Happy 58th Birthday Leslie Mandoki! In honour of this, here is Leslie's article from the 1980 biography of Dschinghis Khan, published by Bastei-Lubbe.
Leslie Mandoki is Hungarian. He was born in Budapest on January 7, 1953. A violin was his first contact with music in life.
The Mandokis (the father was a supervisor in the Finance Ministry, the mother was a Personnel manager at a restaurant chain) inhabited a villa floor on the outskirts of the two million person city of Budapest.
“In my parents' house there was a calm, balanced environment. Every evening, Father took to the violin. We listened and sang folk songs together often.”
In 1958, the Mandokis received another young: Son Peter came into the world. One year later, Leslie was enrolled in the eight year primary school, common in Hungary.
“Doki,” as his friends knew him, was a very confident child. (“At five years old I could send my parents alone on a boat trip”) and extremely bright: “I was always somehow busy, and always tinkering with my life; for example a light for my tent. With my many discoveries, I made the whole area unsafe.”
“Doki” was also an avid cyclist. “Every weekend, our whole family made the traditional bicycle trip up to the 'Donauknie,' where our cottage was. Every month I painted my bike and equipped it with the craziest things.”
Leslie Mandoki was just as agile in school as he was in leisure time. “I was a very good student with the best marks. I was interested in practically everything, and I read anything I could get into my hands. In addition, I had the luch of having a very good Literature teacher.”
For almost centuries, the Hungarian people, who come from the Hungarian Magyars, who advanced up the Danube from Central Europe, were closely linked with the culture of the West. Many significant composers, such as Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok, are known far beyond the borders of their land. The 18th century found Hungarian literature, with Gyorgy Bessenyei and Ferenc Kazinzcy following the development of Europe. Even in elementary school, the students study the works of poets and thinkers.
Leslie Mandoki was not only a good listener, he was also a vocal student. “At 11 years old, I was elected class speaker, two years later I was chairman of the student council.”
Despite his strong commitment to school, he also found enough time to run athletics and play water polo. He was also a member of several youth organizations.
Ever since early youth had Leslie, by his father's violin playing, a relationship with music; it was now strengthened by the classically-inspired school choir in which he sang. “We had a very different relationship than, say, the students in Germany.” That should him later benefit.
Primary school takes eight years in Hungary. “I left with an excellent school-leaving certificate,” Leslie Mandoki says proudly.
He was equally as proud when he completed the difficult entry exam to “PETRIK-LAJOS” chemical pilot plant (a high school, where one receives training as a chemical engineer.) “In the pilot plant, despite my strong interest in the humanities, I had to mainly concern myself with natural science subjects, because my father had chosen the chemistry subject for me.”
The only bright spot in this time was the young writer's club, which Leslie joined, and published his poems in various student newspapers.
Leslie Mandoki has written many poems. For example, this: Around me snow/Frozen ghost-dreams driven by the wind/ I sit, shivering under my nothingness/ Over the next mountain, sunlight falls/ Warms my heart hanging around.
And he dreams for years, to publish a book of his poems.
Back to the youth. Between poetry and literature, the bright boy began to have a strong interest in music. He tried his hand as a drummer, played in school bands, sang with friends. Songs of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
“My father was outraged, and our teacher was also not excited, that we were involved in Western pop music. In their opinion, we should rather have taken part in official youth events.”
And Leslie's father, who probably already already guessed how deeply the music influenced his son, did the rest: “He always advised me on it, and later to become a musician.”
On April 1, 1969, Laszlo Mandoki [Leslie's father] died. “That was the worst shock of my life,” says Leslie, and he sought comfort in music.
“At seventeen, I founded my first group, we were known as 'Tiger.' Three guitars, keyboard, and drums. We played every Saturday in high school clubs and every Sunday in a dance school.” Leslie, who regularly took percussion lessons, sat at the “shooting gallery.”
Chemistry instruction at the pilot plant, he finished school with a pass. “At eighteen, the carefree school years were over.” Good years, that he has good memories of. “Our class got along so well together in these four years, that we still have close contact with each other.”
After graduation, Leslie began to study economics at the Highschool for Trade and Economy at Budapest. It was one year later, -- at nineteen years old – that he had his first big contact with the music scene.
At this point, it is necessary to identify a few fundamental differences between Hungary and Germany. “The Hungarian scene is in contrast to Germany, very very big. There are many musicians. The lyrics of the songs are more sophisticated than the English or German. To sing in English was also forbidden. Moreover, in Hungary at that time there were no Western records to buy in the record shops.”
