Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:


Janos Gereben
February 24, 1970

Fellowship Year

Nothing French about that; it’s “Yeah, yeah, yeah” in Hungarian.

The Hungarian State Music Publishing Co.

BUDAPEST—It’s all familiar: the shoulder-length hair twirling around the electronically contorted face…the words, most unintelligible, some English…“beat” and “rock” looking down from posters and tempting from the windows and shelves of music stores…the rocking, screaming audience…big money and ever-clawing fame for practically nothing and coming overnight…

It’s all familiar but for the place.

We are not in San Francisco five years or even in London last year; this is Budapest, the capital of a Communist country, and the time is now.

The Illes group. On the opposite page: two views of The Omega.

Not too long ago, the only sources of this Western bliss were illegally monitored broadcasts of Radio Free Europe, BBC, and the Voice of America. All three stations reduced their music programs because there is no point competing with the very hot and very cool sessions heard on the Hungarian State Radio.

No other Communist country, not even Yugoslavia, can match the Hungarian permissiveness on this—among many another—field. The land of Liszt, Bartok, Kodaly, and the world’s foremost musical mass education is being run over by fourth-rate imitators of the Beatles and even of Elvis. Out of a solid folk-classical music background comes the sound of the beat; it all goes under the name of “tancdal”—dance music—and it runs the range from rock to polka, from cool jazz to every possible variety of pop music. It’s new, it’s the rage and Hungary is fast catching up with the West (in volume and wildness of sound) at least in this. “Catching up” didn’t work in agriculture or industry—but this is another matter and Khrushchev isn’t around anyway.

Through radio and TV, the revolution in Hungarian pop music reaches out to a very wide audience. An annual program, called “Made in Hungary”—not a translation, but the actual title—which is introducing new compositions, drew 200,000 postcard ballots in 1969 in addition to 75,000 telephone votes.

Another national and annual event is the Tancdal Festival in which the performers—rather than composers—compete through many weeks of televised heats, pre-, quarter-, and semi-finals until (it seems) all of Hungary’s 10 million people make the real final a matter of life or death. Pop music and its programs and festivals and contests replaced soccer as the nation’s No. 1 obsession—and not a minute too late, considering recent performances of the Hungarian soccer team.

“Western decadence”, they said in Budapest not long ago. “They”, of course, were the officials. Young people got involved in pop music with all the passion of their Western colleagues, multiplied many times by the fact that it was forbidden.

Now that it’s free and allowed, there are more than 20,000 (almost fully one percent of those under 20) active pop musicians and 2,600 listed and registered beat groups.

There is no doubt about it: Hungary is catching up all right—in numbers, in the decibels of amplification, in rhythm, in musical experimentation.

But, as with everything else in permissive but cautious Hungary, there is a catch—anything goes now in music, but the words must be of the straight and the narrow. Not that it has to greet the next Five Year Plan or anything like that (and that’s great progress compared to past years), but the acceptable text will be nonpolitical and preferably nothing of consequence or value.

Nobody put it into words, but the message is clear and heard everywhere: Pop and beat and rock and amplifiers and even long hair—it’s all fine, but don’t you dare imitate young people in the West who try to make more out of music than diversion and entertainment. No songs of protest, please, and stay off the thought-provoking stuff. Turn on the volume and shake. Nothing decadent about that—keeps the kids off the street and out of trouble with the police, regular or secret. Yeah, yeah, yeah!

The instruments are imported from West Germany and the U.S., the costumes half copied, half invented with fascinating mixtures of Hungarian folklore and the slightly dirty look of the genuinely “Western”—West of Vienna, that is.

Everything is fine, but the words, those words…

Below, there is a random sample of what the Hungarian Elvises say—and the reference to the great and often-imitated American is not accidental. Naturally, some of the sheer poetry is lost in this rough and prosaic translation, but these are the words, regardless, these are the words remaining after the strict application of self-censorship and common sense caution:

Presser-Adamis, Sunset (all Hungarian compositions carry the names of both the composer and the lyricist, adding importance to the words)

“A little bell tolls,
A distant sound replies, I
A bim, bam.
Sunset, evening comes,
Dew falls on my hand,
A bim, bam.”
Szorenyi-Brody, Promise It
“I felt that you will come back to me,
Now you are here and look at me guilty.
Promise it: You’ll think over next time what you believe,
Promise it: Always when I need you, you’ll be by my side.
Tell me that you will not leave me…
And if you go again, don’t say that you just made a mistake.”

Above, the Tolcsvay brothers; opposite page, Pannonia group

Above, the Metro group; opposite page: close-ups of the Omegas.

Tolcsvay brothers, Tale

“The wind is my good friend,
I know what it says,
He sings only to me,
But I will tell his tale:
He has no wife, no daughter,
Doesn’t know his home,
Wanders on the meadow,
Dances in the trees,
He is angry in the winter,
Mellows with the summer.”

