BUDAPEST (Reuters) - When communism ended in Hungary, a small political party called the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz) celebrated with two concerts: one to say so long to the old era, the other to welcome the new.
Headlining both events was a little-known alternative rock trio called Kispal and the Badger. Its quirky, imaginative lyrics and fresh, bare-bones music would soon propel the band to immense heights of success.
Twenty years on, Hungary has changed beyond recognition. Communists are gone, and the considerably older Young Democrats are in government. The cultural shift since 1990 has been nothing short of seismic.
Earlier this year, Kispal and the Badger took stock of the past two decades - and decided to call it quits. To thousands of their fans, that was the end of the post-communist era.
“They were the most important Hungarian band of the last 25 years,” said Karoly Gerendai, chief of Budapest’s giant Sziget (Island) Festival, which dedicated its entire first day on Monday to a farewell concert by Kispal.
Since the early 1990s, Sziget has expanded from its roots as a student gathering to a massive weeklong event that drew almost 400,000 visitors in each of the past two years.
“(Kispal) are the defining act for a generation,” Gerendai said. “Alone among all bands, they have been a headline act at Sziget in every year since 1994.”
The last show drew tens of thousands of people of all age groups. Teenage festival dwellers mingled with rockers of old and families who came to witness Kispal one last time.
“I didn’t come here overjoyed,” said Zoltan Katona, 34. “I‘m from Transylvania. I think I might have seen each and every show they did in Romania, starting in 1994.”
“It won’t be the same without them,” he said. “Something in my life will end today.”
Kispal’s first songs were copied from cassette to cassette; its latest recordings are downloaded. The communist government tapped their phones; the last Socialist government has patted them on the shoulders with the country’s top cultural award.
Taking a break from rehearsals before the concert, the band’s two founders acknowledged that they have come a long way, and said their success was a product of history almost as much as talent or luck.
“I think that the collapse of communism was instrumental for our careers,” band leader Andras Lovasi said. “We witnessed the world open up.”
“We had caught the last breath of communism... we were on the watch list. But those in power were busy trying to stay in power, so they ended up leaving us alone.”
As the music industry’s censors found themselves out of a job, Lovasi, who wrote the lyrics, could express himself freely. The band put out eight albums in a decade.
“Kispal meant hope in the 1990s, hope that you can do music through experimentation, imagination, a vision,” Lovasi said. As every bar in every town wanted live bands, the need for music was suddenly overwhelming, said guitarist Andras Kispal. Festivals were also spreading quickly, allowing bands to reach audiences like never before, he said.
“Some people thought our music was stupid,” Kispal said. “Others thought it was important. But nobody ignored it.”
Although the band has not come out with a new album in the last five years, its popularity is unbroken. They quit, they said, because there was nothing new to say in this setup.
In an odd twist, their future endeavors might take them back to audiences in former Warsaw Pact countries.
“We need to create a new kind of pop music that is specific to Hungary,” Lovasi said. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel and try to be more Brit Pop than the British.”
“I dream about a quality kind of music that we can take back to the markets that this country had in the 1970s. Eastern Europe. Ukraine. Russia, even... This is world music, yes. It’s about articulating our musical traditions through pop music.”
Reporting by Marton Dunai, editing by Paul Casciato