Ferenc Tobak: Musician, instrument maker, and ethnomusicologist from Hungary

The best way for these [musical] traditions to live on is to get the younger generation involved. Without the young people they are lost.

-Ferec Tobak

Bagpipers Mircea Nicolea (cimpoi) and Ferenc Tobak (duda), 1982 September, Zabola, Transilvania, Roumania.

You have had a rich musical career including work as a musician, an instrument maker, and an ethnomusicologist. You have even appeared in the theater and on television. Where did you begin your career and what has helped to shape it? Have you always had an interest in folk music?

It started in 1967 when I was given a guitar for Christmas by my father and began taking lessons. At the time, it was very popular for kids like me to play songs by the Beatles, Chuck Berry, etc. It was what everyone was listening to and what all the radio stations were playing. Hungarian rock bands added their ethnic flavor with original songs and covers.

As popular music became more prevalent in Hungarian cities, a counter culture developed where a lot of the city kids started reviving folk music. Hungarian folk music was a part of my childhood, as commonplace as spoken language, so my transition back to it was very natural. There was a small group of young people I was involved with who were embracing Hungarian culture, especially the folk arts. At the same time, I began working with friends in theatres and playing bass in underground bands, experimenting with something we called “free jazz.” On the weekends, I would play weddings with some of the old timers.

I became interested in the bagpipe after a trip to Bulgaria and I recognized that bagpipes had all but died out a generation ago in Hungary. The music, however, had lived on. So, I got myself a Bulgarian gajda in Sofia and began experimenting with the tuning and reed making so I could play songs. I discovered the Hungarian bagpipe when I found a book that outlined the measurements of one, so I made some prototypes and learned to play from old recordings made by Béla Bartók, Bálint Sárosi, and Imre Olsvai. Then I went to a winter camp where I became friends with Sándor Csoóri, Jr. of the famous band Muzsikás. It was through my experiences there that I integrated into mainstream Hungarian piping as a musician and instrument maker. My pipes became quite popular and I continuously refined my design based on feedback from Csoóri as well as other master musicians. With their influence, my pipe design became the standard for modern Hungarian bagpipes.

I played and toured with the revivalist band Vasmalom in the late eighties. We appeared in festivals—for example Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD in Cornwall, England—and released three albums. We were the first to independently produce and release an album in Hungary under the slowly softening communist government. I also worked with Márta Sebestyén on her solo album. It was a very exciting and fun era in my music career.

I moved to the United States in 1991 with my family and we integrated ourselves into the California Hungarian scene by organizing camps, concerts, and dances. I began my ethnographical research in 1998 with annual trips to the villages of Moldavia to collect and document the living culture of the Csángó pipers.

Ferenc Tobak playing duda.

The focus of your research over the past decade has been on Hungarian Csángó bagpipers. What are the characteristics of this type of bagpipe and where primarily is it found?

First, I think I should define the Csángós. They are an ethnically Hungarian people in Moldavia and number about 250,000. They do not have the chance to receive education or religious services in their native language; the [Nicolae] Caucescu regime really tried hard to convert them into Romanians. I first read about the Csángó bagpipes in the early eighties, and so in 1982 I went to Moldavia (on the eastern slope of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania). It was a very difficult time with the Caucescu regime in full power—very tough for Hungarians to get into the country. On my first trip, I was four miles from a piper’s house when the police found me and deported me back to Transylvania. That is just how it was.

Over time I gained insight. What is interesting is that in all the Carpathian basin there is only one form of bagpipe in use, and its double-chanter design has been dated to 700 CE based on excavations of Avar graves. Other nationals like the Slovaks, Croatians, Serbians, and Transylvanian Romanians are all using the same type of bagpipe. But what is fascinating is that in Moldavia there are three distinct types of bagpipes used by the Csángó Hungarians. One of these is an ancient form of the five finger-holed (plus one hole in the back), double-chanter Hungarian pipe which is found in three villages just south of Bákó. Then there exists an eight finger-holed pipe from the Balkans that is found from Albania through Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania. It is played in the most southern Csángó village of Vizánta. Lastly, there is a six finger-holed pipe used in Ploszkucén. It is the simplest of the three and is used by a very ethnically mixed population in the north to northeast of Moldavia. There are variations of it reaching to Estonia!

Cimpoi player Andras Csobotar, 2005, Moldavia

Please tell me a bit about your experience studying, photographing, and making audio recordings of Csángó bagpipers. What have been your major findings? What do you think is the most effective way for a now-rare musical tradition such as this to continue?

