Vojvodina, the northern third of Serbia, is an endless plain of hillless fields and flat, meandering blue routes. From behind a wheel the eye meets the horizon in any direction, pinned to the skyline by Viennese steeples towering over modest villages in the distance. Rare farmhouses break the otherwise seamless journey, hidden among haystacks of height and girth much larger than the dwellings themselves. The more you drive the more your destination recedes – having entered a land of wealth without opulence. The soil is rich and soaked with its first winter's melt, yet the unobstructed wind reminds you of the unforgiving months still ahead. It’s the last day of 2005. We search for a town called Kanjiza along a road where time stands still.
Darkness falls and we’re thankful to be following a friend familiar with the curves of the region. A last sharp swerve from east to north and we approach the Hungarian border.
Kanjiza is set along the Tisa River, the heart of Tito's DTD (Dunav -Tisa – Dunav) canal network which transformed the region from a wilderness into one of the great breadbaskets of central Europe. The TDT and the Vojvodina Province may prove to be the autocrat’s legacy – an infrastructural marvel and the last truly polyglot and (relatively) harmonious region to survive Tito’s Yugoslavia. Nearly 700 kilometers to the south is Kosovo, our point of origin, still cursed by ethnic turmoil.
Kanjiza, by contrast, waits nestled as far north as possible without leaving Serbia, strongly Hungarian yet seemingly at peace with its Romanian neighbors nearby to the east. A hunter's lodge greets you as you enter the town, followed by the whitewashed walls of local proprietors, then a simple, spotless town square. Willow trees adorn a grassy plaza, aligned perfectly toward the opstina, city hall, which dominates the scene. The building itself hosts a magnificent clock tower over its flat facade, with few steps to distract from the mammoth entrance proud of its Hapsburg origins.
Conspicuously blocking the opstina is a modern steel stage, a temporary construct for tonight's festivities. Overhead lighting from the canopy and a sound stand nearby are outrageously out of place, but justify our presence in Kanjiza to begin with. Our friends play modern funk music, and inexplicably have been engaged by the town counsel to ring in the new year. The temperature drops by the instant as we first take in the scene. A few cops and some drunken gypsy teenagers are the only audience for the sound check – which barely takes place at all. Before the first true note escapes the system, we retreat for the opstina, glad to be rescued from the cold.
Once inside, we are led into the massive basement, which, as one would expect, is musty and cavernous. We exchange greetings with a plump woman hovering with a cleaver over a pig's head, carving and smiling in anticipation of what is a yearly tradition. The corridor opens into a banquet room with a low ceiling and an adjoining kitchen. Two long tables straddle the basement, not unlike dozens of church halls I've known set up for pancake breakfasts in the States.
Like the stage and the opstina, the hall is incongruently divided – one side for the young hip performers and the other for the city councilmen and their wives. By the time we sit down, the mayor himself is already serving the guests ladles of corba, spicy broth of hearts and liver and barley.He somehow manages to squeeze bowls in between platters of roasted pork, mounds of Russian egg salad and bottles of the local Riesling. Plastic thimbles double as shot glasses, since both the townsfolk and their strange guests numb the cold with rakia, powerful peach brandy.
I'm seated between my Kosovo Serbian wife and the keyboard player from the band, whom we haven't seen in eighteen months since our wedding in Belgrade. He's rather a genius – at 22 he's already an accomplished classical musician who also dabbles as a professional sound and film engineer, and he points out for the hallmarks of Kanjizian culture. The mayor, he explains, is a typical Hungarian man: thick-necked and an even thicker belly from the hearty local food. He’s fiercely loyal to and protective of his family, friends and community, and more than happy to share with newcomers the best of his town’s traditions.
Back to music, where I accept my friend's observations even more readily, he notes that the Hungarians (or Magjars to the Serbs) are known for their hyperbolic syncopation, which offends his ears as cacophony. Evidently he considers Kanjiza a bit too quaint, but nonetheles, his comments seem harsh considering that he studied in Hungary AND I know for a fact, that his own first instrument was the accordion. Our band's leader, however, is more gracious, chatting with the mayor, who is kindly yet anxiously hurrying us along, since it's already past ten-thirty.
One last surprise awaits us before the performance. We ascend from the basement, make our way across the spacious atrium. At the foot of its grand staircase, which has shouldered the steps of events large and small for hundreds of years, are two formidable open vats with colossal burners underneath. Connected by plastic tubing and pouring into the makeshift caldrons are jug after plastic jug of red wine, more, I think to myself, than this small town alone (or even in tandem with several small towns) can possibly consume in one evening. A group of councilmen busy themselves testing the contraptions and sampling the simmering concoction, which has already filled the great room with wafts of cinnamon and clove.
By 10:45 the band finally takes the stage and yet still needs to do a sound check. The sound system coughs and cracks – apparently itself catching a grip in the raw Kanjizian night. The horn section – the players having cut the fingertips from woollen gloves – squeak, the notes more tinny than brass. After 20 minutes of their tooling around, I yell out – "anytime THIS YEAR" and the boys realize it’s not Carnegie Hall. Time to play. After all, it was COLD and few people had turned out.
A fellow groupie and I beat it to buy some smokes a few hundred meters away at a closet-like convenience shop. We are the only customers and we ask the clerk what time he's closing, to which he answes "eight o'clock".
Still trying to figure out why the kiosk would stay open all night in Kanjiza, we are startled by what seems like an explosion. Even from inside the shop, we hear the sound system boom to life. We rush to assess the damage. Within the few moments it takes us to reach the opstina, something truly remarkable happens.
As if on cue, like lemmings heading for the cliff, throngs of bundled townsfolk – all on foot and brandishing armloads of bottles – stream from houses and shops and hidden sidestreets onto the square. The charming plaza erupts into a bacchanal, with Magjars young and old, some arm in arm, others thumping each other on the back – all hoisting their glasses/cups/jugs/airplane bottles in wild salute. For those who haven't provision themselves, the town councilmen shuttle their operation onto picnic tables outside and line up hundreds of steaming cups of spiced wine for the elated hordes.
I stand in disbelief, but the band feeds on the energy of the riot. Two songs into the first set and we are already counting down the last ten minutes of the year, with everyone from the cops, to the mayor, to the drunken gypsy kids grinning in knowing pleasure. This is their moment, the time each year when everything that is good and true and robust and MAGJAR coalesces and bursts through for all to celebrate.
When the big clock strikes twelve, the band is wise enough to leave the stage for the mayor's daughter, the pride of the town, who in glowing terms welcomes all those present – from whatever place – and the New Year itself with tidings of prosperity and joy. The sound system then, finally, in voice is clear and ecstatic as the crowd, blaring that Magjar rhythm – that foretold syncopated hyperbolic cacophony. In an instant the whole town of Kanjiza, in one giant chain, joins arms and forms a mad wild circle that sucks everyone into its vortex, with boots kicking bottles and feet stamping in crazy step to the beat. As quickly as it started, the wild music stops, and the crowed pausea in reverent silence.
The throng clears, couples join. A single chime of a piano splits, beckoning one last bit of tradition. A concerto by Liszt plays softly, and the Magjars, led by the mayor and his daughter, join together in Kanjiza square, and begin to waltz.