Various Artists’ The Rough Guide to Hungarian Music 

51lwzvsNr3LMention Hungarian music in a sentence and the word gypsy will inevitably follow. But as is the case with stereotypes, that doesn’t give you the whole picture (a lot of it, but not all of it). The Rough Guide to Hungarian Music takes you all through this small country (as well as some surrounding areas) and gives you a peek at the diversity that lies within, from the many different traditional styles to the new music infused with influences from technology and other world music.

There are great examples from the táncház movement, verbunkos and csárdás tunes, the beautiful vocal work of the Wallachia gypsies, and of course some electric and eclectic modern pieces.

The recording starts with one of the five or so new or not-really-traditional selections with László Hortobágyi and Irén Lovász. Hortobágyi’s arrangement places this traditional song “Páva” (“Hey, Peacock”) , over a bed of gamelon and flute patterns. What an amazing combination. Lovász’s vocal dances over and around the instrumentation creating a shimmering effect like phosphorescent waves breaking on the beach.

The second track throws you right into the middle of Muzsikás and Márta Sebestyén and their táncház sound. Their music has captured Hungarian and world audiences for some time now, and they have actively preserved much from the traditional Hungarian repertoire, especially music from the area of Transylvania. Their musicianship is superb and Sebestyén’s voice is incredibly strong and always a treat to listen to. If you have never really listened to traditional Hungarian music, this group is the place to start. “Hajnali Nóta” is a morning song from the Kalotaszeg region, traditionally sung after a wedding party.

Now take some of that tradition and put a back beat to it with drums, plug in the electric guitar and bass, pump up the volume, add a little attitude and you’ve got the Transylvanians’ “Akasztós”. Imagine Steeleye Span if they were Hungarian. Yeah!

The Sebö Ensemble (“Hungarian Verbunk”) will get your feet moving even if you don’t dance. The horns and the feel of this verbunk remind me of some Mexican bands. Mexican bands, you say? Well, yes! It goes to show you how connected we all really are. In fact, as we move to “Jumping Dances” the a capella introduction sung by Julianna Görge could be placed in Ireland, Latvia, or a Native American tribe if you weren’t paying attention to language. But when the Bogyiszlö Orchestra launches into the instrumental version of the tune, that’s when it’s Hungarian nature comes to the surface.

You say you can’t dance to that? How about “Deta Devla” by Emil — this is a dance rhythm that’s familiar to everyone, especially under 50-somethings. Here we have a dance mix based on traditional material. Those underlying Hungarian elements are woven in this cool driving tune that will catch the attention of any dance mix lover.

More dancing — this time with a csárdás played by the Traditional Band From Tura. The band features the familiar cimbalom (a variety of hammered dulcimer) and clarinet. This is one of the last remaining village bands in the country. These guys can really play. Hopefully there are some young people somewhere learning from them.

Now take a moment to close your eyes — imagine sitting in a lovely Hungarian restaurant. It could be the early 1940’s perhaps. You’ve just broken up with your sweetheart who has left you there alone. The house violin player, upon seeing your distress, comes over to your table and begins to play. Your tears finally flow, and the whole orchestra shows up and surrounds you with incredibly emotional music. Ohhhh, those high notes on the violin are pulling your heart out. Now play track #8 (Ferenc Sánta and His Gypsy Band). The second half of the track picks up the mood and the pace and you are now dancing around the restaurant with the other patrons, feeling so much better than you did before! I love this stuff.

The gypsies of Wallachia in Romania have a distintively different style with a focus on voices and vocal percussion. The group Kalyi Jag draws on that tradition and infuses it with ideas from the táncház movement, adding instrumental accompaniment to the beautiful vocals on the following track. A very accessible melody to the Western ear; I could listen to this song many times without tiring of it.

The group Kampec Dolores contributed an original tune that honors the traditional Hungarian modal sense of melody. The arrangement has a folk-sounding melody, a rock rhythm section, and jazz soloing combined to make a very exciting piece of music. There is a refreshing clarity to the vocal and all the instruments, both acoustic and electric. There is a wonderful range of dynamics and the density of instruments changes. I always appreciate a group that knows when NOT to play.

