When most people think of Hungarian music, they think of candle-lit cafés, chicken paprikas and cabbage rolls, pálinka (fruit brandy usually of plums) and a trio of musicians coming to their table playing syrupy violin music just for them. The Rough Guide to the Music of Hungary does include a track of this particular kind of music, but it is by no means the only kind of music one would hear in a culturally rich country such as Hungary and from the Hungarian population in Transylvania, Romania and from the csango Hungarians in Gyimes and Moldva.
The album begins with Irén Lovász, one of the many women in Hungary who possess some of the most beautiful voices in the world. Irén has long been a favorite of mine along with Beatrix Tárnoki, Ildikó Bárdosi, Marianna Majorosi, Écsi Gyöngyi, Éva Fábián, Ágnes Szalóki, and of course Márta Sebestyén. Although Irén often sings in the traditional a cappella style, she also often combines the lovely traditional melodies of Hungary with very unusual instrumentation. On the track featured on this recording, “Páva” (or Hey Peacock) she uses Indonesian gamelan played by her accompanist, Lászlö Hortobágyi. This particular track actually was taken from Lászlö‘s CD Világfa, but I am familiar with it on Irén’s CD Rosebuds In A Stoneyard: Ancient Hungarian Folksongs released in ‘96 on Erdenkland Musikverlag Ulrich Rutzel and one that is definitely worth seeking out. Lászlö Hortobágyi not only plays all the instruments on his own album but on Irén’s as well.
No collection of Hungarian music would be complete without the most famous of the Budapest bands, Muzsikás. They are internationally known not only because they are amazing musicians but also because of their singer, Márta Sebestyén. She has recorded many albums with Muzsikás and with many other bands such as Ökrös Ensemble, Róbert Mandel and Vujicsics Ensemble to name a few. Muzsikás was the band in the opening scenes of the film The Music Box and of course, Márta’s singing was used in the film The English Patient. She has a confident and gorgeous voice. Márta Sebestyén and Muzsikás have performed all over the world and along with many other musicians in Budapest such as Férenc Sebö and Béla Halmos, they have a long history in the revival of Hungarian traditional tanchaz (dance-house) music. On the album, they do a “morning song”. After a long night of dancing at the tanchaz, festival, wedding, or other celebration, one usually ends in the kocsma for drinks and a round of singing until morning light. These songs are known as “dawn songs” or “morning songs”. This particular morning song comes from Kalotoszeg in Transylvania and is traditionally sung at weddings. Hungarian musicians love to play the music of Kalotoszeg as it is considered to be the most beautiful of all Hungarian music and Kalotoszegi csárdás is one of the most elegant of couple dances.
I am especially thrilled that Sebö Ensemble is included on this compilation—mainly because they were my first introduction to Hungarian music. Their recording simply titled Sebo Ensemble—Hungarian Folk Music was one of the first Hungarian records I owned. It featured on its cover a very young group of musicians—many who later became members of other bands such as Muzsikás. Among the group on the cover photo, inexplicably because she is not on the recording at all, is a young Márta Sebestyén wearing bell-bottomed trousers and playing a whistle. The verbunk (or army recruiting dance) chosen on this Rough Guide is from an early double record of tanchaz music actually recorded in a dance-house and one can hear the male dancers leaping, slapping and shouting while the musicians play. The recording is a little muddy—but hey, it is part of history.
Virtuoso Csaba Ökrös has long been my favorite Hungarian primas and I have had the privilege of seeing his ensemble perform (and dancing to their music) twice now. The first time I saw them, I flew to Los Angeles to hear them at the Hungarian House. The evening was absolutely magical—we danced till the wee hours of the night. Not only was the band in great form; but also they were joined by the great primas from Kalotoszeg—Sándor “Netti” Fodor and probably the world’s greatest cimbalom player, Kálmán Balogh. Included on this compilation, much too my great pleasure, is his particular version of Rábaközi (a very vigorous set of dances)—although if it were me, I would have chosen something from Bonchida instead.
There are so many great selections on this particular compilation that I could go on and on about each one. The ones that particularly stand out for me (besides the aforementioned ones) are the inclusion of tracks by Kalyi Jag, Ökrös Ensemble, and Mihály Halmágyi. Of course, I am also sad that Sándor “Netti” Fodor, Téka Ensemble, and Kálmán Balogh were left out, but such is the case with compilations. Nonetheless, I recognize how difficult it must be to put together something like this and I applaud the results. The Rough Guide to the Music of Hungary serves as a great introduction to this amazing music.