Interview with Muzsikas, Hungary’s Renowned Folk Music Group

Muzsikas - Photo by Bela Kasa
In July of 2009, I had the opportunity to interview Dániel Hamar, bassist, vocalist, gardon player and co-founder of the legendary Hungarian group Muzsikas. The band was performing at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak (Malaysia). Muzsikas is the group of artists who brought Hungarian folk music to the international stage. With their collaborations with Márta Sebastyén, and now with their excellent work since she left the group, they have been the foremost ambassadors for music from Hungary, with a special emphasis on music from Transylvania.

Muzsikas’s current line-up includes Mihály Sipos on violin, citera, vocals; László Porteleki on violin, koboz, vocals; Péter Éri on viola, mandolin, flutes, vocals; Dániel Hamar on bass, gardon and vocals; and vocalist Maria Petrac.

How long has your group been together?

Dániel Hamar – Last year we celebrated our thirty-fifth anniversary so the thirty-sixth this year – quite a long time.

And how was the beginning of the group…?

DH – We were young students when we started to play this music. That was only a trio and we encountered this music, which was not obvious in a city like Budapest and then we somehow all fell in love with this music and we wanted to play it, that’s how we met. And we didn’t want to form a band, big, famous, having concerts. The only thing was just to play together and enjoy the music. That’s how we started.

What kind of music was it?

DH – It was recordings from an archive. We started from music of a village of Transylvania. There was book published about this village, a monograph, and good quality recordings from the forties. And that made it easier to learn the music because all was written there, because it was transcribed and we had a good quality recordings and that’s when we decided to start with this music. It was quite a rich, there were very rich traditions in this village. It’s one of those villages of Transylvania where the people want to protect their traditions very strictly and want to maintain the life as their parents or grandparents used to live.

For example, in this village everybody was wearing only national costumes – homemade national costumes and it was very unique, very different from the neighbors. Everybody was very elegant. Every woman was very pretty and the men were masculine in this costume so they really liked their village and when they were visiting a city or sometimes visiting Budapest everybody said, hey these people are from that village. This village was Sic. The name in Romanian is Sic, but only Hungarians are living in this village.

Could you spell it in Hungarian?

Dániel Hamar - photo by Angel Romero
DH – It’s Szek. In Romanian, which is the way written in a map, it is Sic. They pronounce the two names almost the same. And that was a village where everybody had to learn the dance from childhood and the dances seem very simple. They didn’t seem too complicated, but, of course, it was not simple, especially there were some dances which were very, very complicated. But the dances where a man and a woman is together they look simple.

So we decided that we would start to run a club where we’d play this type of music and we asked a couple of dancers, who would teach the basic steps if anybody wanted to just come and join in and they could learn the dance. We said, let’s make a four hours club, two hours of education and two hours of free dancing. And it was very very positive and it started to get very popular. The name of this type of club they called ‘dance haz.’ A rough translation is ‘dance house.’

Practically, it’s the adoption of a tradition of the village of Szek. How we can make similar things in a big city like Budapest. Of course, the biggest difference was that in Szek everybody who went to the dance haz, they had to know how to dance, but not in Budapest, so we had to teach even the basic step. Even that knowledge was very important that you can move with a very strong beat. You know the people get used to move freely for the dance and nothing connects with the music and dance should be together.

Since the 1970s, a lot of the folk groups started to play traditional music with new arrangements. How was the music at the beginning? Were you trying to play music in the traditional way or were you incorporating new arrangements?

DH – Well, of course there was a temptation to make arrangements for us too and we realized that we prefer the traditional way and of course in this type of clubs, there were no men doing dance arrangements. Let’s say that, for example, there are 20 melodies and many variations of those melodies which they can dance, like csardas, (that’s the name of a dance) and there are a lot of melodies they cannot dance and in this village when the musicians started to play, there was a certain order of their music. First they play czardas for 10 or 15 minutes, as long as they felt and then they changed the melodies and changed the dance. And a third dance and a 4th and a 5th and, all together, it took one hour.

