Rooted Gypsy

"Our next number is a sort of Croatian-Serbian-Macedonian-type tune, but we're gonna do it with more of a Greek rhythm," announces Greg Harbar from the stage at Brasil. The Valentine's Day audience -- every bit as eclectic as the song Harbar describes -- gives a hearty cheer. Harbar revs up his accordion, and the drummer and percussionist fall into the groove. Brasil and its habitués -- Russians, Argentines, Poles, Turks and Japanese, among many other nationalities -- are transported to the Balkan mountains for a few minutes. Then Harbar shifts gears and steers the audience to a less exotic, though perhaps more sophisticated, locale with his Paris-evoking version of "La Vie en Rose."

It's all in a night's work for Harbar and his band, the Gypsies. Fancy a Romanian doina? Perhaps you'd prefer a Ukrainian hutzulka? Or what about a gypsy tune typically heard in a Hungarian csarda? Whatever Eastern European flavor you like, odds are good that Harbar knows how to cook it up. The Gypsies themselves stir up quite a pot, too; they've been known to serve up Irish, Cajun and bluegrass music at events as diverse as St. Patrick's Day bashes and Mardi Gras crawfish boils.

To visit Harbar's east Montrose bungalow is to stumble upon one of the finest ethnic music collections in the world. Enormous binders with labels like "Czech-Slovene-Slovak" or "Scandinavian polskas and hambos" crowd several shelves, each one brimming with some of the tens of thousands of folk tunes he has transcribed. Several walls are packed floor to ceiling with LPs, CDs, cassettes, videos and books on music. The fireplace is concealed by a half-dozen or so Slavic string band instruments, including his trusty bass balalaika, which is another of the instruments Harbar has mastered. A bookcase whirls around, Scooby-Doo-style, to reveal a closet full of guitars.

The central irony of Harbar's life seems painfully obvious: He has led a rather settled existence in a band named the Gypsies. Yet you can travel far without lifting a finger if your mind is free, and Greg Harbar has nothing if not a free mind.

Born to Belorussian immigrants in a Pan-Slavic community in New Jersey, Harbar learned Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and English as a child, all of which were mandatory, he says, "in order to speak to our neighbors." One tongue the immigrants all understood was music, and Harbar and two of his brothers formed a polka combo while in their teens. But even in the very buckle of the New Jersey Borscht Belt, the Harbar brothers fell under the spell of Elvis Presley's Memphian ministrations. After working up a few polka versions of the King's music, the Harbars tried them out on the old folks at home. They met with no success whatsoever; their father had only one word for that kind of music.

"He called it 'garbage,' " Harbar says.

After college, Harbar headed for Greenwich Village before the U.S. Army came calling. After six years in the military, including several in San Antonio, Harbar moved to Houston and took up a career in radio ad sales, for KCOH-AM, among others. In 1974 Harbar was able to quit his job.

He's been gigging about three or four nights a week ever since, at every sort of venue and for every sort of audience imaginable. At one of Lynn Wyatt's parties, the audience included Princess Margaret, who was so taken with the band that she had Wyatt fly the members to Dallas on her private plane for an encore six months later. King Hussein was a royal convert, too. Then there was the River Oaks party at which the band charmed Richard Nixon, and another where the musicians performed for Donald and Ivana Trump.

Not all of Harbar's gigs have been such star-studded affairs. Some are, simply put, weird. There was the hotel conference gig at which a corporation had requested Harbar to provide a monkey and a barrel organ. Since the nearest barrel organ was in Mexico and prohibitively expensive to ship -- never mind the fact there was no supply of twinkle-toed monkeys around -- Harbar improvised. He slapped a monkey mask on a dancer, tied her to himself with a long rope, and wailed away on the accordion.

"She was real small," he explains. "We got a bill each and free drinks at the bar."

Then there was the misbehaving River Oaks husband who hired the band to serenade his wronged wife, while he attempted an unsuccessful flowers-in-hand reconciliation from atop a ladder outside her second-floor window. Perhaps the oddest gig of all was for a husband who was in much better graces with his wife. "I played for some guy who wanted to get it on with his wife while we played in the kitchen for them," Harbar recalls. "He gave us $500 and told us [imitating a good ol' boy voice], 'Now I want you boys to play two hours of nothin' but the most romantic damn stuff y'all know.' "

There have been some tough times along the way, too. In 1998 Harbar and his wife/bandmate, violinist Mary Ann Harbar, parted ways. Last year another longtime collaborator, world-renowned mandolinist Dave Peters, passed away. Peters's death has been hard on Harbar. The very mention of it seems to cast a pall over Harbar's resolutely cheerful mien.

He regains his ebullience when he talks about his favorite style of music, that of the Sinti. The Sinti are a tribe of gypsies very much known for their music. One notable Sinti was perhaps the most famous gypsy musician of all time, guitarist Django Reinhardt. Harbar calls Reinhardt a hero. "My favorite performer of all time," he says unequivocally. "I go to his festival every year in Samois sur Seine [France], where Django's buried. I've been fortunate enough to meet Django's oldest son, Babik, and hang out with him and camp with them. That Sinti style of music is so great. I'm hoping to bring some of those players over here soon."

Since the advent of Django, Sinti music has come to be known as gypsy swing. For Harbar it's more than a music -- it's an approach to life. Harbar, after all, is the king of all the swinging strings, whether they originated on a Tyrolean Alp, in a Russian forest or on the Louisiana prairie. While Harbar has led a pretty settled life for a gypsy, at least in the physical sense, his mind and soul have wandered as far and wide as the music he plays.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax