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Tucson Weekly Rising In The East

Eastern European Music And Dance Take Over Two Tucson Stages, With Márta Sebestyén and Muzsikás

By Christine Wald-Hopkins

AUGUST 3, 1998:  EVER WONDER WHOSE voice it is that keeps Kristin Scott Thomas naked in bed during a baking Cairo afternoon in The English Patient? Ralph Fiennes' Hungarian Count of many tongues but few words plays the haunting, traditional "Szerelem, Szerelem" on a gramophone, and Katharine just doesn't rush back to her husband.

In fact, the "haunting" comes from Hungarian Márta Sebestyén, and the "traditional" has been revived by the likes of her and the members of Muzsikás, with whom she will appear in Tucson on August 2.

Mathematicians, geophysicists, ethnographers by day, these Budapest musicians revive Hungarian folk music by night. In the seventies, following the tradition of composers Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, urban musicians and dancers trekked to rural villages to collect original folk material. Sebestyén and the members of Muzsikás went to Transylvania, the remote province ceded to Romania after World War I, and to other Hungarian-speaking regions, for the bulk of their repertoire.

Muzsikás first recorded in the late seventies as representative of the "folk dance-house" movement. By the early eighties, they'd found their voice in ethnic authenticity, and were performing reconstructed village forms. Meanwhile, Sebestyén, who'd sung with the group previously, gained international attention as a soloist. They got together and put out three albums in the late eighties.

In loose collaboration since, Sebestyén and Muzsikás brought out Maramaros--The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania in 1993, and Morning Star in 1997, and are currently working on an album of the work of Bartók. They've been featured in international film; and Sebestyén has recorded with French Deep Forest, British Towering Inferno, and pop-music luminary Peter Gabriel.

Essentially a string and vocal group with dancers, Muzsikás reflects not just the aesthetic but also the cultural functions of musicians in village life. The title cut from Morning Star is a song from a Hungarian-speaking village in Romania. To stave off the moment of departure for the Romanian army, the village's 18-year-old conscripts, their families and lovers, keep a song and dance (and booze?) vigil the night before--in anticipation of that morning star. Another cut is the abbreviated version of traditional days-long wedding sets: "Fuzesi Lakodalmas" opens with a violin melody for male dancers, modulates into a wedding song by Sebestyén, the latter of which modulates into a csujogartas (a female chorus accompanied by rhythmic clapping) and finishes with a quick couple's dance.

Muzsikás has performed with goatskin bagpipes, the hammered-dulcimer-like cymbalom, and regional string inventions the kontra and the hit-gardon. The kontra, popular in Transylvania, is a violin-shaped, three-stringed instrument with a flat bridge for uniform chords and triads. The cello-sized hit-gardon, from the East Carpathians, is a percussion instrument whose four gut strings are struck with a wooden stick or slapped on the fingerboard--definitely not regulation Suzuki bow position.

Muzsikás' sound and repertoire vary from harmonies and melodies with unmistakable Irish echoes, recreated Sephardic tunes of the Holocaust-razed Jewish Transylvanian population, wedding and harvest melodies of Transylvania, to Bartók-collected Romanian folk songs reminiscent of Northern India. And they're all flavored by the pulse-changing tempo of gypsy violin.

One end of the Muzsikás sound has a raw, insistent, droning quality--darkened and sensualized by Sebestyén's lower vocal register. The other end--flute and bells supporting Sebestyén's lyrical upper range--has an ethereal Eastern texture.

The group for the Tucson show consists of Sebestyén, Muzsikás instrumentalists on fiddles, bass, viola, mandolin, zither, lute; and lead dancers from the Kodály Ensemble. Audiences from their last Tucson show will remember violin virtuosity and spiraling, fluctuating rhythms.

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