And then he points to a particular nature: “In Hungary, no one is allowed to be unemployed. There is a control of the identity card, in which your workplace is shown. If you cannot produce your identity card, you are arrested. Therefore, it is hard to make music in Hungary. You must take state music exams, and get a so-called songs card. But as a musician, or painter, for example, you get a chance to go abroad, so of course, the incentive is great.”
Since there are no small clubs in Hungary, where young musical groups can earn their first fans, only youth centres paid for by the State remain. There again, one must be careful, “because for political reasons, one can quickly get banned from playing. It is difficult to develop as a rock musician.”
Leslie also remembers: “We all wore shoulder-length hair, although that was frowned upon.”
During his university days, “I was only interested in Psychology,” Leslie also got connection to professional musicians. And he took his musical test, without which he could not play music professionally in Hungary. “In the morning I went to university, afternoons, we practised.”
Three or four times weekly they gave concerts, in which Leslie paid very close attention, “because I changed the group members around until I was sure I had collected the right team. With them, I founded 'Jam.'”
During this time, Leslie Mandoki played not only drums, but also began to sing. “It was great fun. I also did much as a lyricist and composer of our group. Our style was then “Underground-Jazz-Rock,” with many complicated rhythms, but also simple songs describing our lives. Some numbers were twenty minutes long.”
“Jam” had success. “Our popularity was rapid. The evenings were always sold out.” Small wonder, that Leslie Mandoki soon felt no more desire to learn about modern bookkeeping. So after four semesters of economics, he officially changed to the Bela Bartok Jazz Conservatory.
“The impetus was my former master and percussion teacher, Julius Kovacs, who was a professor of percussion there. He had long told me that I should leave University and join him in the Conservatory.”
Leslie did. “Officially, I was still in University, unofficially I went to the Conservatory.” It's clear, that his music became then more strongly influenced by jazz.
“I called a second group to life. Our name was “Mandoki-Trio.” Our style: sophisticated jazz. In this trio, we were not forced to depend on rock elements.”
Both formations are developing to Leslie's great satisfaction. “'Jam' had become one of the most popular jazz-rock-groups. We toured all over Hungary and other Eastern Bloc countries, and also took part in open-air festivals.”
The successful group broke up at the end of 1974. Not that there had been any noise or trouble. The reason was quite different: “Three of us had to join the military. So I concentrated on my Jazz trio, and played as a guest in different bands.” He also worked as a studio musician on public recordings for Hungarian TV and radio.
Then came the year 1975. A year in which many things in the life of Leslie Mandoki changed. “I received an invitation to a Swedish jazz school and more offers from Norwegian and Danish agents for my trio.”
Leslie Mandoki left Hungary, moved across Europe, and ended up with friends in Germany. “Actually I wanted to go to Sweden, because many classmates lived there, but then I stayed in Germany.” More precisely, the refugee camp for foreigners in Munich.
He spent two weeks there, then it took him to the small Wurttemburg town of Gerlingen.. “There the mayor and his secretary helped me a lot.”
The next two and a half months went without work and without music. “I crammed ten hours a day. Finally, with my friend (a pianist) I founded 'Duo-Jam'” We played jazz, helped with the Schwabing State Theatre in Stuttgart, and received offers to play at dance bars. That was gratifying, but also problematic, because we had no relationship to this music.”
But they had no choice, and tried it. “We cut our hair, dressed up fine, and on 1 December 1975, tried it for the first time.”
It was a fiasco. “They had us thrown out almost immediately,” explains Leslie. Fans in Hungary just pretend to cheer.
But the two were lucky, they were given a grace period until the next evening – and they used it. “We practised all day, twelve hours long, and were allowed to stay. People obviously noticed that we had something.”
Leslie Mandoki and his friend played in dance bars, had work, earned money. But the work was not much fun for him. “After six months, we finally had enough and quit. We had saved up some money, and rented a small studio in Saarbrucken where we recorden a Demo with two commercial self-composed songs.”
Both Hungarians worked like berserkers. Up to eighteen hours a day. And they recorded at least a partial victory: they were hired as studio musicians. “There we did everything from jazz up to beer music.”
They had less success with their own compositions. “I had written songs and lyrics for a rock and a little bit jazzy LP. All in English. Title: 'Rock-Revolution.' Over two months, we worked on it, sent the demo to the local press, who were thrilled with it.”