My research method allowed me to get very close to the Csángós. I would annually visit all of the musicians I found. This meant that the relationships that developed were lasting and trusted. I was able to document all aspects of their traditions with video and audio recordings, as well as with photography. I spent a lot of energy just on their holiday traditions. As a result, my research is very thorough and covers a lot of ground for the various regions in which the Csángós are living.

As I mentioned earlier, in 1982 I tried to visit the last two pipers to no avail. One of them was Mesterke Gergely and I was able to visit him in 1998. He was believed to be the only Hungarian piper in Moldavia. In the following years, my greatest finding was that there were six more Csángó pipers still alive! Nobody had even considered that there were pipers in these numbers. The traditions were essentially on life support.

Being an instrument maker was the key to continuing the research project. None of the pipers had instruments in usable condition, so I went to work building new instruments for them. The pipers were delighted to receive their gifts, and even more so to be able to play again. I was able to trace certain families back four generations, effectively plotting the origins of their piping traditions as well as their repertoires. I have been able to document how they picked up the old Hungarian cultures from neighboring villages when they resettled in Moldavia—there are even recordings of old pipers telling stories of their encounters with witches and fairies!

In terms of the future, the best way for these traditions to live on is to get the younger generation involved. Without the young people they are lost. A music school has been opened in Klézse, to which my organization Living the Tradition has donated twelve flutes. Local musicians are also getting involved; Legedi István, a famous musician, has begun teaching. Today there are a handful of spirited young people who are establishing after-school classes in which Csángó children can learn Hungarian and study local music and dances. I think it is a trend that is going to keep gaining momentum. There are already more than four thousand studies documenting all aspects of Csángó culture, and for a population of a quarter million that is a lot!

The more people know, I think the more likely it is that the traditions will live on. My work covers aspects of Csángó culture that have long been neglected. I have hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings which I want to share with the public, but I am looking to collaborate with a partner or organization in order to take the project to the next level.

Drone Magic Festival 2009 Bagpipers

You have participated in several music festivals in California, including the annual Drone Magic bagpipe festival. Do you participate in this festival every year? Is there a large community of bagpipers in California?

Yes and yes! I perform in and organize the annual festival which is going into its eighth year this December at the Croatian American Cultural Center (CACC) in San Francisco. John Daly of the CACC has been a great help over the years to allow the festival to live on. I founded the festival because there was no place for pipers from all cultures to get together and talk shop, network, jam, etc. In addition to myself representing the Hungarians, we have had Irish, Bulgarian, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and even Scottish pipers! There is actually a small but good ethnic piping community in California—if you look for it. In addition to our festival, there are a number of culture-specific events that feature bagpipes; most are held in the Bay Area or Los Angeles. In San Francisco, the CACC is a good starting point.

In addition to your musical work, you have shown exhibits of photography from your research and you have samples of your photography online. Do you have any upcoming exhibits?

In 2009, I showed my photography at an exhibition in Bel Air, CA that was organized by Balázs Bokor, the Consul General of Hungary in Los Angeles, as well as at the Woodside Priory’s new state of-the-art theater in Palo Alto.

Currently, however, I am focused on preparing a show to coordinate with the release of my mother’s upcoming book. She has been pictorially documenting the experiences of her childhood and growing up in Hungary. We are very excited that her stories and artwork will be accessible to future generations. Right now my research initiatives are on hold while I work on this project.

Are there any online resources that you would recommend for people who want to learn more about Hungarian folk music? Are there any regular festivals or events in California?

Some of my favorite online resources include the Web sites of the Hungarian Institute of Musicology, Hungarian Heritage House in Budapest (with online databases), and Borókás Társulat (Hungarian-language only).

The CACC Web site is a very good source for events in San Francisco, as is the Web site of the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center in Berkeley, where they host occasional dances.

Balázs Bokor is very active in the Hungarian community, organizing and posting information about events on the West Coast–not just those related to music but about other aspects of Hungarian culture as well.

I have published information online at Tobak Studios and Barátság, and have some pipe music from my CD on Drone Magic. People can also send me an e-mail at tobak@mindspring.com and I will include them on my mailing list!

Interview Details: January 20, 2010. E-mail interview by Ferenc Tobak and Sarah Lin Bhatia.

Mircea Nicolea and Ferenc Tobak photo by Robert Csogor.

Ferenc Tobak on duda by Kata Rabl.

Andras Csobotar and Drone Magic photos by Ferenc Tobak.

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