The breathless press release described it thusly: “19 stomping selections by Hungarian jet-set fit-bit; Eastern Europe’s most vivacious sexual secret piles heavy psych/jazz/glam and funk onto a heaped spoonful dripping with the cream of the 70's Hungarian rock scene.”
“This could be good,” I thought. “Or at least interesting in a vaguely James Bond/Space Age Bachelor Pad way.” I confess that I’m not up on the ‘70s Hungarian rock scene, the Budapest beat, the Magyar musical milieu, none of it. So I don’t know this Sarolta Zalatnay, “Cini” to her apparent legions of fans in Debrecen and Miskolc. All I know is that in her recently released eponymous compilation she looks (or looked; most of the photos in the CD booklet appear to be vintage Carnaby Street circa 1966) like Nancy Sinatra, and that her go-go boots could walk all over you, me, and any random members of the Red Army who get in her way.
So I put on her CD. And it turns out that Cini is really groovy. Most of these songs, recorded in the early ‘70s, bear the unmistakeably dated sounds of wah-wah guitars and spacey flutes, Hungarian hippies trilling away behind what sounds like the soundtrack to Shaft or Superfly. But wow, Cini can sing. “Sracok Oh Sracok” she roars, and I have no idea if she’s pleading to a lover or calling for the dispersal of Soviet tanks, but whatever she’s doing she’s latched on to that throaty Janis Joplin rasp that is its own justification, and that can transcend even the most banal material. The PR guy got it right with those veiled Cream references, and, aside from those questionable Superfly moments, her band plays up a righteous acid rock/blues storm. And there’s something altogether delicious about taking one of the most tired, cliched American musical genres and transplanting it to a different culture. I don’t know if Hungary had a musical festival that was equivalent to Woodstock. But Cini should have been a headliner, and hearing these inscrutable songs stripped of their usual hippie lyrical connotations allows them to emerge in new and fresh ways.
I was expecting kitsch, and I got some of that. What I wasn’t expecting was a musical talent that could transcend the times and the setting. For those brave enough to risk the entry into a different country in a different era, Cini may offer some surprisingly clear musical lessons.