Hungarian Roma Music

A Guide to Hungarian Roma Music

Colourful, poignant, and wrapped in centuries of tradition; Roma folk music is as rousing as it is lively, and entrenched in the culture and spirit of old Hungary. Lovingly known as ‘Gypsy music’, it’s a traditional genre that dates back centuries to when the Nomadic Romani people first settled in Hungary, and today represents a prominent part of Hungary’s national musical landscape.

In many ways, Roma Gypsy music is a celebration of Hungary’s minorities, immigrants and working classes; as important to local culture as Fado is to Portugal and bolero is to Spain. It captures Hungary’s cultural diversity and rich traditions, and harks back to the country’s storied past.

For those interested in visiting Hungary on a luxury Danube river cruise, experiencing Roma folk music first-hand is an absolute must – and it shouldn’t be too difficult to find. From street performers to official concerts; Gypsy folk is everywhere in Hungary, so you can enjoy this enchanting genre at its most authentic.

The Story of Hungarian Gypsy Folk

Roma music festival

The story of how the Roma people brought folk music to the ears of native Hungarians is a fascinating one. The Roma arrived in Hungary in the 15th century, and quickly established permanent residency throughout the country, particularly in the region of Mohács and Baranya. Unlike in other European countries, which legislated to expel Roma, Hungary was one of three countries which permitted them entry; therefore, it has one of the largest Romani populations on the continent, with the group now accounting for 3% of its total population.

Shortly after their arrival in Hungary, Romani musicians were invited to play to the court of Beatrice of Aragon, who served as Queen Consort of Hungary from 1476-1490, and again from 1491-1502. This helped raise the profile of Gypsy folk music across Hungary and indeed Europe, and Romani musicians became a common sight in royal courts and during parties and concerts held by Hungary’s upper classes.

During Rákóczi’s War of Independence in the early 18th century, Hungary’s Romani population stood with the Kuruc army – anti-Habsburg rebels who sought to overthrow the dominant House of Habsburg. Before and after battle, Romani musicians would play to the Kuruc troops, spurring them on with rousing folk ballads which celebrated the peasant life and socialist values of Hungary’s working classes.

While the rebels lost the war, their efforts did lead to reforms across Hungary, and the Romani are today celebrated for their role in securing a fairer social class in Hungary. Hungarian Gypsy folk music celebrates and pays homage to not only the Romani way of life, but also the values of the Hungarian spirit – which is perhaps why its popularity has endured to this day.

The Sound and Style of Hungarian Folk Music

Roma dancing

In its most traditional form, Hungarian Gypsy folk is highly vocal. Singers would normally perform their ballads in Romani, but later began using the Hungarian language as a way of contextualising their songs for local people. The Gypsy vocal style was high-pitched compared to other European folk genres of the time, but this didn’t detract from its poignancy and richness.

Later, elements of Western music were steadily incorporated into the Romani folk genre. In the 19th century, Gypsy folk took on a much more rhythmic sound, with dance becoming a more prevalent theme in Romani music performances. The fusion of ancient Hungarian dance music and Gypsy folk is today one of the most recognisable and beloved musical forms in Europe – incorporating colourful outfits and traditional instruments with the poignant balladry and storytelling of the Romani.

One of the fundamental aspects of Romani Gypsy folk is a technique the Hungarians call rolling. This is when the vocalist sings the melody of the song with little or no words, improvising with different pitches and sounds. This is, perhaps, why the Gypsy folk genre is often compared to contemporary jazz – in which vocalists use a similar improvisational technique.

Influential Figures of the Gypsy Folk Genre

While Hungarian Gypsy folk has never achieved widespread commercial success, there are several figures within the genre who are considered influential, and even famous, within Hungary itself. Here, we explore the history and influence of three of the most recognisable figures in Romani Gypsy folk music.

Where to Experience Hungarian Roma Music

Interested in experiencing the Romani folk genre during your time in Hungary? Here is our pick of the best places to see and hear authentic Gypsy folk music on your Danube river cruise.

Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra

Boasting 138 members, the Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra is among the biggest traditional Romani musical ensembles in Hungary. Formed 30 years ago, the troupe has tripled in size since it began, and now plays some of the most esteemed concert venues in the country. The group plays regularly in venues throughout Budapest, and we’d recommend visiting their official website to check their upcoming tour schedule.

Margitkert Restaurant, Budapest

For a more relaxed experience of the Romani folk genre, visit the Margitkert Restaurant in Budapest, which is heralded for its nightly music performances and excellent traditional Hungarian cuisine. The restaurant itself is one of Budapest’s oldest, having opened its doors in 1780, and patrons can enjoy the sounds of authentic Romani folk music while they dine. Margitkert is found on the Buda side of the Danube, in the elegant Rozsadomb area of the city.

Potkulcs, Budapest

One of the many iconic ruin pubs of Budapest; Potkulcs is an original Hungarian bar that regularly puts on live performances of Hungarian-Romani folk music, with a focus on young, local musicians. The perfect place to visit in the summertime, Potkulcs features a great beer garden where musicians perform alfresco on sunny days. With an affordable wine list and daily live music, this is a great, off-the-beaten-path destination for those seeking an authentic take on local folk music.

Experience Hungarian Roma Music with Scenic

Experience the charm of traditional Romani folk music with Scenic, as we transport you through the cultural heart of Hungary on the iconic Danube River. To find out more, click here to browse our collection of Danube river cruises or call our team today on 0161 236 2444.