Béla Kodoba and his brother, Márton "Marci" Kodoba, are hereditary musicians. Or, as it is observed, "the ones who could best satisfy the demands of the residents of neighboring villages who knew everybody's favorite songs." Béla switches from hegedű (fiddie) to kontra (viola) at one point to rejuvenate the drive and dynamic. (One story I heard was that, like a sly twist from Hungarian novelist Gyula Krúdy on Tom Waits's "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)," it was the hegedű that had over-indulged.) This is real life ... not sanitized or cleaned up music: off-key, out-of-tune notes happen and the band plays on. And when a new dancer hits the floor, as occurs in the korcsos section of the 'conga line' of interconnected dances, as they are about to finish, they redouble and strike up again. Like carriers of a bygone tradition, we sway out of the party... gatecrashers who never learned the names of the newly weds but clutching a trophy bottle of palinka. To generalize, I relate to music best when I understand it on both a musical and lyrical level. But the Magyar (Hungarian) language renders me helpless. There is so little that is straightforward about Magyar culture or the language. Almost certainly, there is no Magyar word for 'homogeneous' in any recognizable, let alone pronounceable, form. For outsiders, Hungarian comes without any linguistic support system. Visitors will strain to discernany word that sounds remotely Latin (once the country's language of culture, commerce and officialdom), German, Turkish, Czech or English. With its "gy" consonant and vowels with "flying umlauts" (a softer umlaut, since you ask), the uniqueness of the Magyar language holds the key to understanding Hungary's music, with its inherent rhythmicality and emotionality. Knowing that, with Magyar, the stress falls on the first syllable of a word, everything starts to fali into place. Homogeneityis, likewise, far from the first word to hit the lips when describing Hungary's music. The culture is rippled with Hungarian, Roma (Gypsy) and Jewish musical influences. Some of these traditions overlap. Many retain their localized tastes, much like regional apple varieties in an age of bland, generic supermarket apple shelf-fillers. Hungary's famed táncház (dance-house) scene is flourishing. To see three generations dancing together in a Budapest hall to a live band is enormously re-affirming for anyone believing hard in the folk condition. Makes one proud. Most evenings in Budapest there is at least one major táncház date going on. When I hear Hungarian music in Budapest, I take my imaginary companions with me (in my mind: Hank Bradley, Mike Seeger or Jody Stecher), so I cannudge Them. Hungarian music is not quite the unknown quantity it might seem. Names like composer-musicologists Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály (pronounced "KO-dai") and such contemporary musicians as Márta Sebestyén and Muzsikás ("MYU-ze-kash") have become part of a populist musical palate. (Most Angiophone stabs at pronunciation will be fairly accurate. Some like Kodály, depend on knowing that some consonant sounds come in pairs, like "gy.") We talk about Hungarian rhapsody this or csárdás that, evoking Brahms and Liszt. We forget the sheer penetration of those dance rhythms, how London debutantes whiled away the hours learning how to dance the 'czardas' -"a Hungarian folk dance" -100 years ago when it was the dance craze of 1911, as Vorzanger's Austro-Hungarian ensemble discovered. Film composers György Ligeti (2001: A Space Odyssey), Miklós Rózsa (Ben Hur) and their movie kind have infiltrated our everyday in other ways, though their works are a different kettle of pike-perch for another Hungarian day. What sets Hungarian folk music aside from all other music is the Magyar language. It reflects the origins of the Magyars as a confederacy of Eurasian tribes that during the ninth and tenth centuries CE crossed the Carpathians and settled in the Carpathian Basin, to be whipped into unity by Árpád, the father of Hungarian nationhood. His house became the ruling dynasty and saw in Christianization after the coronation of Stephen 1 in 1000. Over the next millennium, Hungary swelled and contracted, repulsed incursions, was occupied and ceded territory. German Christians and Magyar tribes, Mongols and Turks, Austro-Hungarian and Hungary's Nazi-era nationalism have contorted the country into the shape it is today. While Makám's 2003 release, Anzix, an Austro-Hungarian corruption of Ansichtskarten (literally 'postcards' but here idiomatically 'postcards from the front'), touches on the entrapment of the Hungarian army on the River Don in 1944 in a human rather than nationalistic way. Off the beaten Budapest track in flea-market or patriotic shop, it is as genuinely shocking to stumble upon the unapologetic, militaristic nostalgia from the fascist era as it used to be in Berlin immediately after the Fall of the Wall. Hungary laments the loss of the old boundaries, but the blurring of those boundaries is what makes today's Hungary so