Roby Lakatos takes fusion to feed on Roma roots

Hungarian-born violin virtuoso Roby Lakatos can trace his musical heritage back to 18th-century Budapest, where his seventh-generation ancestor János Bihari anticipated today’s musical fusions through his fiery mix of Romany melodies and classical counterpoint. With his shock of back-combed hair, flowing stage attire, and rakishly waxed mustache, Lakatos also possesses the fashion sense of an earlier and more elegant time; it’s easy to imagine him in the company of Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, whose respective 21 Hungarian Dances and Hungarian Rhapsody were directly inspired by tunes that Bihari made famous.

Beneath the Old World trappings, however, Lakatos is a thoroughly modern musician. Although he’s respectful of his lineage—“The Lakatos family, it was very important,” he says, on the line from his Brussels home—he’s as bent as Bihari was on updating the ancient music of the Roma people.

“I am the third person in this big family to make a new style,” he explains in heavily accented but careful English, after noting that his uncle Sándor Lakatos was also an innovator in the years following the Second World War. “Fifteen years ago I had some problems with the Gypsy music, because I felt all kinds of music in the world—like jazz or classical music or pop music—were all coming to new things. You know? It was very important to move forward. But nothing was happening with the Gypsy music. And for that I made many changes, mainly in the band. My band is not a traditional Gypsy orchestra, because I have a piano and a guitar but I don’t have cello and I don’t have clarinet, for example. But with this conception, we can play all styles.

“My style has three elements,” he continues. “The base is Gypsy music, of course, but also it includes classical music and jazz: Django Reinhardt–style jazz and also bebop jazz.”

So far, Lakatos has been making inroads primarily in the classical world: he’s signed to the Deutsche Grammophon label; the late Yehudi Menuhin was a fan; and his Vancouver debut at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (March 29) is being sponsored by the Vancouver Recital Society. But as his most recent release, 2006’s Klezmer Karma, indicates, he’s continuing to explore new musical combinations.

“It’s klezmer music, Yiddish music, mixed with Gypsy music,” the violinist explains, noting that this particular crossover effort was assisted by another Brussels resident, klezmer singer Myriam Fuks. “She’s coming with us,” he adds. “In the concert, she’ll sing with us like a special guest.”

Now that’s interesting: this news doesn’t seem to have reached the VRS publicity machine. Other than that, however, Lakatos reveals only that Saturday’s program will feature selections from several of his earlier CDs, and a lot more experimentation than is the norm for chamber music.

“The arrangements are very classical—but we have a lot of improvisation, too, because Gypsy music is like jazz,” he explains. “And, of course, we never make the same concert twice.”