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'I prefer when people dance at my concerts'
Gypsy music, says Roby Lakatos, is "music with a lot of color, a lot of emotion, a lot of changing style."

The origins of the people commonly known as the Gypsies are as mysterious as their haunting, spirited music.

However, one thing that isn’t mysterious at all is the skill level of the Hungarian Gypsy violinist Roby Lakatos. You can see and hear this amazing showman for yourself March 19 at the Lucas Theatre as part of the Savannah Music Festival.

Also on the bill that evening are the Brazilian guitar duo the Assad Brothers.

Mixing deep musical sensitivity with jaw–dropping speed — one observer calculates that Lakatos can play 1200 notes a minute — he is not only the world’s premier Gypsy violinist, but one of the premier violinists in the world, period.

To be fair, he had a big head start. Born into the great Bihari family of Gypsy violinists, Lakatos — pronounced “la–ka–toe–sh” — is heir to a centuries–old tradition of musical excellence going back to the 1700s. Early friendships with titans of the violin like Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grappelli and Zubin Mehta brought the young Lakatos squarely into the vibrant crossroads of classical music and jazz violin.

Though little known in the U.S., Lakatos, now in his mid 40s, is quite popular in Europe, and not only for his fiddle. A consummate showman, as his throwback look would indicate, his lively concerts blend the passion, excitement, and improvisational tendencies of the Gypsy tradition — what he calls “unorthodox Gypsy fusion” — with the technique of the dedicated classical musician.

Lakatos spoke to us from Toronto, where he was performing as part of his current North American tour.

I used to think Gypsy music was influenced by every other type of music, but I’m starting to think it’s everything other type of music that’s influenced by Gypsy music. What do you think?

Roby Lakatos: When Gypsies came to Europe, they went to all countries. The Gypsy musician just played the traditional folk music from that country. Gypsy music doesn’t exist really, it’s always basically the folk music from that country.

So when we speak of Hungarian Gypsy music, basically it’s Hungarian folk music. The difference is the style. This is what’s important in Gypsy music, how you play.

It’s music with a lot of color, a lot of emotion, a lot of changing style. We have a lot of time–changing in this music. People aren’t really coming and sleeping at our concerts! I prefer when people are very happy at our concerts.

Of course, Gypsy music is not only Hungarian, it’s a mix. A lot of Balkan, Russian, and Romanian influence. Rhythmically it has a lot of variation. And of course jazz, bebop, Django Reinhardt style, Stephane Grappelli style, and a lot of Latin influence. And there’s classical music.

I’m learning that a lot of classical composers drew heavily from Gypsy music.

Roby Lakatos: Yes, because it’s very lovely music, this Gypsy music. It’s a little bit difficult — you play the violin a little bit differently than in classical music. The bow movement and the sustain is a little different, and there’s a lot of glissando and a different vibrato. Classical violin players like it very much.

Are classical musicians sometimes jealous of the freedom you have?

Roby Lakatos: Yeah, the freedom is very important in our music. The first time, our arrangements are very strict. But in the piece we make a lot of improvisations, of course, because Gypsy music uses a lot of improvisation, like jazz.

We never play the same concert two times. For us it depends on the audience, what kind of atmosphere we have in the hall. I prefer when people dance at my concerts!

Tell me about your relationshp with Yehudi Menuhin.

Roby Lakatos: When I was 18 years old I left Hungary to go to Belgium. It was the first possibility for me to make my first orchestra, my first band. In Brussels we ended up starting this famous music cafe. After a concert, Yehudi Menuhin came there with Stephane Grappelli. And after that he started coming every month. He was by then an older man and didn’t really play, but it was a very important time for him to help introduce me to the world. It was during that time I recorded my first CD with Deutsche Grammophon.

What band are you bringing with you to Savannah?

Roby Lakatos: I’m actually performing with a new band now, very young talented musicians, 21 and 22 years old, from the Conservatory of Vienna, the Conservatory of Budapest, some really, really good young musicians. Next month we will begin recording my next CD.

The concept of the instruments in my band is very important. Normally in the Hungarian Gypsy orchestra there is no piano and no guitar, but there’s a cello, alto, and clarinet. I changed that 15 years ago, and I have piano, cimbalom, bass, and second violin.

The piano playing with the cimbalom together is normally not possible. It’s very dangerous (laughs). We have very special arrangements for those two instruments together, so people hear it and say, “Ah, this is Lakatos,” because we have a typical sound and a typical arrangement. This is new to Gypsy music.

America is still learning about you, and about Gypsy music. What has the reaction been like so far?

Roby Lakatos: Americans love it very much. We’re in Canada now, and here it’s the same thing. It’s very interesting — the best public for me is the British people. The Japanese too, but mostly the British.

That’s surprising. Why do you think that is?

Roby Lakatos: I don’t know why! But the British people love it very much. I’ve played a lot of times at the Night of the Proms in London. It could be because of how the record company introduced me there, I don’t know. When I play in the big halls it’s very nice, and when I play in the little jazz clubs in London it’s nice too. Playing for 100 people or for 10,000, it’s the same.

Roby Lakatos/Assad Brothers  

 Savannah Music Festival

When: March 19, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

Cost: $32–60