From busking to Budapest Park – Balázs Szabó talks folk and alfresco Hungarian Dance House
If you fancy catching a decent Hungarian group, you’re in for a treat. Mingling traditional folk with funk, pop and modern beats, the Szabó Balázs Band make quality music that is timeless and reaches people of all kinds, bringing a bit of folk back into fashion. The band have a tenth anniversary show at the Budapest Park on 7 June, and afterwards a traditional alfresco Hungarian Dance House will break out under the stars. It will be an absolute blast! We Love Budapest speaks to frontman Balázs Szabó about the upcoming concert, his music and the past decade.
Humble, genuine and gentle are the first words that spring to mind when we meet Balázs Szabó at a laid-back Buda café. Like the boy next door, he chats away for over an hour above a cup of coffee, conjuring up the most colourful images as he speaks, intelligence shining through his unique choice of words. With a career spanning 20 years, Balázs Szabó went from a guy with a guitar playing on the street to a musical maestro and frontman of a highly revered band. He is a virtuoso of various instruments but doesn’t blow his own trumpet – there isn’t a bad bone in his body. A rare soul in the industry, Balázs Szabó is a musician worth knowing.
WLB: Ten years! When you look back, what have been the biggest milestones?
BSz: The anniversary always reminds me of how it all started. When I left Suhancos (his first band – Ed), I was full of trepidation, having to cut my own path without a safety net as such. It was an exciting couple of months, but I had a lot of belief in my songs. I will never forget the moment I decided to let go of my fear and begin my journey, come what may. When the musicians then came along to form the band, it was exciting and amazing. I still remember how stressed we were about our first concert in a small Hungarian town – and the first time we played the A38 Ship here in Budapest. Me, a small-town boy now on the big boat – such an uplifting experience! We had so many amazing concerts, from playing on a ferry to intimate clubs, that it’s so hard to highlight any in particular. And we worked with so many amazing musicians I would hate myself if I left anyone out… but there’s a lot to remember!
WLB: Your lyrics are so complex, wonderful and expressive, almost like poems. How does a foreign audience who may not understand the words react?
BSz: I’m never scared of singing to foreigners in Hungarian. When I hear music from Africa or the Far East, I love just listening to musicians singing in their mother tongue. I don’t think there’s a need to sing in English all the time and follow the songs word by word. There’s plenty of excitement in not knowing the words, the depth of a song comes through anyway. The audience can feel that the song is about something important. Our songs are soaked in Hungarian culture, which is something great to explore. When I listen to African music, in my mind’s eye, I see zebras and giraffes running around, so when I sing in Hungarian to foreigners, I like to make them feel at home here in this tiny and lovely country. To be a part of it for a short while.
WLB: How did your love of folk music come about?
BSz: A very significant moment in my life happened at a film camp, where I watched folk musicians set up and start to play beneath a big walnut tree. I was enchanted and it was a revelation. I felt the power and wonder of folk music. I wasn’t yet sure how, but I knew I had to be involved in it. So then came Dance Houses and exploring music from different regions. I lived and breathed it. (A Dance House is a very traditional and casual Hungarian event, a celebration of folk culture involving music, dance, usually in a circle, and sometimes folk tales – Ed.)
The violin I hadn’t dared to touch for ages. I had always heard that it’s a tricky instrument and if you didn’t start playing it when you were a kid, there’d be no chance you’d be any good. But then I thought I’d pick it up – even if I played the most basic children’s song all over again, it would be worth it, so let’s give it a go.
WLB: That children’s song is pretty okay by now…
BSz: Yeah, thanks, I’ll just keep playing it and see what happens. (Laughs). I would still need many lives to be really good at the violin. I play many instruments: the violin, the guitar and kaval (a traditional mountain flute – Ed.) are my main ones. I have many, many more but I need to neglect them a bit as you can’t really improve with one if you keep playing them all. So some are now sat in my room back home and sometimes feature on our albums.
WLB: Listening to folk music is not really ‘cool’ any more… would you have thought that people, especially young people, would love your music so much?
BSz: I think there are always two sides to this. One is how open and accepting the audience is at any given moment, because this can come and go in waves. Sometimes a certain type of music is a big hit, and then it’s not in the limelight again for years. A lot depends on current trends, too. The other side is that I’ve been always fighting to show why I love folk music and why I think it matters to keep traditions alive. If a band is persistent and does it for long enough, they keep their credibility. And when band and audience align, people are open to something new, and if the band’s been hard at it, that’s when you get a tidal wave. And folk music is great. It is exciting and you can easily dance to it – and it will make you forget about your problems for a while.
