Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the second of a six-part series. Read our first part here, and the third here. All photos by Rosalia Kullick.
Gábor Csabai, the godfather of Hungary’s independent radio community, continues to be a key figure in Budapest’s musical underground.
12:00pm: Meeting Gábor Csabai AKA ‘Papo’ at Rádió Tilos Headquarters
The term tilos means “forbidden” in Hungarian, so Tilos Rádió literally means “forbidden radio”. Perhaps you’ve read the famous children’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and you remember Piglet’s house inside the beech tree? The tree has a wooden sign nailed to it that reads: “Trespassers w…”—some of the letters are missing but I could imagine that the original sign read, “Trespassers will be shot”. The famous Budapest underground pub Tilos az Á had named itself after that sign and was the station’s first location. When we started our program on August 21, 1991, we named it after that pub.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Hungarian government promised to give out radio frequencies to free radio stations. In reality the situation was slightly more chaotic because during the transitional period founding a radio station like Tilos was still consid- ered illegal. However, the owner of the pub was fearless; the guy had a lot of experience running an offshore pirate station in the Netherlands, which would send its signal from just beyond the fifteen-mile boundary into the country. What’s more, in the pub a young DJ named Zsolt Palotai had already earned a reputation for spinning the strangest and most obscure music to date. He soon became DJ Palotai and Tilos’ first musical director and editor. With his stunning mixes he informed a whole generation of young Hungarians, feeding into the creative mood that flourished in Budapest. Besides that, I would consider the Tilos az Á the first “ruin” bar in Budapest, which is pretty forward thinking, as well.
In its infancy, Tilos Rádió had to broadcast from a variety of different locations in order to outrun the authorities. I remember moderating a radio show from the rooftop of a building, the top of a ten-story tenement and even outside from the top of a hill. In hindsight I’m sure the authorities could have ended this cat-and-mouse game pretty quickly if they wanted to—after all, they were well equipped with detection equipment and experience. Still, you got the impression that the situation was somewhat ambivalent. Maybe they just had to report that they were trying to get us? I know from various sources that at least some of the people who were chasing us were actually enjoying our program! However, we were always careful and would always monitor their communication, as well. That’s how we remained secret.
Compared to the romantic and adventurous start-up days, we’re now facing serious threats by the government to destroy the genuine community radio stations such as Tilos. Establishing a quota that obliges us to play fifty percent Hungarian music in our program is nothing but a bad joke. I mean, how are we supposed to fulfill the quota from only a handful of Hungarian albums when we are doing, say, one of our regular reggae programs? Even worse is the newly implemented obligation to provide a daily news service which forces us to build up an entirely new editorial department, something which places great strain on a listener-supported station. The final insult is that religious radio stations—as well as certain commercial ones—are suddenly being assigned “community radio” status just like us, which is of great concern. It’s an affront to what we do because the European Union clearly defines community radio as non-commercial and volunteer based. It renders the intention of Hungary’s new media act painfully clear: by means of bureaucratic bullying they are trying to turn politically neutral and independent institutions like Tilos Rádió into conformist entities. Yet we refuse to be intimidated and have developed our own responses so we can meet them head on. For instance, we now claim Hungarian “authorship” for skillful DJ mixes to meet the quota, in the same way you could say that Kruder & Dorfmeister’s DJ Kicks album, which curates tracks from international artists, was a genuinely “Viennese” DJ statement. Of course the struggle continues but one thing is certain: we will never give up.~
Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the first of a six-part series, read our second part here. All photos by Rosalia Kullick.
10:30 am: Three cups of mocha with DJ Titusz in his home recording studio
When I started organizing my first acid house parties in 1992 there was a very real and positive sense of hope in Budapest. The Iron Curtain had just fallen, the era of Socialism was over, and everybody, especially young people, felt liberated in the new capitalist world. Now, twenty years later, you may sense a very different feeling here: the euphoria that once characterized the city has been drained away, and personally I prefer not to go out as much as I used to, opting instead to spend my time at home together with my family. I don’t even watch TV. Compounding this feeling is the fact that Budapest has become an expensive place to live, especially as I still remember the golden age when the city was cheap compared to Western standards. While it’s easy to allow yourself to become depressed, I do see a future: a lot of new, interesting music clubs and spaces are opening up throughout the city, a fact I’d like to interpret as a good sign.
From day one, I’ve always divided my energy into various projects, and this helps me remain positive during this period. I am a DJ, but I also founded and participated in bands such as the hip-hop group Bëlga and the electropop band Carbonfools. In contrast I started a new group called the Chip Chip Chokas a couple of years ago and our equipment is entirely made up of DIY instruments such as old, pimped-up 8-bit Commodore C64s, Atari consoles and all manner of strange devices scavenged from flea markets and eBay. This interest in homemade electronics is a way for me to channel my creativity and also corresponds to my interest in stop motion movies and music videos that I’ve produced over the years in an attempt to refocus my restless mind.
The internet is a good medium to keep yourself connected to the world even if you prefer to stay at home. The Chip Chip Chokas would not exist without it, especially considering the online websites and forums where I learned about circuit bending, taught myself how to solder and harvested similar strains of niche knowledge required to tweak electronics. If you listen to the Chip Chip Chokas’ first album Chip Rock Hungary from 2009, you can hear a lot of weird, alien sounds which is the direct result of my designing entirely new instruments and noisy effects modules from scratch. I saw Chip Rock Hungary as an opportunity for collaboration and invited many fellow Hungarian musicians to participate. In that sense, the record is akin to a family album, mapping out and documenting the country’s widespread nexus of underground artists.
However, this surplus of talent would probably never have existed without one important factor: Tilos Rádió. Twenty years ago everything started with that pirate station. It’s where I cut my teeth as a DJ. Set up in 1991, it was directly involved in the first acid and tribal parties that took place in and around Budapest. Working there was an adventure, because you can’t forget that back then we had no such thing as the internet or cellphones. Our shifts at the station involved guarding the doors, equipped with walkie-talkies, to warn the crew if the government, with their undercover monitors, were preparing a raid on us. At Tilos I was always encouraged to play eclectic sets of music and to this day I don’t like to limit myself to specific styles; I love acid, hip-hop, disco and minimal techno as much as I like psychedelic, country, baile funk and reggae. Later I moved on to the nationwide Magyar Rádió 2, the station that commissioned me to produce a weekly DJ mix, but things there were very different from Tilos. Back then everything was new, and not only did we do the first DJ parties but we were also the first to take music to special site-specific locations; from canyons in the countryside to Turkish baths in the heart of the city. For us it was a natural extension of what we had previously seen at punk rock and darkwave concerts in illegal clubs under communism; it was all part of the same DIY, anything-goes ethos. It remains to be seen whether we can ever get back the spirit of that pioneering era. That’s why I’ve isolated myself from the world: to find it in isolation. If I have a DJ set at, say, the A38 club, I will take the tram, spin my records and then come home again. You’re much more likely to find me in my studio working on new material than out and about.~