Friday, 13 August 2010

78. Sounds of old Europe

That old street organ I heard the other day set me thinking about the cimbalom, another musical instrument that must surely be high on the endangered species list. What exactly is a cimbalom? According to Wiki, it's "a concert hammered dulcimer: a type of chordophone composed of a large, trapezoidal box with metal strings stretched across its top". Got that..? No? I didn't think you did..! On the basis that a picture's worth a thousand words, here's a picture..

From the first time I heard one, its jangling strings resonated with me and I felt a nostalgia for the older European musical traditions (Magyar, Yiddish, gypsy) of our folk memory that are now virtually lost to the present generation. (Lady Gaga just doesn't come close!)
The sound of one always puts me in mind of the film noir genre that would invariably have the ultra sinister-looking Vladek Sheybal (below) cast as the softly-spoken bad guy - complete with cigarette holder of course..
Vlad the Impaler..
I've been a fan of the sound of the cimbalom since I was introduced to it during the course of a memorable visit to the legendary Le Grand Mayeur, the Russian/Hungarian taverne/restaurant, now sadly defunct, in Brussels. Here's the short video that tells the story of a much-loved Brussels institution:

Located in the Place du Grand Sablon, Brussels, Le Grand Mayeur was housed in a tall building (of 3 or 4 storeys) and the centre of each floor had been removed - making 3 mezzanine floors - so from the ground floor there was an uninterrupted view all the way up to the roof. It was candle-lit and, upon entering, there was a sense that this was a different world to the workaday Brussels outside. A gypsy orchestra consisting of a singer accompanied by a cimbalom, balalaika, guitar, piano, violin & bass provided the magic..

Le Grand 
Thé Slav
I think the bulk of the clientele must have originated from the backroom staff of many of the Central and Eastern European embassies based in Brussels - judging by the number of ill-fitting grey suits when I visited Le Grand Mayeur. One of the specialities of the house was Thé Slav - which was tea with Slivovitz or shoe polish (I was never quite sure which). The first indication that things were about to look up, or take a turn for the worse - or both - came the moment when the waitress served me with a glass cup of Thé Slav - pausing only to light it with a sudden whoof! The trick was to drink it before the flickering blue flame heated the rim of the glass sufficiently for it to bond directly to skin - as in lips! Drinking one felt like the blood in one's veins had been instantly replaced by 130 octane aviation fuel.. If the first cup tasted strong and removed all capacity for rational thought, the second scrambled all motor functions but curiously enabled you to understand Polish☺. So, a useful drink then.. The repertoire of the lively gypsy singer consisted of old folk songs which she sang in at least 5 or 6 central European languages, but somehow the enthusiastic cosmopolitan audience knew all the words, and after a Thé Slav or two, I found I did too..

That old favourite of mine - "Dark Eyes" - sounds very "listenable to" when played on the cimbalom:
Some of the characters from Le Grand Mayeur..

This clip captures all the eerie echoing sound of the cimbalom that seems to speak to us from another time and another place:
Places like Le Grand Mayeur are few and far between. It seems bizarre that one had to visit a restaurant to discover that we shared a common folk heritage with our European neighbours. Le Grand Mayeur was far more than just "a nice restaurant with a band" - it reminded us that, whatever our nationality, we are all part of that broad river of humanity. Alas, for all of us, its doors have closed for the last time..
You may be excused for thinking that what started out as a look at the cimbalom has turned into a tribute to Le Grand Mayeur.. You'd be right! So here, finally, is a last glimpse of it as it really was:
By the way, if anyone knows how to make Thé Slav, I'd be curious to find out. If you'd like to tell me, use the comment form below. Thanks!  

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