I’m never too worried that if they don’t speak about us any more, we won’t matter, as we’ll be still loving doing it. Every artist who does something other than the mainstream knows that this happens. You just hold on tight when your music can’t make waves as big.
WLB: And how will you celebrate the past decade? Tell us about the upcoming concert at Budapest Park!
BSz: Well, I can’t spill the beans just yet! But I can say that there is and, up until the last moment, there will be a dilemma about where the balance is between doing something really special, celebrating with a blast – and doing what we do anyway and what we all love, why we’re loved. We would love it to be huge celebration, but also an intimate, solemn moment to reminisce.
The fact that a traditional Hungarian Dance House is taking place at Budapest Park for the first time is just amazing. This really crowns the past decade! It will take place by the main stage after the concert and will be a blast! Nobody will be left alone, there will be many dance instructors and a lot of fun, folk and funk!
WLB: Will you dance?
BSz: You bet! I’ll play music, too. I could never – in fact, wouldn’t want to – just watch it from behind the scenes, so I’ll be there! I’m really looking forward to it, it will be very special. An alfresco Dance House underneath the skies… the stars have aligned in a way that this will be possible at such a cool venue for the first time and that’s amazing!
WLB: Do you prefer playing a big stage or a more intimate venue?
BSz: I used to play on the street in various cities in Europe and moved according to how much money I made. This is an experience that stayed with me for a long time. Then with the band, initially we played in small clubs, which is something that I really like. Hard to say which I prefer. Filling a huge venue means that so many people are interested in your music, something I think every musician dreams about. I’d lie if I said I hadn’t, but on the other hand, it’s more difficult to create an intimate connection with the audience from a big stage. Both have their own charm though. My stage presence is unusual anyway, I don’t feel that I always have to make the audience clap and sing along, but I do love to create a connection. And if there’s a flow big enough, it will come down from the stage and whirl around right up to the last rows.
One thing is for sure, we’ll never be a band that says no to a venue because ‘we’re past all that’. That will never happen. I don’t think we’re super successful now, we have reached something amazing, not a lot but not a little, and there’s still so much to do. There are many more decades to come, and I’d like to be in a band that people know. If they say they don’t like it, that’s still better than if they don’t have an opinion because they’ve never heard of you.
WLB And what does the future hold for the band?
BSz: We’d like to celebrate all year, but also stop for a while in this rushing world. We’ll have fewer concerts but ones that are more special. This was just the first decade of many, we’re full of energy, hopes and dreams. There’s no point in doing it otherwise. No rainbow without rain, some moments are more difficult than others, but this makes it all complex and worthwhile. We needed the bad moments to improve and I wouldn’t do it any other way.
WLB: What do you like about Budapest. Any favourite places?
BSz: Believe it or not, I play basketball at the city championships! I also used to cycle a lot, so I’m very much for a bike-friendly Budapest. I live in Budaliget, so I get to read, play sport and chill amid a lot of greenery. I moved to Budapest five years ago, so I still feel a little bit of an outsider, but that’s normal. It is amazing to be a part of it all though, even to be part of a crowded 4/6 tram carriage, other than just visiting for a day or two. There is so much to do here… if you want to, you can go out every night to see a play or a film or something. It is absolutely amazing to live and work in this buzzing city, I have no plans to leave. It’s great to be a small town boy in the big city, bringing my own values from home. Funnily enough, I meet so many people from the countryside here, and not that many actual locals.
WLB: What is a question you’ve never been asked but would love to answer?
BSz: Tough… perhaps what I would do if I wasn’t a musician, or which one of those childhood dreams is still with you? Of course, I wanted to be an astronaut and a pirate like everyone else, but my dream of becoming a long distance runner is still there. So if it wasn’t music, I’d run marathons in different countries. Or I’d be a climber, but then I really couldn’t play music as it reshapes and changes your hands.
WLB: Well, please don’t be…
BSz: But I’d still sing! (Laughs) …and play the violin. “First Hungarian man to run 42 kilometres while singing and swapping around six violins the entire time,” he jokes in the voice of a TV reporter.
Tickets are available for the Balázs Szabó Band anniversary concert and Dance House. Don’t miss it! More details
The article was sponsored by Budapest Park.