In this village they called this not a dance cycle but they called it the dance pair. We didn’t understand why they called it pair. It’s not a pair of dances. When a boy, a young man, asked a woman to dance, they were obliged to dance all the dances together from break to break. So it was not allowed to leave their partner. It was a way to dance with a girl. You were together with her an hour, and that was the way it was for young people; how they expressed their feelings for the other sex. The dance house was specially for the young people in the village. For the adults, the married people, they had other occasions to dance. So these dances were simple and exciting and started to become popular in Hungary.

We first ran the club once a week, then twice, then three times and then four times a week, four evenings. After a while, we thought why don’t we try another type of dance, from another village. That’s how we increased our repertoire, from another village and another village. And we played this for years. When we started to get invitations, first from Hungary, to recreate this dance haz in their town, we realized that it’s impossible to make a dance haz. It has to be a regular event, like every Tuesday or every Saturday, where people come regularly and slowly learn the dance and start to know each other. This creates a flourishing club, which is open. Every member pays the minimum fee for going in and he or she could realzie if he or she is a good dancer and whether to participate in the education of partner.

And then we realized that the only way that we could bring this music to the audience that doesn’t know this music is to make so called concerts and then we had to arrange the numbers, arrange the music, because we could not play one hour of the same melodies, or from the same village, so we made three minutes of this song, and five minutes of that song, but all the music which we tried to play, we wanted to keep the atmosphere, the rhythms of the original and until today we do that.

You mentioned you started adding new songs to the repertoire from different parts of Hungary. Was this ethnomusicological work? How did you collect these songs and dances?

DH – We are not scientists and so there is a big difference between us and the scientists. If a scientist goes to the village and wants to collect the music, he has to collect everything, the good one and the rubbish one, everything that they play because that’s the scientific work. You are not allowed to judge. But as musicians we can. We could say ok we don’t like what he plays, so the repertoire was sometimes a selection of many melodies chosen by how much we liked them. It’s an emotional thing. We never said that we are scientists so we chose this because we like that and it was so easy to fall in love with some melodies. Sometimes I realize that I whistled the same melody for two weeks. And later it changes, it depends on my atmosphere and my age and my life, which period of my life was my most favorite melody.

Of course, first we were three people, then four, then five, and everybody had different tastes that when we put together the rehearsal it was a big fight to see whose favorite melody we can arrange somehow and how to play it in a concert or making something that can be played in the radio or how can make a recording so that’s how we made the first steps to make this music known. It was very strange in Hungary when we went out from our club everywhere, everywhere without exception, we had to explain that the music we play is Hungarian music. It’s the real folk music because in the radio or everywhere there were many gypsy bands playing so called Hungarian folk music, but it had nothing to do with folk music. It was mostly composed music. It was mostly very sweet opera type of music and real traditional music was absolutely unknown, even for educated people, even for musicians.

The group has been associated for sometime with singer Márta Sebestyén. How did you connect?

Muzsikas at Rainforest World Music Festival - Photo by Angel Romero
DH – There was one group that started a little earlier. They were the real pioneers and in this group the two big leaders. The two big stars, were Ferenc Sebő and Bela Halmos. They created a band called Sebő Ensemble and the Sebo group played mostly concerts and we were playing the dance haz. In this band there were two musicians and a young singer. There was a young musician named Péter Éri who soon became a member of Muzsikas and Márta Sebestyén was also there. We knew her when she was only 14.

I think we were the first to ask her to play with us but then she became a member of Sebő. But maybe she didn’t like this type of arrangements that Sebo did. He concentrated sometimes in Balkan music which is not Hungarian and made compositions for poems which was not folk. It was nice music so everybody loved it and they were popular but it was not the real traditional one so we we asked Márta Sebestyén whether she wanted to join us. She was very happy and she said yes. It was in 1981. And we told her, if you come with us, we will bring you to Australia and New Zealand for a two month tour. In the Hungary of 81, it was like going to the moon. So she became a member and she tried to find her own sound, her own voice.

She was very good imitating the style but she was so good that even in a concert when she was fourteen year old she was singing like an 80 year old lady. In Muzsikas’ second or third album, you can realize that her different songs are a different color of sound. It was a hard job for us to press her to find her own way because she was so fond of these songs that she said that anything that is different is getting it wrong.

