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- Posted on Jan 12th 2010 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
"The child of a folk singer!" Sebestyen laments.
And indeed, she is one of the leading voices of folk music in Hungary. Her work over more than 25 years with the traditionalist band Muzsikás and a wide range of other projects made her perhaps the most visible and beloved force in a movement that reached far beyond musical impact. (They range from a role in the '80s rock opera 'Istvan, a kiraly' about St. Stephen, the founding King of Hungary -- there are plenty of videos from a major production to be found on YouTube -- to being the featured vocalist on the score of the Oscar-winning film 'The English Patient.') The result was to preserve and revive not just the music of the Hungarian villages that was being lost, but a sense of Magyar pride that helped set the stage for the casting off of Soviet domination. That, in turn, inspired a next generation of folk lovers, and, in fact, in the '90s it was common for young people to skip around Budapest among various táncház (dance house) and coffee house scenes on any given evening. In that light, her son's rejection of her music is the rejection of the music of centuries of ancestors.
Her latest album, 'I Can See the Gates of Heaven,' a collaboration with young musicians Balázs "Dongó" Szokolay and Mátyás Bolya, is arguably the most personal of her vast canon, distinctive and gorgeous interpretations of Hungarian religious and secular songs reaching back centuries. The most personal, and poignant, is the closing 'Evening Prayer,' using the vespers liturgy in a setting from Moldavia dating back to medieval times and still in use today. It was this hymn that Sebestyen sang at her father's funeral five years ago in the cemetery of the little church in his home village of Csempeskopács, in the western part of the country.
"That was where he wished to be buried, by his parents," she says. "I said that I could tell my last things to him with this song. That was much more than a song."
A muted photo of the church appears in the CD booklet, as does another one vividly illustrating the passion and connection Sebestyen carries to these traditions. It's a 1977 black and white shot of Sebestyen, then just 19, and fellow young folk fanatics Ferenc Sebô and Ildikô Ardai with a tape recorder recording an old woman named Mrs. Raffael Gyurka singing ancient songs of her Csángó heritage in her Transylvanian village house.
"We spent days with her, listened to her jokes and songs, everything such enjoyable," Sebestyen recalls. "I was very proud, 'It's now a real field recording session!' I'd never had a tape recorder before, so was happy that Sebo had one. I remember this lady spoke in an archaic linguistic form. This was like going back 200 years, reading old manuscripts, but it was a beautiful lady with a lovely personality living in the same century as me but at the same time from a cultural past. It was a conversation between the past and present."
The new album adds personality to that dialogue, a fresh vocabulary separate from all that Sebestyen has already contributed over the years, right from the opening track. 'Vision' combines two Csángó songs, 'I Have Walked on Mountains and Valleys' (collected a century ago by composer/ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók) and the deeply religious 'Mary's Lullaby' (collected more recently by ethnographer Zsuzsanna Erdélyi):
Márta Sebestyen, 'Vision':
In 'Mary's Lullaby,' the words are of a young woman seeing the gates of heaven open to reveal the Virgin singing a lullaby over a cradle. And that image is juxtaposed with a more earthly vision, the Bartok-collected song telling of a stroll through a meadow idyll.
"I enjoy very much putting them together," Sebestyen says. "They melt together in my heart, and I think you can hear that."
Accompanied only by young Szokolay and Bolya, Sebestyen has brought new dimensions to these ancient songs, more personalized than her already astounding work with Muzsikás and other traditionalists during the past three decades. Szokolay (a master of various traditional wind instruments including bagpipes, shepherd's flutes and the saxophone-like tarogato) and Bolya (a virtuoso of the fretless Eurasian lute) are, in fact, part of that generation of tanchaz denizens inspired by Sebestyen's pioneering artistry.
They met five years ago when the duo -- then just in their 20s -- and Sebestyen were playing at a festival in Krakow, Poland. An expressed desire to work together became a reality when Sebestyen was asked to participate in a concert in part honoring Hungarian history at the spectacular Redentore Church in Venice, Italy.
"It was a chance to set up a program with all the beautiful songs in my heart that I could never play with Muzsikás," she says. "I called these guys and said, 'Now we can put together our minds,' and we had a brainstorming session about melodies and songs, and I enjoyed every moment."
The concert was a triumph and led to some other special performances -- including one in Madrid before Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia -- and the recording of the album. The whole process flowed more smoothly than anything in which she'd previously been involved, even deepening the connections she felt with the people from whom she learned many of the songs and of the life that bred them. 'Driving Away Sorrow' -- combining the colorfully wistful 'If You Too, Laci' and a "goatlike" dance melody -- takes Sebestyen right back to Mrs. Gyurka's house.
Márta Sebestyen, 'Driving Away Sorrow':
"This is from the real experiences of the Csángó people, like the old lady in the picture where I collected her songs," she says. "That's the atmosphere of her village. I was amazed how people can have otherwise very hard lives, they could complain, 'My life is so terrible.' And yet they have so much more energy and joy than we do. I get so much vitamin source and strength from them. And I know when I sing these songs people receive this rich vitamin source."
As for the music in the next room at her house, she's just not enriched.
"I don't like the passive way young people just listen to music," she says. "What do you get from it?"
But here's the dirty little secret: Sebestyen mentions that her own grandmother, living her whole live in a small village, couldn't understand what Sebestyen got from the old songs that she fell in love with (and won awards for performing) first as a 12-year-old. Her grandmother preferred operetta.
And then there was her father -- a noted economist and author, fluent in seven languages, who even in the height of the Cold War was allowed to go to the US in the '60s for a year as a visiting professor under a Ford Foundation grant.
"My father never came to see me in concert," she says with obvious hurt in her voice, noting that in his village upbringing, artists were considered "crazy" and "good for nothing." "I'm sure he knew I did something important, secretly proud, but he never told me and never came to a concert. When he died I was horrified that we had something unfinished, I could never show him what I did."
It's not that she didn't have encouragement. Her mother was a music student of the great composer and music educator Zoltán Kodály and at the age of 75 is still an active conductor. But she laments the loss of that connection with her father. That said, though, she says her father silently cultivated an environment of musical exploration, returning from America with a large library of LPs of a wide spectrum of styles -- African-American spirituals and blues, Native American ceremonial performances, indigenous music of Brazil, Australia and many other places.
"Little Márta at age of 7 able to listen to Native American music from the Smithsonian Institute!" she says. "Imaging that! I was always humming Hopi and Navajo tunes. Everything."
"Just now I see how much I benefited without knowing. The child is not knowing how lucky she is to have that. And only now I can see."
The epiphany gives her a new sense of optimism that her musical soul, if not tastes, will get passed along in kind.
"I can only hope that someday I have that with my kids -- even if they become rock stars," she says. "It's important."