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Cimbalom Designer and Builder

Bela Somsak was a proud Hungarian-American. He loved Hungarian food, Hungarian culture and especially Hungarian music. Even his dog was Hungarian – a puli sheepdog. His hobby was designing and building Hungarian cimbaloms, a way to honor his heritage and to encourage musical training in his children, especially his middle child, Jim, who displayed a special talent for the instrument.

In 1948, to give himself a break from work, Bela bought a cimbalom made by Istvan Horvath. He planned to learn a few songs, but the instrument had a cracked bottom and problems with the tuning heads that surely would lead to warping. Bela set out to rebuild it, and a passion lasting more than 45 years was born.

He was a machinist and could make his own wood and metal parts. He designed his own tools, including a “temporary” machine to wind bass strings that would last decades. And he had enough knowledge of woodworking to make a soundboard out of white spruce. Then he made 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.

Over many iterations, Bela devoted himself to melding the best features from leading 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 the father of the modern cimbalom, Jozsef Schunda, and improved the concept by switching to lighter stainless steel. He adapted the method of tightly wrapping bass strings that he learned from the son of another legendary builder, Lajos Bohak, during an inspirational visit to Budapest in 1972.

Jim thinks his father’s best refinement was in the construction of the instrument’s legs, which addressed chronic issues of folding under the weight. His father screwed threaded, cold-rolled steel into the wooden legs of his creations. He also reinforced the legs with metal screws and giant washers so that a Somsak cimbalom can be moved around with ease on its casters without fear of damage.

The next-best refinement was using 11-layer laminated plywood in the heads to super secure the tuning pins, Jim said. Other refinements include using piano-tuning pins that could be replaced easily and reversing the thread on the pins to make tuning easier for right-handed players.

Cimbalom player Cory Beers asked in 2018 whether it was true that Bela once glued various layers of a cimbalom frame together by using a jack and the ceiling of his shop. The story turned out to be accurate. Son Bill remembers his father sandwiching the layers of frame wood between a 4 x 4 and a 10-ton capable hydraulic truck jack. To create more pressure than his C-clamps could deliver, he leveraged the weight of the door frame and apartment atop his shop.

Music was central to Bela’s life, listening to Hungarian gypsy music on albums and tapes and enjoying live sessions. He derived immeasurable satisfaction from hearing his sons perform music at home or on a local stage. Jim demonstrated talent at the cimbalom at age 5 and began studying under the direction of a top Roma cimbalom player in Cleveland – Julius Miko. Bill played the accordion.

Soon, Bela signed the kids up to play at every talent show and stage within reason. Jim competed successfully at regional competitions for the Mickey Mouse Show in Ohio.

After the family moved to Southern California in 1957, the Somsaks became active in the Southern California American-Hungarian Club in Bloomington. Jim played in the band, and Bela was club president for 10 years. Jim would later play background music for TV and movies.

Bela Somsak was born in Sajohaza, Hungary (now called Roznava, Slovakia) in 1913 to Laszlo “Lajos” Somsak and Maria Soltesz Somsak. He was the third of five children and the son of an industrial blacksmith who made tools for coal miners in the Carpathian Mountain region. In 1926, Lajos obtained a visa to travel to the United States, and three years later he had saved enough money to send for his wife, three sons — Bela, Laszlo, Janos — and daughter Maria. Lajos retained his last name in the United States, while his two brothers, who also immigrated, adopted the name Smith to more easily blend into American society.

While he was known to friends as Bela, travel documents note his first name as Vojtech, a Slovak name, reflecting the region from which he applied for a visa. As was common at the time, his family identified themselves as ethnic Hungarians even though they lived in Czechoslovakia. They arrived in the United States on the passenger ship Berengaria.

At age 19, Bela worked in a bakery by day and then attended night school to become a machinist. He introduced himself to Americans as “Bill” and became an aircraft machinist during World War II. To his many Hungarian friends, he was always Bela, pronounced BAY-la. The name Somsak is pronounced by Hungarians as SHUM-shock.

In 1938, Bela met Margaret Kadar, an American-born waitress whose parents were Hungarian. She worked at Borchard’s Hungarian Restaurant in Cleveland, a big, exciting city to a girl born in Dogtown, Ohio, (now called Cambridge). He was a regular at the bachelor’s table, and Margaret reportedly was ever eager to take his order. Although Margaret was so nervous that she once spilled a bowl of soup in Bela’s lap, they began dating and were married in 1939 on Margaret’s 19th birthday.

They had three children — Bill, Jim and Marlene – and were married for 60 years. For health reasons, the family moved from cold-winter Ohio to the warmer climes of Pomona, Calif., then to Claremont, Calif., before returning to Pomona where they lived out their lives and where Bela had a full cimbalom workshop.

Margaret supported her husband’s hobby – to a point. Faced with five cimbaloms in their home at one time, she suggested either selling some or developing a different interest. Just about that time – 1997 – personal sites on the Internet became available, so daughter Marlene began telling the Somsak Cimbalom story and helping to sell her father’s creations online.

After a successful career as a small-businessman, Bela passed in 1999 at the age of 85. Margaret passed in 2009 at 88. Their three children continue to honor their parents’ memory with a Somsak cimbalom in each of their homes.

(Adapted and expanded from a cover story in Dulcimer News dated Fall 1987 written by Marlene Somsak and with oral history collected by Lin Somsak, Bela’s daughter-in-law.)