Originally a one-album project, Budapest Bár have come a long way since then. Regular live performers with universal appeal, this multi-member troupe fuse Gypsy, swing, folk and evergreen cabaret tunes. We speak with band leader Róbert Farkas about the group he formed 1,000 shows ago – and their latest release, ‘Ha Megtehetnéd, Volume 8’.

We Love Budapest: Although started as a one-album project, Budapest Bár have just launched their eighth LP. What’s the appeal and the secret of the band?

Róbert Farkas: It is actually the 11th album rather than the eighth, because there were some side projects as well, like the klezmer one. But you’re right, we could have never foreseen how far we would come – actually, I think the audience should answer that question about the appeal. We believe that they like Budapest Bár because of our fun, easy-going and happy attitude, and because every member gives their all. Hopefully, also, because we make good music.  

WLB: Is it love from the audience or the members’ own enthusiasm that has allowed the band to have such long-term success?

RF: Mostly our love of playing music together, and that we’ve been one big happy family since the beginning. Everyone likes it for a different reason, and everyone can take as much from it as they give. But of course, the audience’s support and our success are also important bonding factors.

WLB: The group is quite large, with members from many different places. How does the band keep everyone together? Is there any special ability needed to achieve this? Famous Hungarian musician András Lovasi once described you as a very integrative personality.

RF: Thank you, András! I’m glad he thinks so. I had time to practise this with the 100 Member Gypsy Orchestra, with whom I often travelled together. I had to learn how to communicate with all of these people, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and realise the working mechanisms of people and bands. I like people in general, and the members of the Budapest Bár are my friends, who I care about. I know their styles, hardships, fears, and thankfully I understand the reasons behind their occasional conflicts. As they all love each other and Budapest Bár, it is the quality of the community that needs special attention, rather than how to keep it together.

WLB: Apart from covers, there are a few original songs on the new album as well. To what extent do the new songs reflect the style of the older ones that have determined the repertoire?

RF: There are altogether 14 songs on the latest album, Ha megtehetnéd, including ten covers and four songs that were written specifically for this record by Budapest Bár songwriters András Lovasi, Frenk, Krisztián Szűcs and András Keleti. The title song was written by Lovasi. Everyone made sure to keep the sound of Budapest Bár in mind during the process. The song Edömér az idomár, created by Keleti, for example, is a 21st-century couplet. Frenk wrote a swing song, Lovasi a pub song, while the chanson sounds of Krisztián Szűcs match the style of Budapest Bár well, too.

WLB: As an album launch concert is not likely in the near future, can you tell us where the album can be heard or bought? By the way, what are you doing to prepare for the future during this crisis?

RF: The album launch was unfortunately cancelled, but we will organise it again in June or September if possible. The record in its physical state can be bought from our online store, while the digital version can be found here. Budapest Bár always take a small break at the beginning of each year, and this year it was planned from the middle of March to the middle of May – although we weren't counting on this quarantine.

There is one thing we’ve been preparing for a while, and will be starting to make it available: our Budapest Park concert footage from last year, where we performed more than 30 songs with 12 singers and lots of cameras. We will upload the videos on YouTube. Hopefully on 9 July, we can return to Budapest Park, as we planned to have our 1,000th concert there. Unfortunately, now it won’t actually be number 1,000 because we had to cancel a few, but hopefully the audience will understand this little discrepancy.

WLB: You’ve been awarded the cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit. Was this a surprise? Did they say exactly why you’d won it?

RF: I was truly honoured by this award. It did surprise me, as my wife, Andrea Gáncs, the Budapest Bár manager, was told about it first, but she kept it to herself for a while. They don’t give you a reason beforehand, only when you get the award. For me, the reason was definitely Budapest Bár, so I regard this award not just as mine, but the whole band’s.

WLB: Let’s go back to how Budapest Bár all started. Whose idea was it, and who came up with the concept of revamping old Hungarian hits to Gypsy music?

RF: I come from a family of musicians who play Gypsy music. I always admired them and the whole world that surrounded them. As I was growing up, I could see how this culture was slowly dying out, and started to think about how some of it could be saved and brought closer to a younger audience. I was playing music with some of our members before I actually formed the band. Once we recorded a song called Halálos tavasz together in a studio, and we immediately recognised a different sound. We figured the way to renew the genre and to popularise it was to work with singers who shine through with their personalities, and make it attractive for young people. And the rest, as they say, is history.

WLB: What’s the roots of the coffeehouse Gypsy music you have revived and is this the essence of the band? How and when did it come about? 

RF: At the beginning of the past century, Budapest had lots of coffeehouses with live Gypsy music. Those bands knew how to play a wide range of different genres, as they had to keep the public entertained. German and French chansons, American jazz, arias, operetta songs, couplets – whatever the audience wanted. They used to listen to contemporary music and transcribe it into their own language, but we took this even further: it doesn’t matter if a song is old or new, we manage to reshape it to suit our needs.

WLB: The basis of your repertoire is covers. What happens if you run out of material to cover? 

RF: Songs never run out, although it was definitely easier to pick them in the beginning, especially older ones. We still come across a few gems, and we have people to help us find them, too. As the band is very familiar with each other now, we don’t hesitate to tackle new songs either. And of course, we have some original songs now, like Húszezer éjszakás kaland, which was our first original hit, and the audience loves it.

WLB: What are your predictions for the future, especially when it comes to Budapest Bár?

RF: Last year, we spent a month discussing the next five years of the band with each member of the group – singers, musicians and technicians, too. Fortunately, everyone has a positive attitude, and we all want to continue to actively participate in this production. For now, I’m thinking within a five-year framework, but I’m hoping to keep the band together for longer, and hopefully we will find ways to keep it fresh.

WLB: What sort of music do you listen to at home, when you’re not playing? Who are your favourites – not as a musician, but as an everyday listener?

RF: As a musician, it’s hard for me to be an everyday listener. When there are lots of rehearsals and concerts, I tend to enjoy silence or the sound of nature from time to time. I frequently listen to something with a specific goal, like when I’m trying to practise something on an instrument. Mostly I listen to classical music and jazz. In terms of classical music, I enjoy romantics like Liszt and Chopin, while when it comes to jazz, Oscar Peterson is my favourite. Back in the day, I used to listen to a lot of world music.

Budapest Bár