Bela Somsak: Cimbalom Maker
Bela Somsak was a proud Hungarian-American. He loved Hungarian food, Hungarian culture and especially Hungarian music. He even had a Hungarian sheepdog, a Puli. His hobby was making cimbaloms, a way to honor his heritage and to encourage musical training in his children, especially his middle child, who displayed a special talent for the instrument.
To give himself a break from work, Somsak bought a cimbalom made by Istvan Horvath in 1948. He planned to learn just a few songs, but the instrument had a cracked bottom and problems with the tuning heads that surely would lead to warping. So Somsak set out to rebuild it. He was a machinist and could make his own wood and metal parts. He designed his own tools, including a machine that could wind bass strings. And he had enough knowledge of woodworking to make a soundboard out of white spruce as well as a wooden frame, posts under the soundboard and new heads to hold the tuning pins. Soon he had built an entirely new cimbalom except for the legs he had salvaged.
Somsak devoted himself to melding the best features from various other cimbalom makers with his own innovations. From a builder whose last name was Remenyi, he adapted a cut-away on the frame above the knees that made playing more comfortable. He took the idea of a cast-iron A-frame from cimbaloms made by renowned builder Janos Schunda and improved the concept by switching to lighter stainless steel. He adapted the method of tightly wrapping bass strings that he learned from another legendary builder, Lajos Bohak, during an inspirational visit in 1972. Then he added his own touches such as piano-tuning pins that could be replaced easily as needed and reversing the thread on the pins to make tuning easier for right-handed players.
Music was central to Bela’s life, from listening to Hungarian gypsy music on LPs to enjoying live sessions. He hired a top gypsy cimbalom player– Julius Miko – to give lessons to his youngest son, Jim. Bela was particularly happy when Jim played the cimbalom at the family home, where he sometimes played with his brother Bill (on accordion), with his uncle Alex Vilagi (on cimbalom, too), or in various bands. In Southern California, Jim occasionally played at the Gypsy Cellar restaurant, at the Southern California American-Hungarian Club and with the local symphonies, where he performed the very challenging intermezzo to Zoltan Kodaly’s Hungarian folk opera, Hary Janos.
Bela Somsak was born in Hungary in 1913. He immigrated to the United States in 1929 with his mother, brother and sister on the S.S. Berengaria. They settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where they reunited with Bela’s father, who had saved to bring the family together in a land of greater opportunity. Bela’s travel documents note his first name as Vojtech, a Slovak first name, and Americans knew him as William, or Bill, but to his many Hungarian friends, he was always Bela.
In 1939, he married Margaret Kadar, an American-born waitress whose parents were Hungarian. Bela and Margaret had three children -- Bill, Jim & Marlene – and were married for 60 years. They moved to the Southern California city of Pomona in 1957 and lived out their lives there.
Bela was active in the Southern California American-Hungarian Club House, and was its president for many years. After a successful career as a small-businessman and a builder of a dozen or more cimbaloms, Bela passed in 1999 at the age of 85. Margaret passed in 2009 at the age of 88. Their three children continue to honor their parents’ memory with a Somsak cimbalom in each of their homes.