08. 23. 2010. 11:55

Swan song of the Badger

Pop lyricists Kispál és a Borz retire

Verse and pop music may not seem the most compatible partnership imaginable, but their long romance has spawned a number of love-children for the benefit of Hungarian radio listeners and music fans.

Supposedly, the youth of today have turned away from high culture and poetry, apparently to wallow in the shallows of Americanized pop culture. These young generations quote mass-produced rock songs, instead of our great poets. While this aging cliché may ring  true, so indeed does Hungarian pop music at its best, quite as much quotable and lyrical as poems, which in fact they are in their own right. Verse and pop music may not seem the most compatible partnership imaginable, but their long romance has spawned a number of love-children for the benefit of Hungarian radio listeners and music fans.
From its obscure beginnings to stardom and eventual disbanding, Kispál és a Borz, freshly disbanded in August 2010 after 23 years on the Hungarian music scene, had spanned that scene from underground obscurity to national fame and beyond. They are one of the many Hungarian rock musicians who came up with both music and lyrics that impress, popular music with poetic lyrics had roots reaching back to the seventies, to bands like KEX or the singer-songwriter duo Tamás Cseh and Géza Bereményi. Experimental, avant-garde poetry also found its way into Kádár-era record collections, most notably András Wahorn and the infamous A.E. Bizottság. In the eighties, somewhere on the verge of the system's collapse and the newfangled freedom of post-socialism, the underground scene was rife with grotesque and morbid tones, social critique and wrist-slashing pessimism. Bands like URH, Kontroll Csoport, and the giants of their time, Európa Kiadó defined the alternative scene. (The lyrical merits of Hungarian eighties mainstream music are best left undescribed.)
Kispál és a Borz were a young garage band hailing from Pécs, their name meaning "Kispál and the Badger" - the story goes that the originally proposed name "Badger" (that is, Borz) was vetoed by the self-taught guitarist András Kispál, because the failed bands he had played in were all named after animals. The main feature of their alternative rock act were the fascinating and yet oddly catchy lyrics delivered by frontman and singer (and bassist) András Lovasi in a characteristically tense, worn, often desperate voice. While these are words to what are essentially indie pop songs, they are far off the mainstream of pop lyrics, a playful fusion of inventive lyricalism with accessible, downright catchy motifs. Mainstream accessibility implies that the audience has a preference for some well-used hallmarks, and that these can in turn be expanded. The lyrics are varied and voluminuous, traversing two decades and a dozen albums or so, but the main characteristics defining what came to be the Kispál diction were mostly there to start out with.
One distinguishing feature of the Kispál lyric is the way words tend to spill over the ends of lines and verses in a spontaneous, even uncouth fashion: the implementation of enjambement to the form of a pop song. This playful disregard for the conventions of song structure is usually set off with authentic contemporary, generational slang. Yet these are not poems set to song, rather a form striving toward the unity of music and words, with more sophisticated lyrical forms balanced by a musical simplicity. This holds for a diverse spectrum of themes, registers and moods, fast or slow, jesting or contemplative. Recurring themes, besides familiar everyday scenes and life situations, include self-reflection, mass media, consumerist cultural attitudes and depersonalization, and ultimately metaphysical concerns in an oddly mythic and often recognizably biblical characterization. These moralistic, metaphoric portrayals of human and divine (angels and devils, beasts and humans, life and death, everything and nothing) are carried out in a refreshingly ironic and self-ironic manner. The moral is never far from the cartoony, with a generous affinity for the uncanny, absurd and surreal.
There is a prevalent narrative streak in Kispál songs, addressing the listener and involving "You" in an assumed dialogue with the narrator, giving the stories and images an intensely personal feel. Explicit reference to the behaviour and reactions of performers and audience also lend the songs a theatrical setting. This is absolutely inseparable from the casual, slangy wording, balancing out all the explicit abstraction and symbolism. There are also frequent literary allusions, notably to Dostoevsky and Hungarian poet Attila József. In a literary sense, all this is quite an achievement for songs not only danceable but exquisitely quotable, and notably suited for inebriated singing. Kispál és a Borz were opposed to the instructive attitudes in trend with so many songwriters and performers with a literary bent. It was an easily assumable role they strove to avoid by sticking to their rock band capacity. They were however given a number of awards during their long and successful carreer through the nineties and noughties, most notably András Lovasi was awarded the prestigious Kossuth Prize in 2010, a unique achievement for a rock musician of his generation.
The band Kispál és a Borz were a staple in our clubs, festivals, our rock culture and popular intellectual life, but perhaps even more importantly, they had made an impact and influenced at least another generation of Hungarian musicians and songwriters. Much as their fans will miss their gigs, they had made their mark, and will continue to be remembered, quoted, and sung at campfires, dates and pubcrawls. A good place for a grand exit as any.
Kispál és a Borz on YouTube

Dániel Dányi

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