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Department Seminar: “Swinging” Cultural Difference in East-Central Europe: Political Transformations through the Lenses of Jazz and Improvised Music

Adam Havas
Wednesday, October 4, 2023, 1:30 pm – 3:10 pm

Based on material from the monograph, The Genesis and Structure of the Hungarian Jazz Diaspora (Routledge, 2022), the talk aims to cast new light on major political transformations through the social history of jazz in Hungary from three major aspects:

  1. the subversive role of jazz in the redefinition of racialized concepts of “national culture” with particular emphasis on the cultural politics of the Horthy-era (1920-1944),
  2. Hungary’s geocultural “swinging” between “East” and “West” including the country’s geocultural position(ing) in the Cold War era,
  3. the (neo-)ethnonationalist identity politics of the Fidesz era (2010- )

Conflicting definitions of jazz—“the sound of Western modernity”—have resulted in a symbolic rivalry in Hungary between US-centric mainstream jazz on the one hand and a free jazz aesthetics following the folklore-to-contemporary music tradition of Béla Bartók. Based on historical-sociological research concerning the genealogy of jazz in Hungary, the talk makes the claim that a sociological understanding of how cultural actors navigate, interpret, and negotiate political changes is essential to grasp the cultural logic of broader political transformations concerning especially the system-legitimizing functions of identity politics and the role of countercultures in emancipatory movements. Since notions such as “traditionalism” and “modernism” have been linked to class- and “race”-based cultural distinctions, a close look on how musicians articulated these historically conditioned cultural dispositions offer critical insights into the social logic of Hungary’s geocultural positioning in the “twilight zone” between “East” and “West,” an opposition that is charged with normative ideas that are instrumentalized by political discourse. The talk closes by exploring the political meanings of Romani musicians’ historical “conversion” from “coffeehouse music” to bebob, and how “Gypsy”/Romani musicians – Hungary’s main oppressed ethnic group or “significant Other” – are navigating the current identity political climate that dramatically mirrors the Horthy-era’s neonationalism albeit in the new clothes of right-wing illiberalism.

Keywords: Cultural difference, geopolitics of jazz, Eastern Europe, identity politics, illiberalism


Adam Havas is a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at the University of Barcelona, Department of Sociology, member of the Center for the Study of Culture, Politics and Society (CECUPS). His research sits at the intersection of cultural sociology, postcolonial studies and popular music studies. His comparative research aims to explore the cultural politics of musical diasporas in Europe with particular emphasis on of musicians with Afro-Latin, Black British and Gypsy/Romani backgrounds. He was Chair of IASPM-Hungary and is a member of the editorial board at Jazz Research Journal and managing editor of the leading Hungarian social science journal Replika. He is co-editing, with Bruce Johnson and David Horn the Routledge Companion to Diasporic Jazz Studies. His book, The Genesis and Structure of the Hungarian Jazz Diaspora (Routledge) was published in 2022. More in his scholarship see:; 


Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship 

Project number: 101067143

Project name: Improvising Europe: Jazz, Cultural Globalisation and the Reinvention of Multiethnic Identities