vibrant. Hungarian music reflects that history and, most of all, it reflects the Magyar language's speech patterns and cadences. As the classical violinist Györy Pauk, who himself learned from Bartók's violin pupil and Bartók arranger Ede Zathureczky, put it in a 2006 interview in The Strad, "I learnt the unique nature of Bartók's music, the importance of his rhythm and the precision of his phrasing. Accents should always be on the first beat of the bar, just as the Hungarian language accents the first syllable of a word." No matter how many words the language has borrowed, it is a language unlike any other. Despite what philologists' best knitting circles mouth, it brings out the taxonomy hives in linguists. Magyar is one of the Uralic - as in the Urals mountain range - or Ugric family of languages. The Ugric family of languages is classified as part of the bigger Finno-Uralic language family, which includes not only Finnish but also Russia's Nenets and Mari (Cherimis) languages. Kodály, in his Folk Music of Hungary, made connections, both philological and musicological, with Finnish folk music collectors, writing, "The Finns are the only related people to have made rich musical collections." (He made musical connections between Hungarian and Mari folk tunes too.) To turn talk to such a loftily high brow subject matter as the linguistic connections between Finnish and Hungarian folk music with members of the Hungarian intelligentsia is to discover that Hungarians and Finns enjoy a common joke about their languages' mutual incomprehensibility. Never the twain shall meet. "Linguistics and archaeology," wrote Kodály, "have already shed considerable light on the origin of the Hungarians. They can be traced back to their beginnings; but neither they nor any of the peoples with whom they carne into contact from the fifth to the fifteenth century have left us a ingle contemporary musical document. The development of Hungarian music, however, cannot have been different from that of the language or of the people. Wherever the people went, and at whatever pace they developed, music went with them. Whatever influenced the language was capable of influencing the musicas well." In other words, when scholars cannot establish the roots, the people just get on with it. The greatest thing about Hungarian music is the opportunities it bestows to enjoy the music on a sensuous, intuitive, non-intellectual level. Márta Sebestyén, Hungary's best-known female voice, is in disputably one of Europe's most gifted, most magisterial voices. Yet, listening to Beáta Palya, Szilvia Bognár, Nóri Kovács, Irén Lovász, Erika Marozsán and Ági Szalóki launches a raft of new female possibilities. These are musicians as fluent in traditional Hungarian music as they are in boundary-crossing music. Sebestyén, it must be said, becomes even more an inspiration in the continuum of Hungarian music after listening to these voices. Like her, these singers slip between the interstices of genre discipline. It is no coincidence that so many of them have been featured vocalists in Makám, Zoltán Krulik's long-lived genre-crossing ensemble, originally founded in Budapest in 1984. It is also no coincidence that Szilvia Bognár, one of the great vocalists of our age, lists her occupation as "Népdal énekes" ( Folksinger ) on her hand-made business cards. Chances are, airport aside, the first stop most people flying into Hungary will see will be not be a wedding bash but the capital. Whether heading off to the Sziget Festival or heading out to other parts of Hungary, Budapest is the hub, the touchstone, the magnet that draws. Go to Budapest, spring, summer, autumn or winter, and you will find no more daringly traditional music than in any European capital in my experience. I've only been doing this for six decades, so what do I know? Two Useful Expressions: "Nem beszélek magyarul" -"I don't speak Hungarian" "Beszélsz anolul?" -"Do you speak English?"
WHERE TO START LISTENING - 12 HUNGARIAN MUSICAL EXPERIENCES
* Gyökerek/Roots Béla Bartók, Hungaroton HDVD 32388.
The screenplay of this excellent 2000 Hungarian television documentary film by István Gaál is based on Bartók's letters and writings. The film puts the composer into a national and sometimes nationalistic context. This is a well balanced crash course. Amongst those taking part are descendants of Bartók's informants and the likes of Márta Sebestyén. The dialogue and subtitles are in English, Freneh, German and Hungarian. Hungaroton, founded in 1951, was the main deal in town during the Communist era and remains the foremost repository of Hungarian music of all colors.
* Magyarpalatkai Banda (Magyarpalatka Band), Esküvő Mezőkeszüben (Wedding at Mezőkeszü), FolkEurópa 008.
October 1984, Mezőkeszü. (Thank you Péter Árendás for supplying this article's opening scene.) For its intensity, passion and delivery of the unexpected, it ranks as a mind bender akin to hearing the Bahaman string maestro Joseph Spence for the first time. FolkEurópa's notes come in English and Hungarian. and
* Makám, Almanach, FolkEurópa 018.
This 2004 album has Szilvia Bognár (b. 1977), one of Europe's greatest voices of her generation, as the band's main female voice.
* Muzsikás, The Bartók Album, Hannibal 1439.
Muzsikás' continued exploration of Hungarian themes - so journing into the Roma, Jewish and Transylvanian traditions - is peerless. As the title of this 1999 release suggests, this one draws on Bartók's legacy. Márta Sebestyén and Alexander Balanescu add a hit of cherry paprika to the dish.
* Ökrös, Bonchida, Háromszor/Bonchida, Times Three, ABT A BT 005.
Ökrös is one of Hungary's key ensembles. Aside from this release's outstanding musicality, its very packaging is a work of art. Its calligraphy, folk motif artwork and choice of paper contribute to the state of art. ABT's notes are in English and Hungarian.
* Márta Sebestyén, The Best of Márta Sebestyén, Hannibal 1412.
Sebestyén's mother was studying with Kodály whilst carrying her. She once told me, "Because I heard all these lessons she was listening to and I heard the words of Zoltán Kodály, I had all this music in my foetal life." The best general introduction to her vocal artistry, occasioned by her success singing for the sound track of The English Patient. Hungary's greatest female singer.
* Tükrös Zenekar, Szatmári Népzene Az 1900-As Évekből, FolkEurópa 001.
A glorious recapitulation of "Hungarian village music from the 20th Century," circa 1999. English and Hungarian notes.
* Various, Dancing In The Forest - Traditional Hungarian Music For Shepherd's Long Flute, ABT ABT 009.
Flute is the instrument closest to the human voice, Indians say.
* Various, Eternal Kalotaszeg, ABT 010.
From the renowned Hungarian Gypsy Csipás family tradition. Take "Tunes played for the Hungarians: Dawn song, Couple dances: csárdás and fast," a suite of Transylvanian village music from the Kalotaszeg region. Beyond folk-impeccable with its astonishing, shifting dynamics. From Kalotaszeg on the old side of the Hungarian border.
* Various, Hungary - Folk Music, Ocora C600013.
Recordings made between 1960 and 1995. To hear it is to graspw here the living paprika of Hungarian folk melody and dance led people.
* Various, The Last Passage, Ocora C580031.
Ocora remains one of the foremost repositories of music from the noncommercial side of life. This volume looks to music from Hungary and Transylvania in Romania. Old-time and táncház music. Notesin English, French and Hungarian.
* Various, The Sky Above, The Fire Below - Hungarian Bagpipe Music, ABT ABT007.
Bagpipes are one of the great determinants of Europe's folk culture. Every nation produced its different styles of instruments and playing. This is the Hungarian take on the form.
FOR FURTHER READING
* Hungarian Folk Music by Béla Bartók (1931), translated by M.D. Calvocoressi.
* Folk Music of Hungary by Zoltán Kodály, trans. Ronaid Tempest and Cynthialolly, originally published as A Magyar Népzene (1952), revised 1971.
* Táncház Egyesület/Dance-house Guild:
Táncházak had historically been meeting places for people as far back as the tum of the nineteenth century. The vibrant and happening táncház (dance house) movement began in earnest in the 1970s as an alternative to the state-sanctioned music and dance entertainment. Hungaroton soon fell into step and released a number of albums documenting the movement. (Incidentally, although movement threw up shoots elsewhere in Europe, such as East Germany's Tanzhaus scene, the sound-alike ház is the Hungarian for 'house' and not an Austro-Hungarian, that is, Hapsburg-era borrowing from German.) The Táncház Egyesület/Dance-house Guild, founded in 199O, is a good entrance point:
* The táncház scene is really not hard to find on the ground. Many Budapest record shops that carry folk, classical or world music will have flyers for venues. Another source is .
* The Sziget Festival
"Sziget" (rough pronimciation "se'get" where the first syllable is a clipped "see") means "island," has been going since 1993, since 2002 under its present name. It takes place over a whole week each August on Óbudai sziget, one of Budapest's islands on the Danube. Musically speaking, it is arguably Europe's greatest interdisciplinary festival, as suggested by such past-to-present attractions as Asian Dub Foundation, Kispál és a Borz, The Klezmatics, Baaba Maal, Shane McGowan And The Popes, Lou Reed, The Scissor Sisters, Patti Smith, Rachid Taha, Vartina and Wir Sind Helden. And then there are all the other aspects, musical and non-musical, as a look at will reveal
Ken thanks Sue Foy, Andrea Gál, András Lelkes, Phil Saltmarsh and especially Bori Kovács for their assistance with the article.