušumovic, a different sound announces that DASE have started up. Playing harmölody, fronted by two sopranos and a tenor, they’re joined by some clarinet player who wants to sit in – even lead! – the boisterous quintet. The old folks are enjoying themselves very much: DASE make them feel proud, playing their tradition in a uniquely personal yet respectful way, rounding off the day beautifully.

Day Three

The highlight of the festival’s final day is the first meeting onstage of multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton (who has indeed arrived), pianist Gyoergyi Szabados and drummer Vladimir Tarasov. I get to the venue early enough to see Burany Béla of DASE soundcheck. (Most of what he’s playing is repeated later in the concert). Leaning back with hips swinging, Béla’s big fat soprano sound resembles neither Lacy nor Coltrane as he changes repetitive arpeggios into folk motifs, composing melody lines over free rhythm.
Saturday night in Kanjiza’s House Of Culture. The lights go down and Zoltan Bicskei [“bich’kuy”] comperes proceedings in two local languages. Applause announces the beginning. Braxton stands with alto hanging low. A misty ballad unfolds, Szabados’s chords coming and going like a breeze. With Tarasov remaining silent, they go for intimate conversation, shyly addressing each other in sound. The piano becomes ever more introspective, Szabados heading for the strings rather than keys, and Braxton calms down. The tension breaks when Tarasov clinks his hi-hat, vibraphone-like. Braxton’s sopranino scurries over rich mellifluous piano lines, and the climax we’ve been waiting half an hour for finally arrives, with Braxton firing and shrieking polyphonically all over his partners. Then Tarasov (who hasn’t even taken off his suit) ties things up, and after barely forty minutes they disappear backstage.
The crowd needs more, and won’t let the musicians’ obvious lack of interest go, but prolonged applause doesn’t change much. Szabados sits legs crossed on his stool, head propped on elbow, looking at us. More philosopher than comedian, he plays a quick flourish, and turns to see Braxton and Tarasov waiting for him. They embrace, bow to the audience, and head backstage again, until, eventually summoned back, they return for the briefest of encores, leaving the public in no doubt that forty minutes is all they are going to get. And time’s up. I’m off to meet the last surviving Croatian producer of wooden barrels.

*Editor’s Note: due to the inadequacies of Dreamweaver and/or (probably or) my own ineptitude, there seems to be no character available to spell “Kanjiza” correctly; the ‘z’ has a kind of inverted circumflex above it (there’s probably a name for that too, but damned I know it). Apologies therefore to the citizens of the aforementioned city, and to Mr. Grujic (see above). If anyone knows how to insert this infernal character into html files, do me a favour and send a mail in. —DW