Straddling the Carpathian highland border between eastern Hungary and northwestern Romania, Erdély or Transylvania has long been a cultural crossroads whose discordant political history produced a lively blend of Hungarian, Romanian, Gypsy and Jewish string-band musics. Under Soviet rule a group of Hungarian classical music students formed the Ökrös Ensemble to revive the region’s folk song traditions, a perilous, politically suspicious pursuit in the jaundiced view of a vigilant state apparatus wary of anything suggesting ethnic revival.
Emerging from Soviet-era isolation, Transylvanian folk traditions now confront the attenuating lure of global pop. Hence, the scholarship of Ökrös assumes even greater importance in bringing the fluid inventiveness of regional string-band musics to new and appreciative international audiences. Ökrös draws upon the 19th-century musical heritage of Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, whose popular csárdás (couple dance) string ensembles survived according to their ability to cover the range of Rom, Klezmer, Turkish, Greek, Macedonian, Ukrainian and Transylvanian folk song and dance. Ökrös thus represents a vital force in furthering the cultural continuity of a spirited regional musical legacy.
The ensemble comprises leader and violinist Csaba Ökrös, Miklós Molnár (violin), László Mester (violin, violas, drum), Róbert Doór (guitar, double bass) and László Kelemen (three-stringed viola). Guests include Ágnes Herczku, a poignant singer, gypsy violin virtuoso Aladár Csiszár (the recording features his music), and Kálmán Balogh, a classically trained Budapest master of the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer derived from the Persian santur. (Connecting southwest Asia and the Middle East with Eastern Europe, the cymbalom’s variants include the Jewish tsimbl, the Ukrainian cymbal, the Greek santouri, and the hackbrett of Czech, Slovakian, Bavarian and Swiss folk music.) There are no star turns here, just a thoroughly articulate and highly expressive musical collective.
Doór’s guitar work lends something of a Djangoesque swing to “Máramarosi Román És Cigány Dallamok”, a percussive medley of Romanian and gypsy tunes. The music’s hybrid character is further manifest in Ágnes Herczku’s vocal style. Her evocative treatment of “Cigány Csingerálások” (Gypsy Jumping Dance) reveals the expressive affinity between Gypsy, Hungarian and Ashkenazi Jewish song, furthered by Balogh’s nimble, finger-popping mallet attack. Herczku closes the album with a folk tune originally collected by Béla Bartók, the title track, a haunting a cappella lament with which any casualty of diaspora will viscerally identify.