Makám

I promised to tell about the two occasions I saw Makám (who are probably my favourite band) perform. Here goes.

I first visited Budapest in 1993, as a lecturer on the Tempus scheme (this was the east European version of Erasmus), giving a short course on infinite permutation groups. I lived in a small garden room behind a house high on the hills above Buda, and commuted downtown on the bus every day to the University.

My host was Laci Pyber, a keen folk dancer. He told me of a big folk music festival in a huge hall in a park somewhere, and suggested that I go along, so I did. Lots of traditional music, dancing, and costumes.

At a certain point in the programme, a man came on and made a very long speech, of which I understood not a single word. When he finished, a band came on who were quite different from what had gone before. They played music full of space and emptiness, in strange time signatures, on a varied collection of instruments. I was completely smitten and fell under their spell.

So I carefully noted the name of the group in the programme. The next morning, on my way to work, I went into the music shop and asked if they had any records by that group. They sold me a vinyl record which I carried away proudly, though I had nothing to play it on.

At coffee time I told Laci about it. He had been at the festival, though I didn’t see him. He broke the news to me that the long speech in Hungarian had been to explain that the group scheduled to play in that slot had been unable to be there, and so another group (who were called Makám) had replaced them on the programme.

So back to the music shop, to ask whether they had anything by Makám. After some searching, they came up with a cassette called Közelítések (Approaches). The inlay listed six members of the group, playing guitar, oboe, double bass, percussion, tabla, marimba, gadulka, sarangi, and kaval, with an extra person on sarod on one track. When I listened to it, the magic I had heard at the festival was captured there.

All of this is from memory. While I was in Budapest, my bag was stolen from my office; nothing valuable was taken (and fortunately not the Makám cassette), but I did lose some theorems and my diary.

I was back in Budapest in 1999, for a memorial conference for Paul Erdős, who died in 1996. There were many sections, covering as wide a swathe of Paul’s mathematical interests as could be managed. Although my joint work with him had been on sum-free sets, I was put down to speak in the Algebra section. My talk was scheduled at the same time as talks by Eduard Wirsing, Endre Szemerédi, Jarik Nešetřil, and Walter Hayman, so unsurprisingly there was not a very large audience!

Laci Pyber was another speaker in the Algebra section. He told me that Makám would be playing at an open-air concert grandly entitled World Music Festival. I managed to buy a ticket for this, with some difficulty. When I asked for a ticket, the reply was “How much?” I assumed they would know that! It turned out that the salesman meant “How many?”

This is how I described the concert in my diary.

I arrived a few minutes late, Makám had just started playing. There were eleven people on stage, including the singer (somewhat in the Marta Sebestyen style) and a didjeridu player who was only on for the first number. The others were multi-instrumental, playing a range of things from violin and saxophone, through cembalon and twelve-string guitar, to all manner of strange percussion including a terra-cotta water jar and something that looked like a sink plunger. The first number was four square, but I needn’t have worried; they hit their stride with a number which started in 5 and moved seamlessly into 13, and we also had 7, 9, various 3 against 2 rhythms, and so on. Lovely stuff. There were two of their CDs on sale; completely unable to choose, I bought both.

Next was a Zimbabwean group, Stella Rambisai Chiweshe, three men in matching Hawaiian shirts and dark trousers and a woman in all-over shiny white. They played mbiras, a standing drum, and maraccas. Interestingly, the drummer improvised rhythms in much the way that a jazz musician improvises melody; the rock-solid foundation was provided by the maraccas.

Soon after they started, the sky began to darken. Then what had seemed to be camera flashes turned out to be lightning. The wind sprang up, and the backstage crew ran round furiously securing things (even climbing in the scaffolding). Then the rain began bucketing down. The musicians had played on bravely through most of this, but the downpour brought them to a halt.

I decided that there wasn’t much prospect of the storm passing quickly; so a bit reluctantly I decided to miss the chance of hearing Mynta (Indian-Swedish group including Zakir Hussain’s brother), and walked back to the hotel through the dramatic lightning and rain, miraculously managing to turn down the right street.

The two CDs were a Part (eighteen short tracks, with recurring themes) and Café Babel (eight longer tracks).

On a later visit to Budapest (an anniversary conference for Janos Bolyai), I managed to get two more Makám CDs, both with the singer Lovász Irén. (She was presumably the singer I saw in 1999; whether she is related to the mathematician, I have no idea.) These are Skanzen and 9 Colinda. “Colinda” might be translated as “carols”, though they are more than just Christmas songs. The voice and instruments form a wonderful combination.

It is a few years now since I last went to Budapest, and I don’t know whether Makám are still together and still making such great sounds. I do hope so, and look forward to a pleasant surprise next time I am there!

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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