Góbé are a Hungarian band that formed fifteen years ago in Budapest. The band has travelled all around the Carpathian (Pannonian) Basin, a huge area that covers not only Hungary but extends into Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Austria, Slovenia, and Slovakia. “Góbé” translates as “a man with a twisted mind,” and perhaps that phrase aptly serves as the band’s manifesto since they integrate a vast number of different musical styles into their interpretations of Hungarian music.
An oft-levelled critique (for better, or worse) of folk-rock is that the music may not be reverential of source materials or respectful of source singers; but, it is worth noting that Góbé have both the training and the chops to allay jaded fears. The group members studied at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music, and so the traditional foundation of Góbé’s music is strong. The Góbé musical approach, however, does not hide in ossified research; rather, the band use their folk roots as a nexus where classical, pop, and world music come together.
Góbé may be eclectic, yet they adhere to an all-acoustic lineup that can call forth rhythmic complexity, swagger, and tenderness as necessary. Realizing that the world-music brew of Góbé had taken on its own identity, the group also has a splinter project, “Folkside,” centered on traditional Hungarian music. In that respect, I am reminded of folk-rock groups such as Cordelia’s Dad and Boiled in Lead, who offered split programs of ‘traditional’ music, and then rolled out the ‘electrified’ songs and tunes in another set.
There is a great deal to love about Élem. Góbé is a sextet, and so the sound palette is diverse, intriguing, and rich. Várai Áron supplies lead vocals, percussion, and shepherd’s flute; Rigó Márton plays fiddle and sings; Vizeli Máté contributes fretless lute, guitar, violas, double bass, and vocals; Egervári Mátyás lays down hammered dulcimer, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, harmonizing tambura, Hungarian shawm, and Irish flute; Hegyi Zoltán plays both double bass and bass guitar; and Czupi Áron is the drummer and percussionist. Blessed with so many multi-instrumentalists, Góbé has a deep bench of players that function like a mini-orchestra. The beauty of the songs on Élem is that Góbé never sound cluttered; all the arrangements have a deftness of touch that continues to arouse interest throughout this variegated album.
Any album that begins with a blast of bagpipes is fine by me. “Fekete Föld (Black Soil)” offers up tales of multiple outlaws in furious fashion. Numerous themes recur on Élem – highwaymen feature on several songs, as do innkeepers, lost loves, shepherds, and cries for wine. Áron sings on "Borozós (Wine Song):
Fill my glass, my friend
Until my teeth get soaked.
This is what happens to those who always drink wine,
Until they are taken to the cemetery.
Nature imagery is abundant, as on “Ex” where the lovers’ romance is set against plum harvesting. The song “Korcs (Mongrel)” with its wicked off-kilter groove and wild violin playing, explores the animal in human nature.
The blackthorn is ripe, the blackthorn is ripe,
You are a dog, not me.
I can see it in your eyes, I can see it on your mouth, you are a dog, not me!
I am the badass in the village, all the dogs bark at me, quiet, dog don’t bark.
The musical influences range from classical folk (“Fekete Föld” moves from strutting folk-rock to a sweetened post-rock, dulcimer-driven soundscape), to Latin (on “Chikós [Herdsmen]”), to reggae (“Borozós [Wine Song]” and “Én Is Voltam [I Also Used To Be])” both delve into Jamaica, but on the latter tune reggae is grafted onto Hungarian music to create something different and exciting), to a funk take on Maramure? (“Ellenpontozó [Counterpointing]”), and even metal (“Pekulár [Shepherd]”). “Hajsza (Chase)” details an attempt to ford the River Tisza, to steal a horse, and as the tune progresses it becomes a frantic squall of bagpipes and speed violin, yet still leaving room for a few verses of rapping.
Élem is a strong musical statement that fuses an artful approach to Hungarian folk music with a giddy exuberance, brimming with ideas from across popular culture. It’s local, worldly, and as intoxicating as the wine in its folktales.