We were together for a long time and then she started to get famous in Hungary through a rock opera. She wanted to be a soloist and, for a long time, we advertised the band as Muzsikas and Márta Sebestyén. First of all, we wanted to make her name more known because we thought that the more musicians and singers are known it’s better for traditional music. Five stars are stronger than one. It was flourishing very well and a few years ago we realized she didn’t like to sing anymore with us and we never sat down and said it’s goodbye. We started to ask her to participate in every concert for half a year and she would say no. Somehow, it was sign that she did not want and officially we didn’t have to divorce because we were not one group. Then she started to be on her own. It’s strange. I like the period when she was with us. She was great on stage, very very great on stage. Private lives were getting more and more difficult but what was the wonder is that even when there were conflicts in private life, they never surfaced on stage.

After she left did you become an instrumental group?

DH – Well, first of all, before she joined us, we used to sing. In the first records we were singing but she was so good that we only needed one soloist. There are so many songs that are instrumental that somehow we started to sing less and she started to sing more and then we were singing in only one or two songs and she was singing the rest. Then, when she left, we had a lot of repertoire with vocals and we had a lot of material for a woman’s voice and we thought about our friend called Maria Petrac. We asked her to sing with us for one concert and then another concert and now it is an exception that she is not with us. Last week we were in Norway and she was with us.

The thing is that she is doing something different than Marta because Marta is, like us, a revivalist. Maria, instead, is a traditional original singer and she came from Moldavia. Moldavia is a part of Romania. It never belonged to Hungary. That’s the only part where Hungarian minorities are living without being any time in their life being citizens of Hungary. And there is a lot of scientific imagination about Moldavia and how they [Hungarians] live there, but the fact is that they preserved a very rich vocal and musical tradition. The vocal tradition is the richest for Hungarians in the old style and she heard the people sing when they are working, when they are praying and in the evenings. And she is absolutely the best, truly the best.

Dániel Hamar at a workshop with Marcin Skrzypek of the Saint Nicholas Orchestra (Poland) - Photo by Angel Romero
She is not a singer. She is a sculptor. She escaped from Romania and she became a sculptor, a very famous sculptor in Hungary. Maria sings when she is working so everything comes naturally from her and she is a superb singer and she did not know that. Last year we were in a classical music festival in Japan where 1600 musicians were participating, including great singers from all over the world, opera singers and classical singers, and after our concert in the main hall there was a big picture of her that said Maria Diva so she is even appreciated by the classical music world, among classical singers that consider her to be great. So she is the one that sings with us now.

I’ve heard you say earlier in another conversation something about the importance of Bela Bartok and the connection with folk music.

DH – Bela Bartok was a great musician, one of the greatest pianists of his age. As a composer, he tried to get education but at that time in Hungary and Vienna everything was based in the German type of composition, technical composition, metally things and he was not satisfied with this and quite young he was twenty something when he heard accidentally a folk song and he wondered how, he was with a friend of him and the maid was singing while she working in the next room and he heard her through the room and Bartok fell in love with this melody He made a composition as a pianist and this was such an important experience in his life that he decided to find more and with his friend and colleague Zoltan Kodai they decided to go from village to village because this music was preserved only in villages.

it’s the history of Hungary. There is a divided culture, urban and rural culture. and most of the time these two cultures did not know anything about each other. Educated urban musicians had no idea about the traditional music and they didn’t even know that it existed. So Bela Bartok went from village to village and he had to live as peasants are living. Otherwise, they wouldn’t sing into a horn of an Edison phonograph. And then he transcribed these melodies and this kind of experience, being in villages, listening to people, going to see the dances, and transcribing, it started to fertilize his style of composition and started to compose melodies where new modern pieces of classical music where the background was traditional music.

There are many books and studies about the direct connections between that piece and that music but what we feel after playing thirty years of traditional music, we feel the same as Kodai, transcribing for Bartok, that even in his most abstract compositions there is influence from traditional music and we can hear it, we can feel it. Maybe not in the melodies, but in the spirit, in the harmonies and the rhythms. That’s the reason why we thought that even the most modern music of Bartok and the most rural traditional music can both be played in one concert and, what a strange thing, the first concert of that we made it in Belgium, not in Hungary, in a Flemish festival.

Later we started collaborating with Alexander Balanescu, one of the greatest violinists, from London, and his string quartet and pianists from Hungary and from Belgium. later with a classical string quartet, and choirs, and we had many different concert programs with the music of Bartok or Kodai, or both, or more modern or contemporary composers like Ligatok Kurtak.

