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When Akos Veisz left Hungary last year to work at the Embassy of Hungary in Washington, D.C., the longtime saxophonist discovered something quite surprising about his new colleagues: many of them dabbled in music.
“We had a drum, we had a guitar player, we had a piano player, but not bass player, and so I’ve decided to learn the bass.”
Since then, the band has gone through several incarnations in terms of membership.
“But that’s the nature of diplomacy: it’s about change,” Veisz says. “People come and go. And most of the band members left and are now back in Hungary.”
Nowadays, not all members of The Diplomats work in the Hungarian Embassy, but they do have diplomatic and/or Hungarian ties. Singer Bryan Dawson is executive chairman of the American-Hungarian Federation. David Rakviashvili is a diplomat the Embassy of Georgia. The brand new drummer is neither Hungarian nor a diplomat, but he’s taken on a Hungarian stage name, which he asked we use for this story: Rigo Janty.
And while Rigo Janty may not have actual Hungarian roots, he says he loves the band’s rehearsal spot: the gallery and reception space at the Embassy of Hungary in Northwest D.C.
“Even the ambassador comes by,” he says. “Here, everybody’s like, ‘Ah, no problem, keep going.’ I mean, the ambassador’s working! And we’re bashing away, playing rock and roll covers.”
Akos Veisz agrees: “We have a cool ambassador: Ambassador György Szapáry,” he says. And that “cool ambassador” will be joining the band members at their first gig outside D.C.: an annual Hungarian festival in Sarasota, Fla.
The Diplomats perform American and Hungarian songs, including one by Bikini, a band that formed in Hungary in 1982, when the Communist regime was suppressing freedom of speech.
“The Hungarian title is ‘Adj helyet magad mellett,’” Veisz explains, “which is, like, ‘Give Me a Place Right Next To You.’ So they were trying to write songs, which had these double meanings. This one is about love, one meaning; the other is the love for freedom.”
Singer Bryan Dawson says he’s spent years trying to reconnect with his Hungarian roots, and so this music means a lot to him.
“My mother was very affected by all that happened,” he says. “The multiple wars, the revolution, she was kicked out of school because of her family name,” says Dawson. “So she largely wanted to forget when she came here, and never really instilled anything in me. But my grandparents, whom I spent a lot of time with, from that, the love of my heritage really grew, and I really tried to do what I can to give back what this country gave to me and my family.”
That’s why he joined up with the American Hungarian Federation, an interest group representing the Hungarian-American community. It’s also why he joined The Diplomats.
“A lot of folks have seen movies about the importance of music to the folks stuck behind the Iron Curtain,” Dawson says. “David talks about how he was not allowed to listen to rock and roll, and so he would practice in secret. When I was in Hungary in ‘89, I was amazed by all the little clubs that were popping up… all the jazz clubs, and salsa clubs, and young people just hitting the piano. And so it’s an amazing experience to sit here in freedom and play rock and roll.”
The band hasn’t recorded an album, though it hopes to eventually. It also hopes to expand its Washington venues beyond the embassy, so as to grow its audience. Part of the reason they want an audience so badly, says Akos Veisz, is to lift that shroud of mystery that’s surrounded diplomacy through the years.
“There is a part which has that secrecy and intimacy,” he says. “But on the other hand, you have something else as well, which is the people-to-people diplomacy, or public diplomacy. To understand the civilization of two countries, you know, to have a better understanding at the end of the day. And part of this effort is rock and roll: what we are having here with The Diplomats.”
Because ideally, Veisz says, this “public diplomacy” will bring the world together, so it can sing… as the old tune goes… in perfect harmony.
[Music: "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" by Bob Dylan performed by The Diplomats]