The Changing Face of Budapest: Dancing by the Danube

Art & Culture

Budapest is a city steeped in history, the Hungarian capital has been a focal point for change and societal evolution for hundreds of years. A lot has happened here – from the dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy through to German occupation during the Second World War. There seems to be a degree of restlessness here, a country still wrestling with the concept of its own identity and a city pushing for liberally motivated change. At least within the grassroots creative and cultural communities anyway… 

Hungary joined the European Union as recently as 2004 – since then it has emerged as a hotbed for tourism with many of those flocking to the capital of Budapest to take in the rapturous beauty and elegance of a city which was once, to a degree, out of reach. Why shouldn't they? It's a truly magnificent city blessed with beautiful art and inspired architecture which rivals the likes of Paris and Vienna. Beyond this, the people are kind, friendly and receptive. 

Tourism has become a prominent source of revenue for the city, with cheap flights and reasonable prices Budapest has become an accessible city and is very much open for business. However, with this new found influx of people and a chance for profitable growth, is there a risk of saturation for the local creative community and those who live there? Is there a right and wrong kind of tourism? Is it possible to maintain cultural entities in a city which is becoming an ever transient destination? 

Manek is a longstanding disc jockey and promoter based in Budapest, he has worked on numerous ventures and projects across many years and launched Kolorádó Festival in 2016 – a beautiful boutique event which draws upon help and support from the local community and is set amidst the hilltops which overlook the Hungarian capital. He reflects on the nature of the city and the changing face of Budapest. 

"Budapest’s nightlife has always been very vibrant, but nowadays it’s also very diverse and sometimes even overloaded. We have great communities built around different ideologies and smaller clubs with strong identities: Golya – the very leftist communist ideology, Aurora – the very leftist, actual opposition, Vittula – the punk cynic dive bar, Fészek – low-fi illegal stuff, Toldi – a cinema and an alternative/electronic club for hipsters, Lärm – the only small techno space in Budapest, raves and parties at Flashback Studios, and the great open-air party Santsat. 

The 7th district is very touristic and the types of people who flood the streets and venues cause many problems. It’s still developing a lot in the daytime because aside from some touristy shit, interesting shops and projects can thrive there as well.

Whenever something is going bad, something else blossoms. The property situation is not like in Berlin because we don’t have tons of empty beautiful buildings to fill with culture for no money with night transport access. We have a small downtown where the lease prices are high. The city landscape is more like that of Vienna, with old protected buildings. Many of them were turned into great ruin bars and clubs in the 2000’s. These places were very cool back then but slowly became very touristic and mostly gave up on quality in order to reach higher profits. Of course, the pioneer Szimpla remains a very big attraction and a must-see.

We have a lot of places for different subcultures, although neither the government nor any other funds or cultural associations support real independent and critical projects."

As Manek references, politics plays a key role in the progression and ideology of culture within the city. There is a diversity in opinion and attitude, something which he feels is missing from Hungary as a nation by and large. 

"Our bubble is a liberal and forward-thinking bubble. Budapest isn’t right wing at all. However, I’m worried about the long-term result of Hungary’s destruction of education, funds, and directions in science and culture, which will affect a lot. Maybe in good way.

We have a great past operating beneath a communist system which is now recurring – everything is centralised, driven from “up”, chains and socialist-like decision systems. Some post-communist stuff, with right populist ideologies. It’s very weird and sad to observe, but also very interesting. I think in a system like this, the creative and cultural scene should feed a lot. Although it’s hard to stay alive financially.

Cultural media doesn’t really exist in Hungary, although some small blogs are trying very hard. In public media there is no culture at all. It results in limited education and openness across the entire society."

Whilst Manek is keen to highlight that he doesn't feel oppressed by the right wing in Budapest, there are others who feel differently and raise concerns over the viability of the cultural sector and for the safety of marginalised groups. 

Zaina is a tight knit member of the underground arts and electronic music community in Budapest, playing a role in the growth and development of a number of spaces, events and causes including Flashback Studios and Kolorádó Festival. Her reflection on the good, the bad, and the ugly is honest and representative of issues facing Europe on a wider level at present: 

"The good… The scene in Budapest is emerging, and although electronic music has been present here for around 15-20 years, this is an exciting time because things are developing quickly and there’s more collaboration and exchange with other scenes. Not everything has been done yet, but big milestones are being met now and there’s still room to grow, create, experiment, make mistakes, and try again!

We have a scene made up of great DJs, producers, musicians, creative minds; our various communities intersect, overlap, and regularly come together on the dancefloor. The city itself is beautiful and inspiring, we have easy access to nature, which means summertime brings us plenty of open air parties and illegal raves in the forests. There’s some structure but not so much that it’s suffocating, like in bigger cities. 

The bad and the ugly… Denial of licenses, shutting down venues, occasional raids, favouring those with connections and friends in high places, and a general social misalignment. There can be a lack of understanding and compassion towards cultural practices, creative expression, as well as different identities, viewpoints, and lifestyles.

We are definitely far from public support, especially with regards to funding for nightlife and music – whether government or corporate. It would actually be a huge improvement if we could just be allowed to operate, even with the difficult monetary and social conditions. Unfortunately, new laws are regularly passed with the intention of smothering cultural institutions and community spaces not owned by the government and the friends of those in charge.

