The Death of a DJ

Underground Music Man Zsolt Palotai

On the very day of the award ceremony of Budapest’s Pro Cultura Urbis Award, Zsolt Palotai (a.k.a. DJ Palotai) died suddenly at the age of 62.  He was one of the awardees, but could not attend the award ceremony.  He came to be known in Budapest as DJ Palotai, but he was not a traditional disc jockey.  Clearly not for those true boomers who came to know disc jockeys as entertainers in old-style discos playing disco genre – whatever that music is.  From bubble gum to Ra-Ra Rasputin, from Sugar Sugar to the Roof that mother fucker roof.

In the 1990s, DJ Palotai turned to alternative music, underground and techno (whatever techno is).  First, he began playing discs in a hangout called Tilos az Á (the Hungarian version of Trespassers W – for clues: W stands for ‘Will Be Prosecuted’).  Then he was associated with an underground or alternative radio station, Tilos Rádio (Forbidden Radio), where he could experiment with many new styles of music.

I never met him personally and seldom if ever did I go to his long performances at clubs, small theatres, and odd venues.  For quite a number of years from true Covid time in 2020, I came to know his French wife as a physical therapist and a shrink-like masseuse.  We spoke a bit in French, English, but primarily Hungarian.  She has an adorable French accent in Hungarian which many times prompted me to ask a ‘beg your pardon.’  She also attended to my wife in these massage sessions, so talk for the hour-long massage therapy always walked a fine line.  She showed me some of Zsolt’s audio files that seemed to border progressive and regressive music as I understand these genres.  In my car and from Buda to Pest and at home, I would sometimes listen to the musical offerings of Tilos Rádió.  At our massage sessions, I-Belle, his wife, would rather play a lighter type of esoteric techno.  Halfway to Nirvana.

For many years, DJ Palotai catered his alternative music to a wide spectrum of connoisseurs.  With the ascendance of NER, the post 2010 Hungarian regime, his appearances were running low.  He got fewer invitations, and the air got thinner around him and his otherwise lengthy performances.  He had the stamina to play for many hours.  He did a few marathon programs at odd places, visited Vienna and Transylvania, and offered a number of gigs at private events like weddings.  A telling story is the wedding of the daughter of a well-known business executive, on his way to becoming an oligarch, in a small town in Hungary this year.  For privacy and civility, let names, venue and attendants remain undisclosed.  DJ Palotai was asked to do this job by the newly-weds who must have known his genre of music, even the ones that he would offer as light techno and entertainment.  I doubt that he played for this wedding the alternative Wagner or Mendelsohn wedding marches, a good music marker for testing cultural affinities.  After a long session pushing the ambiance higher and higher (not that high), the grandparent (Hungarian Ratko – boomer) generation approached him if he could play some light pop or wedding-lagzi music.  He was unprepared for this, but tried to accommodate these requests, too, by borrowing someone else’s CDs or pen drives for this genre.

Szalai Szabolcs (@SzalaiSzabolcs)

He was a loner in his music and underground life.  An unlikely candidate for a top DJ position.  He was a mix of bright and dark colours at the underground venues of Budapest.  Many people will miss him.

Before his death he spoke out about Hungarian life from the mid-2010s on. He thought that the best had already left this country for good (so did his daughter, for sure).  By the time they got to “Woodstock”, the Leavers were half a million strong.  Regretfully, most of the bad apples Remained.  Yes, this was a clear Leave or Remain choice for a generation of Hungarians, a true Hungarian Brexit.

With respect, to Leave or Remain, there is a third category of Hungarians: the ones who have returned to Hungary in the 1990s after a long period of emigration.  Many find their situation comfortable but uneasy.  Some have turned to an internal exile.  DJ Palotai was of another close encounter of the third kind.  He took on the role of an Exile within the city limits, or to be more precise, on Main Street.  He wanted to weather out the years of uneasiness, but for him life was just too short to see the sunshine after the storm.  It is a long tempest.

He went from Exile on Main Street to Nirvana or a kind of dark Underground.  The choice was his.

Andras I. Hanak

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