by Raul Rothblatt
from Jumbie Journal, October 2005
Életfa Hungarian Folk has been heading down to Louisiana every October for about ten years. The Hungarian community is located north of Lake Ponchartrain, so it didn't experience any of the flooding caused by Katrina that destroyed New Orleans, but the disruption to life were great enough that the Harvest Dance- the biggest Hungarian event of the year- was cancelled.
I called some of my friends down in Louisiana on Saturday 9/24, and I am glad to report that everyone from the Hungarian community is fine, though it still seems too early to call my friends from New Orleans. The best way to sum up the mood was when one of my friends said "We're not sitting around in a pity party." They had work to do, everyone was okay, and everyone was counting their blessings.
I have included pictures (click here) from 2003 and 2004 to give a flavor of the Harvest Dance and some of the Életfa shows in New Orleans. We first went down in 1996 as part of the hundredth anniversary of the Hungarian community in Arpadhon, Livingston Parish. The Harvest Dance is their version of the Szuretti Bal or Grape Harvest Festival that is found in most Hungarian populations. The Louisiana version is inspiring to all Hungarians because they have kept their tradition alive through so many generations, and because they have preserved certain elements that are not found anywhere else in the world. These Lousiana-Hungarian traditions are unique partially because the local influence is so strong (e.g. there are more line dances than couple dances) and because some immigrants came during the 1910s and 1920s and preserved songs and dances that were popular then.
The main source of income for decades was the strawberry crop, and they have a great tradition of strawberry wines. They did not integrate into Louisianan culture for a long time, and they had to rely on each other. At this point only the older residents still speak Hungarian fluently.
"I'm going to tell you something..."
As usual, the most colorful description of the current situation came from Louis Monic, a Cajun musician who is part of the Hungarian community through his better half, Sue, who is one of the main organizers behind the Harvest Dance. Louis is a guitar player, and he plays with his son, who plays drums, and his grandson who is an accordion prodigy. Here's what he had to say:
"I'm going to tell you something, all my family has to move out since they're from south of Lafayette [which is Cajun country]. We were lucky since we just lost electricity for two weeks. We lost some shingles and our car port."
"We didn't have electricity or running water. We went to Sue's mom because she had an artesian well [which doesn't need electricity]. With all the misery of people dying in New Oreans, do you know when I stood under that cold water, I started crying. That's how much I appreciated that water running over my body. How many people would want to have a cup to drink. That felt very weird."
"We'll lose money, but I have my two feet and my two arms. We had a gig and it was very very hot, but I saw a lot of happy faces."
It seems like most New York musicians feel a personal connection to New Orleans, and I asked Lou if he felt that too. He certainly did, and his comment is that "a true musician will always try to help another musician." I related to the disaster in New Orleans through my own experience, and there has been a tremendous outpouring by musicians who have put on benefit performances and donated instruments.
The Media, Politics, and All That
I'm not going to give a racial analysis of the death and destruction, but I don't think it is proper to ignore the subject completely. The issue has been noticed by the press, and I'm sure most people have come to their own conclusions. Louisianans are in the midst of it, and they are more aware of the foibles of local politicians than the rest of us are. I also sensed resentment that the national press had simplified the issue of race.
But living through a disaster is more visceral than watching it on television. People would tell me that it's much worse than it appears on TV, and in the next sentence they would complain that the media hasn't shown how helpful people are being towards each other. Negativity gets better ratings than kindness.
The Hungarian Settlement is pretty close to New Orleans, and there are many refugees in churches and even vacant buildings. In Baton Rouge what used to be a 20 minute ride can turn into a two hour voyage. Some people have lost everything. And when I asked Sue Martin what message she had for the rest of the world, she said "Keep us in your prayers."
A Final Call to Action
I am often reminded of my own experience after 9/11. I was glad to be in New York, because it is so alienating to experience something through television. One of the searing memories for me was the tremendous unity we all felt with each other. I did literally see with my own eyes Jew and Muslim go from arguing to hugging.
I want to urge people to stay involved in their local communities, however you define it. We shouldn't need a disaster to remind us of the imperative to care for our neighbors.