However, the recent city council elections have brought some surprisingly positive results, with the leftist opposition party winning in many districts in Budapest. I hope this means progress and maybe a revision of ridiculous laws and corrupt policies. For example, the newly elected head of the 8th district has promised to save Aurora from the closure it has been threatened with, as their community has long been targeted heavily by Fidesz for supporting NGOs, LGBTQI+ communities, and human rights organisations. Aurora also recently faced multiple attacks from neo-Nazi groups, so having a government official pledge solidarity with their community is definitely encouraging."

In response to tighter restrictions on club culture in Budapest a unique party movement has emerged on the outskirts of the city. Semi legal open air parties have become a staple of the hot Hungarian summer – hillside parties far removed from the strain of the city and a chance for the local community to connect without the risk of being overrun by tourists and oppressive policy. Zaina explains: 

"The beautiful illegal outdoor raves, small festivals, and summer parties have been the setting for some of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. At Tanya, a party held by local dj Abel Telenko at his family’s farm, we wandered the hills around Miskolc, in metre-high soft grass littered with wild flowers, under a full moon, with Mars just visible in the clear sky. . At the small DIY festival Ubikfarm, we spent days petting gentle goats and a lovely donkey named Ivan and nights surrounding local bands and DJs in cozy forest clearings under the stars. Dancing for hours under the sun, into the night, next to magnificent cliffs and thick forest overlooking the city at the well-designed and organised series Santsat.. And all this set to an incredible soundtrack that fits the surroundings perfectly – played by djs who know their audience well. I feel lucky to be able to experience such a connection between community, friends, music, and nature." 

Manek has definitely taken inspiration for Kolorádó Festival from some of these experiences, an intimate affair with carefully curated dj's and a friendly, wholesome attitude. In recent years guests have included the likes of Yves Tumor, Jayda G, Call Super, Elena Colombi, Avalon Emerson, Lena Willikens, Ben UFO, Vladimir Ivkovic, Broken English Club and more. 

"My best experiences are the open air events during the summer, especially djing at them."

He draws upon a sense of unity and togetherness amassed through such experiences and attempts to refocus the festival around such similarities. 

"I hope we can create better conditions for music and other cultural things to develop. I think it’s very important because with this development, I believe it’s possible to significantly change the whole country’s way of seeing one another, the way we interact and the way that they see their own lives – basically it can shape and support the development of our entire culture. 

I always wanted to work in this and I feel very lucky to be able to do this. I want to work to develop and create spaces for independent music, art, or simply conversations. It’s very enjoyable but hard work that comes with a lot of risk. To me, Kolorádó is love. I love our team, I think we create the best small festival in Hungary together. It’s an intense 4 days with the majority of the entire underground / experimental art scene from Budapest and Hungary present. I think it’s the people that make Kolorádó so magical. Even though Kolorádó is very young, a community has begun to grow."

Musically speaking the diversity present amidst Budapest is broad, this is reflected by the curation and bookings present at events and festivals. Given the financial constraints of the dance music community within the city there is a prevalent assortment of promoters who have taken matters into their own hands in terms of pushing what is both locally relevant and interesting as Zaina highlights…

"I can't speak much on Budapest history or general overviews but I do find that there is a strong techno scene, with younger crowds and djs recently bringing in more Eastern European gabber and fast, 90s rave aesthetics. Really strong local promoters like Kreative Kontrol, LavaLava, and Designer Drums are bringing out exciting artists, with a nice mix of underground names and more established ones. I think in terms of numbers there’s probably more of a following for harder styles, especially for the bigger raves like we’ve had at Flashback Studios with the series Distant Objects. The events we’ve had have encouraged us and the owner of Flashback Studios (a long-running photo and film studio) to open our program to other organisers, collaborate with international groups as well, like Berlin’s Herrensauna, and to work on developing the space into a more permanent music venue. 

I feel like disco, soul, and funk do better in the summer parties, or in more intimate settings, smaller crowds of people, privately organised and so on. The party series Modansie is one standout example, and I also really love Alcazar and Durum du Fromage. There’s also a growing crowd of people interested in experimental music which overlaps with some parts of the live music scene, as evidenced by the steadily growing and incredibly curated UH Fest. And just like anywhere else, there’s a following for minimal, business techno, tech-house, and a pretty strong goa and psytrance scene. On any given week in Budapest, it’s not too hard to find a good party, no matter what you’re looking for."

Much like most of Europe, Budapest is wrestling with its own nature. There are those seeking to push the boundaries of creativity, taking matters into their own hands and demonstrating the collective power of a community. With little to no funding or interest from mainstream government, and at times overwhelmed by tourism, there is an increasing air of fragmentation and instability. It will require people like Manek and Zaina to pave the way forwards, chaperoning the musical community through turbulent circumstances. 

However, beneath the surface of this beautiful city, there is a great big heart, a musical integrity and a sense that something special might just lurk around the corner. The music is there, as are the dancers and ideas – yet uncertainty and pressure lingers with an oppressive weight in the Hungarian capital. 

More details on Kolorado HERE