Tcha Limberger - Feeling Hungary for music

Tcha Limberger doesn’t do things by halves. When the Belgian-born multi-instrumentalist learns a style of music, he doesn’t just learn the notes – he learns the language of the country that produced the music so that he knows exactly what feelings he should be expressing. And when he plays the music, he follows the dictum learned from clarinettist and soprano saxophone pioneer Sidney Bechet, that music is life or death, with nothing in between.

Limberger’s facility with languages – he speaks six fluently – mirrors his infatuation with a similar number of instruments. Born blind into a family of gypsy musicians, he experienced music in his early years in the same way he breathed in air. It was all around him. His father, Vivi, played guitar in Belgian gypsy jazz group Waso, which also featured Tcha’s guitar playing uncle, Fapy Lafertin. Another uncle, Biske, played double bass and Tcha grew up hearing stories about his grandfather Piotto’s expertise on violin.

“My father was in Waso for about thirteen years, so there would usually be musicians around,” says Limberger. “But when I got my first guitar at the age of about six, he was away on tour and I taught myself some chords in a strange tuning. Fortunately, Koen de Cauter, another of the Waso musicians sorted me out and I became quite proficient.”

He was soon playing in the family band, the Piottos, but through a variety of tapes and what he rather charmingly refers to as “gramophone discs” that he picked up from family members returning from their travels, he developed the musical equivalent of wanderlust.

The first music to intrigue him – and he’s at a loss to explain why – was the flamenco that his father brought back from one of his trips.

“There was something about the relationship between rhythm and tonality,” he says. “It gave me a similar feeling to the music I hear from Greece, Turkey and the Arabic countries. It was soulful, of course, but then all music should have soul: if there’s no soul there’s no point. But I also liked the directness, the immediate transference of something very strong but also something that’s controlled and measured. So I decided that I was going to become a flamenco singer but unfortunately, I quickly discovered that Belgium wasn’t the place to be if you wanted to learn flamenco properly.”

He wasn’t stuck for options. For a while in his early teens he played clarinet and banjo in a New Orleans-style jazz band. He also became fascinated by and prodigiously adept at playing in the style of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt’s later recordings, worked in theatre productions and provided the music for contemporary dance companies and even played the bombarde (the bagpipe chanter’s Breton cousin) in a duo with a bandoneon player who “doubled” on guitar, banjo and bagpipes.

While he was making, by now, quite an impression on audiences across Europe, at seventeen Limberger finally heard some recordings of his grandfather playing violin and decided that he, too, should take up the instrument. He was starting late, he was aware and says he’s still paying for this (although he may be being over modest), and when he arrived in Budapest for the first time and heard what he considered was the roots of gypsy music in situ, he decided that playing authentic Hungarian music was where his future lay.

“You hear a lot of people from the Balkans in restaurants and commercial musical situations in Brussels playing bad versions of Besame Mucho or whatever and it performs its function,” he says. “But when I heard these orchestras in Budapest it was like sinking into a hot bath of beautiful, expressive music. I realised I had to develop a much stronger classical technique and I found a great teacher but I was also told [adopts exaggerated professorial tone] ‘You will never play this music if you don’t speak Hungarian.’ So I set out to learn the language and went back to Hungary, this time as a Hungarian speaker, and really immersed myself in the music.”

The band he brings on his return to Edinburgh this weekend (he previously visited as a guest soloist with a gypsy jazz band) specialises in the style of music known as Magyar Nota, which literally means Hungarian song and is, he says, a living, developing music, even though its roots go back generations.

“It’s music that deserves to be appreciated in its essential form and I chose musicians who wouldn’t just follow me but would bring something of themselves to it. It can be quite intricate and involved but it communicates very directly and I hope that when we play people will hear what made me want to study this music and why it inspires me so much.”

Tcha Limberger and his Budapest Gypsy Orchestra play Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on Friday March 21 and Woodend Barn, Banchory on Saturday, March 22.


From The Herald, March 19, 2014.

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