Songs and dances of the Jászság
By Mike Gordon

The Jászság is a region of Hungary along the Zagyva River, a tributary of the Tisza, in Szolnok county in the northwestern part of the Great Plain (Alföld). Its inhabitants, the Jász people, were a nomadic Indo-European tribe. (Were they originally Iranian? One writer thinks so.) They entered the area in the 13th century as part of the wave of migration that also brought the Kun people into Hungary. Soon afterwards, they came to the military aid of Hungary's King Béla IV, who in turn granted them special privileges which lasted almost uninterrupted until 1876. During the passing centuries, the Jász, like the Kun, were gradually assimilated into the greater Hungarian culture. The Jász were quick to establish market towns in their new territory, which had been devastated by Tartar invasions. After the Turks were forced out of Hungary in the 17th century, the Jász also spread into vacant agricultural lands to the south of their original settlements.

Lithograph of folk costumesTraditions of the Jász
For centuries the Jász settlements were based on the had, or troop, a form of extended family or clan also found among the nearby Palóc, Kun and Hajdú peoples. The Jászság settlements traditionally had a high "captain" based in Jászberény, and an echo of their military tradition is still heard in the lyrics of their folk songs.

Jászberény, about 40 miles east of Budapest, is the principal town of the Jászság, with a population of 30,000 or more. Legend has it that Jászberény is also the site of the ancient seat of Attila, the famed king of the Huns, and that his coffin made of gold, silver and iron rests on the bed of the Zagyva.

Although some of the Jász tribe's ancient words became part of the Hungarian language (for example komondor, sheep dog), the Jász are now considered speakers of the Palóc dialect of Hungarian, and their folklore reflects both Palóc and Alföld influences. Most are Roman Catholic. However, the folklore of the Jászság, like that of Kun lands, long retained Eastern influences -- for example, garments cut along simple, rectangular lines -- that reflected their later arrival from the steppes.

Photo of the author jamming with Jaszsag musiciansFrom the Jászság to America
This unique mix of cultures finds part of its expression in dances and music that combine urban influences with the pastoral traditions of the Great Plain. It makes for an appealing blend. The folklore of the Jászság has been preserved in Jászberény by one of Hungary's leading amateur dance and music ensembles, the Jászsági Együttes, which through the 1980s was directed by Imre Papp.

The Kárpátok Ensemble of Los Angeles (including the author, who played kontra. or chord viola, among other instruments) had the opportunity to study the dances, music and songs of the Jászság during an extended visit to Jászberény during the summer of 1985. To the best of our knowledge, Kárpátok is the only performing ensemble outside of Hungary to include the folklore of the Jászság in its repertoire. Kárpátok's artistic director, Tibor Toghia, choreographed a suite of dances from the village of Jászalsoszentgyörgy and also taught the dances of the Jászság to Hungarian dance enthusiasts at a traditional táncház dance party in Los Angeles.

Engraving of folk costumesThe dance cycle of the Jászság
The traditional dance cycle of the Jászság includes four dances:

  • Verbunk, men's recruiting dance
  • Ugrós, jumping dance
  • Lassú csárdás, slow couple dance
  • Friss csárdás, fast couple dance

Music of the Jászság
Traditional music of the Jászság earlier in this century featured a small band of instruments also heard in music of the Alföld and Délalföld regions of Hungary: violin, viola, bass and tekerö, or hurdy-gurdy, whose distinctive buzzing sound adds an extra rhythmic impetus to the sound. The viola did not play melody or harmony, but rather played two-note chords, with an extended, pulsing bow on the beat for the verbunk and lassú csárdás and a short, crisp off-beat attack for the ugrós and friss csárdás.

Music, lyrics and translations for the songs we collected are available.