Hungarian Rhapsody

Márta Sebestyén & Muzsikás work in Budapest to preserve their country's oldest folk traditions. The only things distracting them are world tours, earnest foreign musicians, and unexpected Grammy awards.

"So there's a knock on my door in Budapest," explains Márta Sebestyén, speaking from a friend's home in San Francisco, where she is in the midst of a rare U.S. tour. "And these two guys say, 'Hi--are you Márta?' And I'm nursing my little boy, and I say 'yes,' and they say they really like my voice, and this and that, and they are making a record, and could I sing something on it? I was so involved with my boy, I didn't really know at first what they were talking about. But we talked some more, and later on we went to a studio and I recorded some songs for them.

"These things," she adds with a measure of astonishment, "they just happento me."

Hungary's most famous folksinger is describing her first encounter with the British experimental group Towering Inferno, whose much-lauded debut, Kaddish (which Brian Eno has called "the most frightening recording I've ever heard"), will be released in the U.S. next month. This comes hot on the heels of Boheme, the Grammy-winning set by French world-music fusionists Deep Forest--a record which also features Sebestyén, in a role so essential she deserved co-billing.

But the artist was a bit skeptical when local journalists besieged her at home a few weeks ago in the wake of Boheme's Grammy for Best World Music Recording. "If Márta is singing traditional songs for 20 years and having success everywhere in the world with it, trying to make our culture more well-known, it's nothing," she deadpans. "But if Americans think it is worth a Grammy, then suddenly it is, like, wow!" And Sebestyén is quick to tell you that while she likes working with a variety of musicians, her soul is tied to the music she makes with the famed Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikás. "I am enjoying this moment," she says of her recent burst of fame, "but I do not take it seriously. It is not the reason I do what I do."

The story of Muzsikás is not unlike that of many folk outfits born in the '60s and '70s: A bunch of college students discover their country's neglected roots music, fall in love, and make a go of it. Unlike the situation in, say, Holland--where folk music had essentially been dead for a century or more--there were still some living practitioners in Hungary and Transylvania; bassist/bandleader Dániel Hamar considers his group fortunate in that they could learn not just the melodies, but also the traditional phrasing and improvising styles.

"When I first heard traditional music, I thought it was horrible," recalls Hamar, who studied classical double bass as a child. "For one thing, it was out of tune. But after I listened to it 20, 30 times, I got used to it. Now I understand that I was trained in the European style, where the harmonies are different than in the Indian or Asian traditions, or even the folk music traditions of Sweden or Norway. And what I used to think of as mistakes in the playing, I understand now was on purpose."

Sebestyén was discovered by Muzsikás shortly after they came together--as a 14-year-old dance group member who wanted to sing. "Here was this little girl who sang so beautifully," Hamar remembers. "We wanted her to perform with us, but we had to ask her mother, who would make us promise to get her home by 11 o'clock." She joined the group shortly thereafter, and later began a solo career as well (see the moody, mystical Apocrypha, a collection of Hungarian folksongs swathed in electronics, and Kismet, a mostly acoustic set of gorgeous internationalist folk that draws on Irish, Greek, and East Indian sources). But her membership in the group has remained constant.

Muzsikás spearheaded a Hungarian folk revival, and as they prepare to celebrate their 25th year together, they remain committed to the tradition. They operate a folk club, or táncház, in Budapest where they play every Thursday in the old style--no microphones, just a bunch of players sitting around candlelit tables, and a few dozen dancers and listeners. When they're on tour, friends fill in for them.

Listening to their recordings, you can imagine the táncház scene: Couples hopping about to the dizzying twin violins and bowed contra (a sort of three-stringed viola) on the dance tune "Szapora" (from the not-all-somber Blues For Transylvania), or stumbling out the door in the wee hours to the chilled-out strains of "Bodonkúti Hajnali (Dawn Song From Bodonkút)." Then there are Márta's ballads--among them the haunting "Istenem, Istenem (My Lord, My Lord)," which was sampled for Deep Forest's "Márta's Song," and "Ha Felmegyek Koloszvárra (On My Way To Kolozsvár Town)," one of many "prisoner songs" of the sort that took on political currency during Ceausescu's bloody repression of Hungarian culture in Transylvania.

It's easy to see the appeal of Sebestyén's voice to Western experimental musicians: its timbre and vibrato are at once so strange and so deeply, emotively human, it seems like the song of some alien siren (or, as Canada's Jane Siberry put it, "it's like she has a whammy bar in her throat"). And of course, Deep Forest and Towering Inferno are hardly the first non-folk musicians to become enraptured by Hungarian folk--Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Ferenc Liszt all drew inspiration from their country's traditional music. Just recently, Muzsikás played a Bartók festival in New York to great acclaim.

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