JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU) Bluegrass, Old-Time and Roots Music program set the stage for a unique group of students this year: Hungarian folk musicians with a penchant for American-style music.

The five-student group is made up of members from two Hungarian bands and features a lineup that wouldn’t stand out back home:

  • Levente Fajkusz (fiddle)
  • Ádám Kőhalmy (cimbalom/Hungarian dulcimer)
  • Mátyás Nyárfás (viola)
  • Márton Lelkes (accordion)
  • Domonkos Fajkusz (upright bass)
Kőhalmy’s dulcimer was custom-built for his time in America. (Photo/WJHL)

“We started going to workshops in Hungary a couple of years back, and I didn’t know much about bluegrass actually,” Kőhalmy said. “I knew it existed, but I wasn’t like a fan or anything. We met a lot of musicians who were from this scene and those workshops, we did some fusion things with Hungarian folk music and basically anything. But I didn’t really know that what I was doing was bluegrass.”

From their outfits and mannerisms, you might expect to see the men behind synthesizers and drum machines, but once they launch into a fusion of Appalachian and Hungarian music, they fit right in.

Mátyás Nyárfás (left) and Márton Lelkes play alongside each other. (Photo/WJHL)

“This was a whole new world for me, it opened up my sight I guess, because it’s really like another kind of music,” Fajkusz said. “The melodies are on top of the chords, and in our music the chords are under the melody. I don’t know if you get that, but it’s really like a whole new world.

“What I learned is to understand this music, because of course you can’t learn it in one year. It’s impossible. But I can understand now this ‘language’ and I think this is most important.”

Their appearance in Northeast Tennessee is due to a cultural exchange program from the Petofi Cultural Agency in Budapest, Hungary that pairs musicians with schools throughout the country. When they applied, they weren’t sure where they would end up. To their surprise, they were slated to spend their school year in the Department of Appalachian Studies at ETSU.

“I was open to anything, and was glad I could learn anything new,” Kőhalmy said. “And I got to like the whole thing, so that’s awesome.”

Ádám Kőhalmy plays cimbalom, a tabletop instrument that features dozens of strings. (Photo/WJHL)

After their time at the school, each student is walking away with several lessons. Some revolve around the daily life of the Tri-Cities, like finding a good meal and transportation to local amenities. Others were taken from the unique music found in the region.

“People are really nice here, I really love that,” Domonkos Fajkusz said. “Let’s not talk about the food, but yeah the people are really nice and helpful. We’ve got a lot of help from out teacher and students we just love it here.”

The group’s time in the Tri-Cities is drawing to a close, but not before they create a lasting record of their tenure in the mountains. Studio time in Nashville is being lined up by the program, and the group is set to cut an album before long. Naturally, it will feature pieces that the crew has been working on since arriving.

Márton Lelkes and Domonkos Fajkusz

“We are working on a lot of authentic Hungarian stuff, but we have found a lot of bluegrass and old-time tunes that are really similar to what we have at home,” Kőhalmy said. “And it was really surprising, but the way we could mix these things was really cool and fun. So I hope everyone can hear the end product, what we’re going to do.”

The students’ return isn’t the end, however. They plan to stick together and teach workshops to other musicians.

“We all knew each other a long time, and we are going to continue in this formation too,” Kőhalmy said. “We have our own bands at home too, but we are going to continue like the five of us.”

Levente Fajkusz sings as well as fiddles. (Photo/WJHL)

This year was the first in hopefully several more exchange classes to come to the Bluegrass, Country and Roots Music program, and department Chair Dr. Ron Roach said plans are in the works to send students and faculty to Hungary as well.

From local performances like one scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Down Home next Thursday to visits to Hungarian communities throughout the country, the group has opened the door for many other students to experience what the Tri-Cities has to offer.