Bartok’s works and traditional music create such musical enjoyment . Two genres of music, not explaining or demonstrating to each other, but making one musical line where the feeling is sometimes played with the music of Bartok by a string quartet and the vocals of Maria or sometimes the music of Musikas. But because we know both musics, we usually made the program together, knowing what to play and we offer it to classical musicians and they love it, they really love it. They are so eager to play that we were able to play with fantastic musicians like for example Takács String Quartet which is one of the biggest string quartets in the world.

We played an enormous amount of concerts. We had two or three American tours and two European tours and we played in festivals and it’s great because with these type of projects we can bring the traditional music to that audience which would never have come to a folk concert but they come to a concert where there is a string quartet that plays with some strange traditional background music and then they realize that we equally share the time and the stage and then we can create something extraordinary, something unique, something which is difficult to imagine. So that’s our project.

When I was at the airport in Kuala Lumpur I encountered one of the members of your group, Mihály Sipos, and he was telling me that in addition to instruments that people know very well like the violin you play some other instruments that are less known . He mentioned an instrument that’s a string instrument but you slap it. Could you tell us more?

DH – Yes, of course. First of all, the so called classical instruments are played in a different way. So I was a classical bass player and I had to use a different technique so the function of the bass is much different in a wedding party than in a symphonic orchestra and also the violin is played with a different technique. I think that this technique, how the old masters used to play, could have been the techniques of the violinists of the time of Mozart. Leopold Mozart was transcribing how violinists should improvise when he was playing the classical pieces. He wrote down what we observed from the musicians so this is the thing how the violin is different than the classical one.

But of course there are some other instruments which are not usual in classical music, like different types of flutes and lutes or string instruments like the tambura and a very strange instrument which is called gardon. Gardon is a percussion instrument that has strings. The musician has to beat the string and the strings are very precisely tuned to one string of the violin and this duo the violin plays the melody and the gardon plays accompaniment, rhythmically following the violin and giving a drone to the melody, like in a bagpipe plus a very hard rhythm like a drum. And this very suggestive, very old music. First, it was very strange for us. Now we realized it’s one of the most effective musical traditions. This music is played in the Dimash region, eastern Carpathian mountains in Romania in the isolated high mountains in the valleys, …where they are living and until today they play this kind of music.

What are the plans for the future in addition to touring?

Maria Petras
DH – We have a project that was started a few years ago to go to schools and bring the music to children at that age where they are most sensitive for music and till now we’ve played for more than 45,000 children, plus the teachers, in Hungary, children from 8 till 16. It is very important but it takes a lot of energy from us. Of course we are dreaming of different kinds of projects.

My dream is to make an album in which we try to broaden the emotional gaps of a modern person. You know that today in the urban modern life people think that if they can control themselves, it’s a positive thing, and then they go to psychologists because if they feel sad they are not allowed to cry because if you show your weakness you think that you will be weak and maybe can be hopeless and they can attack you or you lose your reputation or something like that. but what I wonder is that in the village they cried. For very old men crying was not a shame, even for strong people and they were healthy and when they start to amuse themselves they don’t stop at a level, they went to the end.

You know that the far ends are now like a taboo in today’s life. so my dream, and I don’t know when we will be ready, to make such an album. For years there are the seeds of this type of album. We made a concert, the so called Midnight Meditation. The Midnight Meditation we played in a church and midnight for one hour. Only candles were there and we played this type of music that used to be played during funerals and just for one hour and from four different regions, with no break. One line of music and it was great. I’m thinking how to make it in a record.

The dream of Mihály Sipos is to make the connections between Mozart and Hungarian traditional music. He’d like to find the the masters who played the same way as it was written or suggested by Leopold Mozart. Then we think that if we can find direct or symbolic connections with some pieces (we did it once with a Mozart divertimento and traditional dance music), and we can find classical music partners with whom we can collaborate and ask them to play real Mozart with another technique, it would be a revolution in classical music.

That’s a great project.

DH – Yes, you know because think that today Mozart or Vivaldi are called soft music so that’s what you call it now, but in that time they were the Mick Jagger of their own time. Girls collapsed when they saw them, or when Vivaldi played. They were rock stars. I’m sure that they played in a different way than today but there are no recordings.

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.


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