While the typical path of the ensemble’s female members was to eventually leave the professional music world in order to work as mothers, Erzsébet Katona resisted that path.
She too came from a musical family on her father’s side, although her father worked primarily as a technical draftsman before his untimely death. Erzsébet was then raised by her paternal grandmother. Like some other Rajkó musicians, she had a personal connection to the orchestra –her aunt, Judit Katona, who had taught her violin, played in the Rajkó before she did.
Erzsébet Katona attended music primary school for four years before joining the Rajkó at the age of ten. She then continued in the ensemble until she was twenty-one; for the last four of those years, she also studied (cimbalom rather than violin) at the Bartók Conservatory. She said she was the first Rajkó girl to study cimbalom at the conservatory instead of getting married and having children immediately. She attributed her decision to continue her studies beyond the Rajkó to her grandmother, who was
‘not really from this kind of getting-married party, she would rather say that you had better study a lot, because you will get use from that. Because she worked at the court, and she saw it therefore in the culture.’
That is, Katona added later, her grandmother was open to the world and was not stuck in the old tradition of getting married before the age of 20.
After Katona had left the Rajkó, she tried leading her own restaurant band. However, she found some of the expectations of both patrons and management to be extremely distasteful:
‘I didn’t do it because on the first occasion when a guest wanted to stick the money into my bra, … my feeling, like the music, stopped. And as a woman, I don’t go over there [to take requests at table and] pass the plate, … rather I show them, as a Romani girl, as a person of Romani origin, that yes, a girl can also [play], … that it should not be the décolletage that is important, they should not be reaching under her skirt, I will not be taking one or another boy home with me after the music, rather there is just [the music]. The stage gives a protection, so that [the audience] can look up there and applaud … [at a restaurant] the boss … says a little shorter blouse wouldn’t be harmful, it wouldn’t be harmful to show off your legs … it doesn’t occur to him that … maybe a person doesn’t want to play … a whole wedding in high heels.’
Katona’s entry into the adult workforce coincided with the beginning of the post-socialist meltdown of the Romani music industry, so fewer and fewer restaurants were hiring bands. After ruling out restaurant work, she played in symphony orchestras, both as a violinist and cimbalom player, and taught violin and general music in primary schools and privately. However, she did not obtain a permanent full-time position:
‘Everyone was skeptical, that I was a Gypsy, [from the] Rajkó. Everyone looked down on me. Oh really, you [travelled] to the end [of the world], how great, etc. But when a person looked for a job, there it was in the air. And then … I’m going to teach, and meanwhile I try again [for] a teacher’s diploma, etc. etc.’
Her lack of a permanent position had a real impact when she had her daughter in her mid-thirties: it meant she was not eligible for certain social benefits that parents in the workforce can receive. She and the father of her child cobbled together a living with various gigs and took turns with childcare.
Katona is now co-owner of a hair salon in Budapest. She still plays, if not as frequently as before. In 2012 she played in a small Romani women’s orchestra that included other former Rajkó members and daughters of former Rajkó members. More recently, she has been playing traditional Transylvanian string band music with Budapest revivalists for pleasure.