From here we move to some flute music of shepherds (Zoltán Juhásc) — a common scenario in so many cultures. This is another example of those underlying connections that every culture has with every other culture. There simply must be a certain cosmic something when your playing for the herd no matter where you live.

Track #12 has such an ancient sound to it — not unlike some European early music only without all the frills. Part of it has to with the rhythm of the gardon, a cello played in a percussive style by Gizella Adám. Initially you’d swear it was a drum. Mihály Halmágyi plays the melody on the violin. Portions of the melody remind me of the melodic sense of Scandinavians. This husband and wife duo, now deceased, were from the eastern Carpathians and part of the Hungarian-speaking Csángós population. This is an exquisite simple but deep tune.

Fiddler Zsigmond Székely gives us a set of dances from Transylvania. Székely is accompanied by two members of Musikas, Sándor Csoóri and Dániel Hamar on Kontra fiddle and bass. Székely’s fiddle dances lightly over the grinding bass style that is so distinctively Hungarian.

Gymes changes the mood with the beautiful original piece “Dance in the Snow”. A lamenting solo clarinet starts, the bass then arriving to establish the 7/8 rhythm, the violin quickly adds a melody that pushes the emotional level up a notch. With the addition of the cimbalom the density increases — then suddenly a vocal appears singing in unison with the violin (now be played in a lower octave). The vocal is a surprise similar to some of those old jazz tunes where the band plays for a whole verse before the singer starts. But don’t get used to the voice, he’s gone as quickly as he appeared. As they move into the final instrumental section, percussion is layered to add to the depth once more. “Dance in the Snow” is a fabulous composition — not just the usual verse/chorus set up. Not knowing the language I can’t tell you the subject matter, but there is a longing and aching to the song that has won a permanent place on my favorites list. I need to hear more of this group.

Ahhh, the Vuijicsics Ensemble — fast, wonderful, gypsy music played by extraordinary musicians. I remember stumbling on an old vinyl recording years ago and instantly falling in love. This Croatian dance is a great specimen of their work.

Romano Drom has a great rough, almost guttural voice. This song has elements in it that remind me of Italy and Spain — something about the arrangement and the melodic content. But it’s a traditional song of the Vlach gypsies, of which Drom is one. I believe it’s his son, Anti, who provides the bit of oral percussion. Just when you thought you had an understanding of the Hungarian scene……

But wait, there’s got to be some rap somewhere…… why yes, there is! The group Fekete Vonat takes that oral percussion tradition and marries it with a rap sensibility. So you tell me now, are they really that far apart from each other? Go listen again.

The Ökrös Ensemble brings us back to the táncház movement (born out of folk music and dances that were played in the clubs in Budapest.) The cimbalom player, Kálmán Balogh, is a master and probably the most popular player of the instrument in Hungary. I have seen him live and he is no slouch. This set of tunes is put together like the Irish players do: a ton of tunes strung together with seamless transitions. But of course, in that gypsy way they keep getting faster until the dancers must just get completely tangled up in a heap on the floor, all while Balogh is flying over the cimbalom at breakneck speed.

The CD finishes with a fun and appropriate piece to end the party by Tükrös Zenekar called “The Rákóczi March”. It’s a signal that it’s time to go home and rest.

Again, World Music Network‘s Rough Guide series has provided copious liner notes with information about the history of the music and the artists. And I have successfully learned how to use the accents over all those a’s, e’s and o’s!!

(World Music Network, 2002)



Barb Truex

Barbara Truex lives in southern Maine where she performs, composes, and creates sound designs. She performs regularly with three groups, works with local theaters, audio drama producers, and hosts a world music program on community radio. Her instruments of choice are electric and acoustic mountain dulcimers, banjo and baritone ukuleles, tenor guitar and hand percussion. Musical meanderings include (but are not limited to) improvisation, jazz, French traditional, Middle Eastern, Eastern European and of course American folk music.

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