The first Pecs International Folkest took place in 1986 and was funded by the various state agencies existing in the years of socialism. Today the festival still exists, although like all festivals it has gone through some tricky patches over the years. This article examines, through newspaper cuttings, archive materials and the inaccurate memories of the many organizers, how it has survived the transfer from one state-dominated regime to another based on a new capitalism that has pushed cultural events, always an important part of the socialist political voice, into the background.
In October of 1985 my folk-singing cousin Chris Foster came across from Britain to Hungary for a holiday. One afternoon three of us, Chris, myself and the English-speaking Lajos Bergics, then working in the town museum of folk art but now self-employed as leader and owner of the Hungarian folk ensemble Zengo, sat down to a beer in a newly-constructed pub at the high-rise end of town. Somewhere in the middle of the otherwise ethnographic conversation Chris said, "You know, this town would be the perfect backdrop for a folk festival."
As it turned out, several of us had already been thinking along those lines, Lajos too, but primarily and importantly another local group, Szelkialto, which the previous year, 1984, had been celebrating its tenth anniversary (and in 1999, still active, celebrated its 25th!). Szelkialto had achieved national fame by winning a talent show; of its five members, three were qualified music teachers, of whom one was deeply involved in the city's Cultural Centre and another making a name for himself as a very active teacher of music and a choral conductor(1). In 1982 the band had gone closest to becoming full-time professional with over 180 separate performances.
The third strand in the process, also important, was another Pecs-based group, Vizin, which played the music of the various Southern Slavs living either side of the Hungarian border and beyond (in those happier days with both Serb and Croatian upon the same stage in the same concert), and the music of many of the villages of the surrounding countryside. Baranya County, of which Pecs is the administrative, intellectual, religious and cultural centre, has an older segment of the population that is often bilingual and fairly frequently trilingual, speaking Hungarian as the official language, but favoring their own Southern Slav (mostly Croatian) or Swabian dialect of German. Add to that the Romany population (and one stray Englishman, myself!) and you have a county that is already multilingual, that is, multi-ethnic(2). Not a bad setting for an international folk festival, not only from the ethnic, but also the financial angle -- you don't have to pay lots of travel and accommodation for your foreign guests!
Pecs fulfills most of the qualifications for a healthy tourism. It has a history going back to the Romans, and the appropriate lumps of masonry to prove it. It has a four-towered Catholic cathedral(3) in a beautiful chestnut-shaded park and a mosque converted into a Catholic church in the main square, both they and the picturesque part of the town locked inside a substantial remnant of a city wall. A second mosque, now a museum of Turkish history and art, is complemented with a minaret, one of only two in the country. Both are reminders of 150 years of Turkish presence and rule -- and there are other architectural stamps of the Ottoman presence.
Pecs has a university. Habsburg architecture dominates the scene. Most of the streets are typical of the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of a settlement on a sloping hillside. The city begins where the Mecsek Forest ends. It abounds in the classic tour-operator's high-held umbrella processional from gallery to museum. It has its own tradition of wine-growing, and it is close to the wine-growing areas of Villany and Siklos, part of the Germanic-Croatian part of the county. There is no river, but plenty of small lakes surround the city, as well as a host of villages and small towns. …