The people from the record company complimented the already honed image of the band, but not everything was clear yet. The record dream, or as Leslie calls it, the self-realization, was broken.
The reason? “They said that rock made by two Hungarians in Germany would not sell in England or America.”
Leslie Mandoki did not give up. “We made a tour of discos, played (with good acclaim) at the jazz days in Nagold, toured again through nightclubs and finally brought a German guitarist to do so.”
The trio played in August 1977 at a rock festival in Stuttgart. But the breakthrough was not a threesome. And that made the problem even bigger.
Leslie Mandoki, married since April, hired another guitar player, a countryman from Hungary, who had settled in Norway, and called the quartet “Double Eagle.” “It was a hard time. We played in nightclubs and dancing clubs in half of Europe, but we had problems because we were foreigners.”
Although Leslie could barely live on the low income, he continued to be drawn back into the studio where he produced their own material. There was no time for his favourite leisure activities such as hiking, skiing, sailing and swimming, money, certainly not. “Even in the intervals between nightclub performances, I gave up vacations and went to the studio.”
In this context, his job gains meaning, says Leslie Mandoki: “I did not become a musician for financial reasons, rather because I was inwardly driven by something. Because I want to be able to tell people something.” It is that which expresses itself in his passion for literature and his urge to write poems. “In Hungary, I put everything into it, here in Germany, I've kind of forgotten the basis of it.”
Leslie Mandoki lost something else: the desire to continue playing in nightclubs. “At the end of Jult 1978, I just gave up the ghost. I gave up the group – we nevertheless stayed friends – and submitted a request for the approval for application to the university. I wanted to study psychology. But in the first year I had to do German in order to express myself better.”
The music does not let him go anyway. In August 1978 he produced three original compositions as a soloist and offered them to Jupiter Records in Munich. The answer was positive. “From September, I started in to study German in Munich. But every afternoon I spent in a practise-basement, developing new ideas.”
After a few weeks, he even had a group together. “We did not intend to evaluate our music the same commercially. We only worked diligently.”
Leslie Mandoki and his wife Romy lived now in a cozy three-room-house in Munich-Laim. There, the wild-looking and romantic musician has drums (“earlier, the neighbours bitched about the noise if I played them, but not any more”) and an electronic organ. He does weight training to keep fit, “because I hardly have time for swimming, sailing or skiing anymore.” Even his beloved quiet evenings with friends “and good food,” have become scarce.
This loss of free time is the curse of success. The success of Dschinghis Khan, which came as a surprise like Leslie's hiring to the successful group. “I had two of my compositions picked up by Jupiter-Records. End of '78, it was decided it was a single shot. One day, Ralph Siegel called me and asked me if I desired to join a new group.”
Leslie Mandoki had the desire, auditioned, and was hired. In February 1979 he met the rest of the group: Edina Pop, Wolfgang Heichel, Louis Potgieter, Steve Bender and Henriette Heichel. “It was not easy for me, because they had previously made completely different music than I do, but it was fun.”
It is still fun for him today, and he wishes, “that our group can see the continued success of Dschinghis Khan, that we may continued to develop and win even more friends to our music.”
When asked if he would like to have lived in the time of Genghis Khan, Leslie answered with a yes and a no. “Although I have read a lot about those times, I can't have any precise ideas. I relish the idea of living in a primitive people (here comes the Hungarian blood of his ancestors to light.) As such, it might have been nice. On the other hand, I oppose any kind of violence, which the olden-times of Genghis Khan were known for.”
And what does Leslie, who is very interested in India because of the “alternative lifestyles,” see for his future? “First of all, I stand firmly behind the concept of Dschinghis Khan, and I hope that we will continue to stay together and have success. In the time after, I will make progressive music, sung in English.” And of course, he wants to make an LP full of original compositions. “A solo-LP with songs about my life.”
Whether another wish comes true is unknown. “I would very much like to see my homeland again, my mother still lives in Budapest. But I'm not allowed to return, I settled elsewhere without government approval. I have written a song about my homeland. In it, a man leaves for many years and comes back to find everything changed.”
In the quiet hours that he needs (I just love sitting at home in the evenings, I need that quiet place, and to keep my private life strongly separated from my professional one”) he thinks often of his childhood in Budapest. “I had then many ideas with my brother to work on together. He came to all my concerts. We have also organized an evening together under the motto “Rock and Painting””
Leslie Mandoki: The dreamer, the poet, the songwriter – who would bother him when they see him act on stage as the long-maned wisp?