The above are representative of about 90 percent of the current pop literature—they were not sought for, just picked from among an ocean of A bim, bam types. The following examples are the exceptions, these are the ones requiring search, songs with the hint of a message:

Lovas-Szenes, Somebody Is Missing from the Dance

“A little girl from Budapest married abroad,
She thumbs her nose at me from California.
We went steady for three years and Johnny took her away,
She left a great guy, me, wouldn’t you say…
Somebody is missing from the dance,
Somebody isn’t around,
A voice cries from the night:
The time is here to heal the heart.”

Valmos, Farmer Antal

“Farmer Antal ate well on a quiet Saturday,
Yawned, stretched, and looked out the window,
Peace and quiet everywhere, green meadow.
But his neighbor’s house was on fire,
Flames were dancing, fire was flaring.
Farmer Antal shrugged his shoulder, closed the window.
All is well, only the neighbor’s house on fire.”

(Farmer Antal is punished for his complacency when a spark ignites his house; he builds a new one, disregards the fire in the next village, etc., the final refrain having him ignore the fire…on the next continent.)

Regardless of the business of words, however, the full bloom of beat in a Communist country is very strange indeed and so, inevitably, efforts are being made to explain it away.

Lajos Mehes, first secretary of the Hungarian Youth League, declared that this is just a “new fashion, similar to those in dressing or behavior, with the particular purpose of manifesting the self-assurance of the younger generation.” He did not see anything political in the popularity of beat music, but conceded that “it can be misused for political purposes. It should be judged as entertainment, but when the scale of its popularity becomes detrimental to other areas of education, this should be changed by artistic means, a healthier cultural policy and better propaganda.”

After this official (and surprisingly mild) pronouncement, the whole matter of pop music became the subject of discussion and study.

Beat, a book by five prominent sociologists, sold out last Christmas, Tamas Ungvari’s earlier Beatles’ Bible was successful and a pop film by Andras Kovacs, Ecstasy 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., played to full houses for months.

The authors of Beat survey the whole field in Hungary and estimate the number of bands at 4,000—considerably more than the officially listed 2,600. The book examines 62 of the beat bands in detail, concluding that the vast majority of band members are high school students and come from families of “intellectuals” or white-collar workers.

The book finds it “thought-provoking” that Hungarian youth devote so much attention and invest so much energy and enthusiasm in the beat movement which “reflects the desire of youth to create a specific youth culture and way of life.”

Again, the intensity of this “movement” is stressed by the sociologists of Beat when they say that 92 percent of the young people of Budapest have at one time or another (and many regularly) attended concerts given by the top 80 bands in the capital.

In a recent radio discussion on the subject, Ivan Vitanyi and Peter Makra, two of the book’s five authors, made these additional points:

In Hungary, beat music has acquired a specifically Hungarian character through the influence of Hungarian folk songs. Beat music affects Hungarian youth in other ways than their counterparts in the West because young people here “have a special position within society and face different problems”.

While Western beat fans are quite heterogeneous, comprising everybody from leftist revolutionaries to juvenile delinquents, Hungarian beat fans do not represent a definite opposition to the social system, said the two sociologists. The various cliches of the behavior of beat fans during a concert are “nothing else than a social mechanism for discharging tension”.

Vitanyi and Makra went on to say that Hungarian teenagers (especially those between 15 and 17) “are still too immature to take a stand for or against society. They are in an exploratory period, looking for a special form of existence, for a state of being together…Most young people attend beat concerts to seek relaxation and entertainment…but the fact that the young people choose this loud, roaring and deliberately youthful form of music, which is so different from the music world of adults, is a warning signal”.

An example of what Hungarian beat looks like.

Note the peculiar mixture of Western and Hungarian features in the scoring and the music itself. It is entitled Lemon-flavored Banana and the text goes like this:

“The hungry wanderer of a desert
Would not be happier with a rich banana grove
Than I am finding you.
Lemon-flavored banana
You cannot find on a banana tree,
Nobody needs such invention
And until such banana doesn’t grow
Don’t look so sadly at me…”


CLEAN-CUT AND SERIOUS—The Echo (above) and Gerillak represent “non-Western” trends. Along with many other Hungarian bands, they dress and perform in a “conservative” manner—many combine study at the Music Academy with weekend beat band performances.

Just what this warning may be is spelled out in the Kovacs film, Ecstasy 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Youth escape into the “substitute satisfaction” of beat, the film says, because they have missed having real social forums of their own.

This is the extreme indication of the possible real significance of the beat “movement”—there is nothing stronger and there is no need for it.

As with so many other tacit reforms and relaxation of rules, the Hungarian government and Party allow the influx of beat as long as it is kept “nonpolitical.”

A small miracle of the Secret Revolution of neo-socialism in Hungary is that Western pop music is here but it is kept and will be kept nonpolitical.

DISTAFF STARS—The bands are almost all of the male variety, just as in the West, but solo girl singers (some are shown here) are alive and well in the beat “movement.”

Received in New York on February 24, 1970.

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.