Tuesday, April 24, 2012







For young Gypsy musicians, it's a unique opportunity to get ahead in life.

Renowned Hungarian jazz guitarist Ferenc Snetberger's music school for
Roma kids is coming to the end of its inaugural year, with around 60
students getting instruction not just in their instruments but also in
subjects such as English and computer skills seen as key to building a
professional career.

Nearly all of the students at the Snetberger Music Talent Center in
Felsoors, a picturesque village among rolling hills on the north side of
Lake Balaton, two hours drive from the capital Budapest, come from
underprivileged Roma families.

The integration of its Roma community, estimated at around 5-8 percent of
Hungary's 10 million people, is one of the largest social and economic
challenges facing the country. Unemployment among Hungary's Roma ballooned
after the 1990 end of communism, which resulted in the close of many mines
and factories that provided low-skilled jobs.

The school chose its students mainly through auditions held around the
country; most of the teachers are, like Snetberger, also Roma.

"In regular music schools, their real talents and values often go
unnoticed," Snetberger said. "That's why I wanted to have mostly Roma for
teachers, because they are clear about this and recognize the students'

"My main aim is to build on and develop what they bring from home, to open
their musical world to new styles they haven't yet known."

One of the most talented musicians attending classes is Elemer Feher, a
20-year-old clarinetist from the city of Godollo, near Budapest. Feher is
among the oldest students at the center and has already auditioned at
conservatories in Germany, where he hopes to continue his studies.

While Feher's first love is classical music, the Snetberger experience is
helping him expand his horizons.

"I've really enjoyed playing jazz and folk and other styles which I don't
play that often," said Feher, before rehearsing a composition by Argentine
tango great Astor Piazzolla.

"This talent school is a fantastic experience in my life. It gives the
students many advantages and opportunities we could only dream about."

Snetberger, 55, is one of Hungary's most successful musicians, having
played with Bobby McFerrin, Richard Bona, Laurindo Almeida and many

The idea to teach more than music at the center came from his own
experiences abroad.

"If you don't speak English, it's hard to communicate and establish
relationships," said Snetberger, who hopes to enroll a wide-enough range
of students to form a chamber orchestra. "You need to be able to manage
yourself. It's best they learn this from the beginning."

The center, which includes dormitories, classrooms and a combination
dining and performance hall, among other facilities, was built mostly from
a grant of (EURO)2.7 million ($3.6 million) received from Norway and
finished last year.

To meet its operating expenses, the school relies mostly on funds from the
EU, the Hungarian government and George Soros' Open Society Institute. The
Norwegian Jazz Association and Hungary's Liszt Academy of Music are among
the institutions providing teaching assistance.

With an annual budget of around 90 million forints ((EURO)305,000,
$407,000), the endeavor is facing an uncertain future, said Zoltan
Meszaros, the center's director.

The center still needs to raise around 20 percent of its 2012 budget
target. Like many other projects which rely on EU funds, it soon may be
forced to either cut expenses or look elsewhere for revenues.

Hungary stands to lose nearly (EURO)500 million ($667 million) in EU
subsidies — almost 30 percent of the total it receives —
unless it can take substantial steps in the next few months to ensure that
its budget deficit remains within EU limits.

"If these funds are frozen, then we can close our doors," Snetberger said.
"But this is unimaginable to me. The center is something unique in Europe
and we will do everything we can to avoid letting it happen."

Meanwhile, classes are continuing and the second academic year will launch
in June, when around 30 new students will join a similar number from the
first year returning for another cycle.

Since the students attend regular schools, classes at the Snetberger
center are held during June, October and March to at least partially
overlap with school breaks — for a total of 12 weeks of instruction.

Between classes the students gather in small groups around the campus and
since many have their instruments at hand, spontaneous jam sessions are
practically unavoidable.

"Music is a gift," Feher said. "It's like when a person finds a life
partner. I know music is never going to hurt."

For Snetberger, 55, educating young Gypsy musicians is rewarded by the
inspiration he receives from them.

"I think no one knows them better than me because I come from the same
poverty," said Snetberger, the youngest of six children from the
northeastern Hungarian city of Salgotarjan.

"I think I play even better with them. They give me something special as
well." ----------------------------------------------------------------------

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