Chamberfest: Violinist Roby Lakatos carries on the traditions of gypsy music

Roby Lakatos surrounded by members of his quintet.

No matter where the Romani people have travelled in this world they have always carried their music on the journey. And it is that music that Roby Lakatos has made his own.

The Hungarian violinist has been a major exponent of this form since he was a teenager playing in Budapest.

You could say that it’s in his blood and you wouldn’t be wrong. One of his ancestors is János Bihari, a composer who influenced Brahms and Liszt. And his uncle Sandor was considered one of the most famous ‘gypsy’ violinists, that is until Roby came along.

He will open Chamberfest on Thursday evening and will also play a second Chamberfringe concert the next night.

“This time we are coming with my quintet and, of course, we will play everything. We play a lot of different styles, from the Balkanss, from Russia but first and foremost we play gypsy music.

“We play the classics and jazz, of course, in the style of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. But I will also play  some music by Zoltan Kodaly and Leo Weiner.” The latter two are important 20th century Hungarian composers.”

He’s been to Ottawa before but this time he’ll play in summer. The last time, he said, it was -30.

“July is more interesting to me because we will be able to see the city.”

These days, Lakatos said, he’s living in Budapest having moved there from Brussels where he has been based for the past 34 years.

In some ways he’s returning to his roots.

“When I have played around the world I was, a little bit, an ambassador for gypsy music. When I went to Belgium for the first time I was young.”

At that time, he said, everybody was playing cross-over music, blending styles.

He said he was determined to play traditional gypsy music, although with his ability he upped the tempo.

These days, his fast-paced playing is accepted everywhere and he is heartened by the fact that younger audiences and younger players are playing gypsy music in the style that he has made famous.

“It was always played slowly and I played it very fast. It absolutely changed everything.” His father said he was crazy, but with all the success he’s had he’s crazy like a fox.

“This style of music was there in the beginning when we recorded our first CD with Deutsche Grammophone. Nobody knew if it would work, but it was a success. We sold more than two million CDs.

“I think it is very important that young people play and listen to the music, it gives the music a future. I am very happy for that. I was the pioneer for that.”

He takes his style into collaborations with other musicians and to interpretations of other work: Think Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, gypsy style.

In fact he’ll be recording a whole CD of rock inspired music.

Lakatos is always trying something new, in part because his fans seems to like his experiments. in part because he likes a challenge.

“It’s always important to make something new because the fans expect that.” After his rock album will come a recording of Reinhardt and Grappelli music for big band and violin.”

It always comes back to the violin, he said.

“I started playing violin when I was three years old. My small son is three and half years old and he’s been playing since he was two.” So this definitely runs in the family.

“When I was six, my father took me to a teacher. And from this time it became important to learn how to play the instrument properly.”

Lakatos said the years from age six to 14 are the most important time for a young musician.

“What I learned then, I still use today. For me this was absolutely a life lesson.” His instruction at the Bela Bartok Conservatory was under the communist regime in Hungary and it was very demanding, he said.

But it laid a firm foundation for the budding musician.

Lakatos has had important mentors in his career including his uncle Sandor and , “of course, Grappelli. We made a CD together in 1993 and became friends.”

Another mentor was the legendary classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

In a way, Menuhin brought Lakatos’s name to the wider world.

In Brussels, Lakatos was a regular at the Grand Mayeur restaurant in Brussels with his band. Musicians would come to his performances but the wider public did not know his name. One of the musicians who would come and listen was Menuhin.

He invited Lakatos to play some concerts with him and that sent his name out into the world.

These days Lakatos is happy to be back in Hungary. He said he is not bothered by the political climate in which the right wing government has passed anti-migrant laws.

“Everybody likes the music and that’s what matters,” he said.

Chamberfest presents the Roby Lakatos Quintet
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church
When: July 26 at 7 p.m.
Where: De la Salle High School, 501 Old St Patrick St.
When: July 27 at 10 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.