Play, Gypsy, play!

The Roby Lakatos Ensemble will infuse the Eilat Chamber Music Festival with some rousing Hungarian fusion.

Roby Lakatos 390 (photo credit: Courtesy 2B Vibes)
Roby Lakatos 390
(photo credit: Courtesy 2B Vibes)
When you go to a Roby Lakatos show, you know you are going to be entertained – big time! The Gypsy violinist and his ensemble will be one of the headliners at next week’s seventh annual Eilat Chamber Music Festival, which will take place down south March 11- 17.
The Hungarian-born, Belgium-resident fiddler was born in 1965 into a renowned family of Romani violinists descended from late 18th-century fiddler Janos Bihari.
Known as “the King of Gypsy Violinists,” Bihari was one of the founders of the verbunkos Hungarian dance and music genre. Lakatos imbibed a heady musical diet from the word go and made his public performance as first violin in a Gypsy band at the age of nine.
In his teens he spread his artistic wings and got a good grounding in the classical side of the business, attending the Bela Bartok Conservatory of Budapest and winning first prize for classical violin at 19.
In 1986, Lakatos relocated to Brussels and enjoyed a 13-year stint at the Les Ateliers de la Grande Ille restaurant there, making the venue a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Legendary classical violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin was among the Lakatos devotees and made a point of dropping by to catch the Hungarian’s show whenever he was in town. Lakatos even got a chance to jam and play concerts with Menuhin. “Yehudi was very important for my career at that stage,” notes Lakatos.
“Music has always been in my blood,” said Lakatos in a recent telephone conversation from Budapest, where he said it was 12 degrees below zero at the time. Naturally, the violinist was looking forward to coming somewhere a bit warmer, on a return visit to the Red Sea resort.
Lakatos will offer the Eilat audience the benefit of his instrumental skills and captivating personality, as well as the priceless added value of breeding. “All my family played music, and I am the seventh generation of violin players,” he said. “I knew I was going to be a professional musician from a very young age.”
Despite the strong traditional strand that ran through Lakatos’s ancestry, the young violinist was keen to get as broad a musical education as possible. Besides classical music, he also got into jazz and later enjoyed a formative artistic confluence with renowned French Gypsy-jazz fiddler Stéphane Grappelli, and played on Grappelli’s last album in 1988.
“It was a wonderful experience playing with Stephane. He was a legend,” declared Lakatos, adding that it was also the realization of a long-held dream.
“He was the most important jazz violin player in the world, and when I was young I used to listen to all his records. I never imagine that one day I would play with him.” The musical encounter also spawned a close off-stage relationship. “We became friends, and we played together many times.”
Lakatos’s synergies with Menuhin and Grappelli also gave him a firsthand handle on an earlier phase of the evolution of 20th-century music.
“It was great to play with artists from an earlier generation and to understand better where it all came from,” he said.
Lakatos also branched out into other areas of Eastern European music and has played with preeminent Argentinean-born Israeli klezmer clarinetist Giora Feidman.
There have also been collaborations with Yiddish singer Miriam Fuks, the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra and acclaimed Jewish American jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker.
A Lakatos show is always an intimate affair and harks back to a previous era.
“It is sort of Gypsy fusion music and a kind of coffee house style, like the music they used to play in Hungary before the Second World War,” he explained. It was basically entertainment provided in an unstarched environment.
“People would drink tea and coffee in cafés and restaurants, and that was the music I learned with my father when I was young. After that, the music was taken to the stage.”
The relocation also impacted on the musical fare delivered to the audience. “The music had to be changed a bit to adapt to playing it in halls, so I made changes in the rhythms and styles and turned it into a show.”
Above all, Lakatos is an entertainer and likes to get his audience going.
“I don’t like it when people sleep in my concerts,” said Lakatos with plenty of tongue in cheek. “I prefer people to dance at my concerts.”
He said he also tends to feed off his audiences’ energies and to get a sense of what they want from him.
“I have played in Eilat before, and there is always a great audience there. The people in Eilat are always very enthusiastic and very energized. I like that. There are always a lot of Russians in the audience, so I play Russian music in my program for them. It is always great fun in Eilat.”
If you’re looking to catch up on some sleep, you’d be best advised to give the Roby Lakatos Ensemble gig in Eilat a miss. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to do some serious toe topping or even some aisle moves, the March 16 A Gypsy Celebration show in Eilat (9 p.m.) is for you.
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