Julian Calendar New Year Party Sunday

Simply irreplaceable: Greg Harbar, the king of the "Gypsies"

Simply irreplaceable: Greg Harbar, the king of the "Gypsies"

How many Houstonians are absolutely irreplaceable? That is, if they left us for New York or Austin or that great cabaret in the sky, there would literally no one among our various millions who could do what they do.

I don’t know the answer to my rhetorical question, but I do want to put a name on the list – musician Greg Harbar. I’m not sure how many people anywhere combine his knowledge of music, which would put an academic folklorist to shame, with his love of life. Not to mention his love of a party.

Actually, calling Harbar a “musician” doesn’t really do him and his passions justice. I’ve never met anyone who lives music the way he does. Yes, he plays the accordion, along with other instruments, in his long-running band The Gypsies. Led by Harbar’s vast, if not oceanic, knowledge of primarily Eastern European music, The Gypsies are Houston’s band for all seasons and virtually all occasions.

The Gypsies have played for the River Oaks party circuit, for humble bars and for church picnics and are equally at home in each. That’s because they’re comfortable in so many styles of music. At his Timbergrove Manor house, Harbar has several thousands records, along with hundreds of massive binders of songs, from every conceivable European ethnic breakdown. And he keeps adding to his play list: These days he’s learning Turkish songs.

And it’s not just that Harbar and The Gypsies can play a lot of songs and musical styles. The band is also red-hot, especially when Harbar has assembled the entire consort of eight or nine players. The cast has changed through the years, but as long as Django Reinhardt-inspired guitarist Kelly Lancaster and Ukrainian violinist Vladimir Kotsiouruba are on hand, you can be sure the band will swing mightily.

But the problem is this: The full band seldom plays together anymore. In fact, Harbar himself (with a reduced version of The Gypsies) has only has one steady gig these days – Sunday nights at Le Mistral. And he says the private parties have largely dried up. This for a band that until 10 years ago played four weekly gigs and almost countless private parties.

Live music venues, such as the Cosmos Café where The Gypsies had a standing tango gig (Harbar and company are also fine tangueros), have closed their doors. Harbar says you can now find a tango event almost any night of the week in Houston, but that tango musicians have largely been replaced by disc jockeys. 

“Houston’s not what it used to be,” Harbar told me recently. “It used to be growing and full of live music. But that’s all changed.”

Harbar himself has changed. He’s 71 now, but he looks at least a decade younger, despite the fact he’s had serious health issues, including quadruple bypass surgery two years ago and back surgery to repair the wear and tear of 30-plus years of accordion slinging.

But Harbar mentions all this almost in passing, as if it’s of little interest. He grows much more animated when he talks about his trips to Gypsy music festivals in France where Django Reinhardt’s birth is celebrated. (“The guy sleeping in the trailer next to us turned out to be Django’s great-grandson!”)

He’s most enthusiastic when he talks about his annual Julian New Year’s Party, which will take place Jan. 10 at The Bell Tower on 34th. Under the Julian calendar, Eastern Europeans celebrate New Year’s on what is the Gregorian calendar’s Jan. 7. For the 36th straight year, Harbar has put together a stellar lineup of musicians and dancers to ring in the New Year.

Harbar has once again assembled the full band. They’ll be joined by the Flying Balalaika Brothers (musicians from Russia, via Austin), the Gypsy Dance Theater and Oksana and Dance Group Kalinka. Polish food will be provided by Polonia Restaurant.

I’ve been going to Harbar’s Julian New Year’s party off and on for more than 20 years. It’s always been entertaining, at the very least, and often downright thrilling. The music is great, and you’d normally have to go to Moscow to see so many Russian hats.

My most memorable visit came in 1989, when I inadvertently became the star of the show. I was sitting on the edge of the bandstand (in the much-missed Bavarian Gardens), minding my own business, watching a terrific belly dancer spin faster and faster with a sword balanced on her head. I was still watching when the sword flew off her head – and was watching very closely when the blade pierced my thigh. That was weird, I thought.

I don’t exactly wish that experience on anybody else, but it was amusing to go to the emergency room and announce that I had the best story of the night. Even the world-weary nurse who checked me in had to agree that getting stabbed in the leg by a flying sword was a rousing way to ring in a New Year, whether Julian or Gregorian.

Hopefully this year’s party won’t be quite that exciting. But it might….

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Greg Harbar and The Gypsies
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Julian Calendar New Year's Party announcement
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An older picture of The Gypsies reveals..that sword-flinging belly dancer? Courtesy of The Gypsies