Dixieland swings at Hungarian fest

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 13

They don’t make chicken paprikas in south Louisiana, but you wouldn’t know it from the sound coming from East Toledo yesterday afternoon.

Six men from Szeged, Hungary, assembled at the Birmingham Ethnic Festival yesterday to play the music Louis Armstrong helped start decades ago in New Orleans.

The Molnar Dixieland Hungarian Jazz Band was an odd mix – the most authentic Hungarian performers at a Hungarian festival, playing a uniquely American sound.

“The music Louis Armstrong was playing in the 1930s is close to Hungarian music,” said bandleader and clarinetist Gyula Molnar, through an interpreter.

Their appearance at the annual festival fits snugly in the bizarre Toledo tradition of intermingling New Orleans-style Dixieland and Hungarians. For decades, the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band has been the house act at Tony Packo’s, perhaps America’s most prominent Hungarian hot spot.

“Dixieland matches well with the upbeat, happy Hungarian music,” said Martin Nagy, the executive director of the Lake Erie West Arts Council, which helped bring the band to Toledo.

And at yesterday’s Birmingham Ethnic Festival – which, with its Chinese food and temporary tattoos, has lost some of its Hungarian feel in recent years – the Molnars were one of the few authentic touches of the old country.

“A lot of people have asked them, `Are you really Hungarian?”‘ said Elizabeth Balint, a Toledo volunteer who has been helping the band.

The Arts Council, with Toledo Sister Cities International, helped to bring the Molnars from Szeged, Toledo’s sister city in Hungary. They’ve been in the area for the last two weeks, playing shows around northwest Ohio and staying in a home in the Birmingham neighborhood.

Back in Hungary or on their European tours, the band usually plays strictly Dixieland jazz, “with paprika or a little spice,” Mr. Molnar said. But when they came to America, they decided to play more Hungarian music to appeal to a crowd that rarely sees it.

The tour may have begun the career of a new star, handsome 26-year-old trombonist Attila Almasi. At yesterday’s concert, he played some show-stopping licks with his feet, and he has attracted a coterie of young female admirers.

“After one show, there was a plate of Hungarian apple strudel waiting for him,” Ms. Balint said. “The young girls are following him.” The shy Mr. Almasi had no comment.

All except Mr. Almasi view the band as a second job; their other positions range from librarian to high school teacher. And at least one member’s professional experience has come in handy on their American trip.

When the band was playing at Catawba Island a few days ago, members spied a young girl watching the performance through a gusher of tears. They realized she had chipped her tooth after she and a friend were playing around with a flashlight.

Pianist-dentist Lajos Csanadi came to the rescue – with medical advice, and what proved to be the best medicine of all.

“He sat her down on his lap and played for her,” Ms. Balint said. “That worked well.”