The WOMEX Award 08 to Muzsikás

By Joe Boyd

WOMEX Award Ceremony Sunday 12:00 – 14:00 FIBES/Al-Andalus

"It is the greatest honour that could happen to us this year to receive this special award from WOMEX. We never thought 35 years ago when we started playing and collecting traditional Hungarian folk music in Hungary and Transylvania that one day we would receive such a prestigious award. While we were following the routes of the two great Hungarian composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, we always dreamt that with our interpretation this pure village music can travel the whole world. We feel that we arrived to a certain stage in our life were music plays a major role. With this award we receive new energies to continue this musical journey for at least the coming next 35 years!" Dániel Hamar, band leader, on behalf of Muzsikás

Most people involved with world music imagine that the music we love can make a difference in society, perhaps even change society. That was certainly the dream of our antecedents in the folk music movement of the early '60s – that music could transform the social and political landscape. And for a few glorious years in the early '60s, with Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and "We shall overcome" and "Blowing in the wind" leading the way, it actually did.

Exposure on the world stage certainly bestows pride and confidence on beleaguered traditional cultures, be it the Garifuna people of Central America, the griots of West Africa or Occitan speakers of the Mediterranean coast of France. But it is not often that music places itself at the centre of the most important issues of the day, and even rarer that that music touches the hearts and minds of those both within the culture and those who have only the vaguest notions about it. The Hungarian group Muzsikás, recipients of this year's WOMEX Award, has accomplished all of that and more.

They began their careers at a time of political tension and conflict over culture far more intense than anything most of us have experienced. They are now in their fourth decade of bringing the music of Hungary to a world that previously had only the vaguest – and mostly inaccurate – ideas about it. In the West, there have been conflicts and arguments about the nature of 'authenticity", battles over electric instruments and drum kits in folk music and conflicts between modernists and traditionalists. None of our experiences provides any sense of the intensity of parallel battles that were waged in Eastern Europe during the years of Soviet domination, the years in which Muzsikás was formed and which shaped their character as a group and forged their approach to performing Hungarian music.

The Russian Communist Party was fundamentally an urban organisation. The rural peasantry fought against collectivisation and during the '30s paid a terrible price for that opposition. While millions died in the famines that resulted from Stalin's repressions, Igor Moisyev was forming the ensemble that would attempt to obliterate the music of rural Russia as effectively as the state apparatus was destroying the social structures and traditions of the countryside. In the '40s, when Eastern Europe came under Soviet control, Moisyev's ideas were implemented by Cultural Ministries from Estonia to Albania. The result was that most urban residents' idea of their own folk music was shaped by the stodgy, choreographed, fake music performed by state, regional and local ensembles.

Budapest was no different until the late '60s, when the small "Béla Bartók" dance ensemble came up with the radical idea to go into the villages and observe how people danced in the countryside. The resulting performances were so radical that an outraged state ensemble challenged them to a "dance-off". The audience booed the state ensemble off the stage the great Hungarian "dance-house" movement was born.

For Muzsikás' bass player Dániel Hamar, this journey began when he joined the musicians accompanying his school dance ensemble to a youth festival in Taormina, Italy. For him, folk music was boring, but the ensembles were allowed to travel abroad to such events and he was desperate to see the world. At that festival, he was stunned by the performance of a group of Argentine dancers. Their movements were spontaneous, sexy, alive and viscerally connected to their music. His search for that kind of musical energy led him to the Béla Bartók ensemble and their new communal dances when he returned to Hungary.

There he met Péter Éri, stepson of an ethnographer who had studied the methodology of learning to dance in Hungarian villages. His academic texts had been studied by the Bartók dancers and used as inspiration for the lessons they were giving the crowds who wanted to learn this new "authentic" approach. Péter was already ahead of the game – he had accompanied his stepfather to the villages and knew all the steps.

Also dancing in the early '70s was Mischy Sipos, the son of a former politician with the Peasant Party, a left-wing group banned by the Communists. They were in favour of land-redistribution, but not collectivisation. His mother had taught in villages and their Budapest apartment was a gathering spot for radicals who loved village traditions and village music.

One idea favoured at these early dances was that musicians must learn to dance and dancers must learn to play – it was impossible to do either with real feeling unless you understood both sides of the bandstand. So Péter and Mischy – and their friend Sándor Csoóri, son of Hungary's greatest poet – learned to play and Dániel learned to dance.

In 1974, Dani, Mischy and Sani decided to start a weekly dance club with lessons for newcomers and free-dancing later in the evening. They needed a name for the poster and Sándor Csoóri Sr., the great poet, told them to create a new word and fill it with the meaning of their music. Muzsikás was an obscure variant of the Hungarian word for musician and, over the past 35 years, they have more than filled this word with meaning.

Over the next 15 years, the dance-house movement grew and grew. Hard as it may be to grasp, folk-dancing actually became the cutting-edge, hip activity for Hungarian youth. And Muzsikás was at the forefront, attracting new members Péter Éri and Márta Sebestyén in 1980 due to their commitment to playing pure traditions and their field trips into the heartland of pure Hungarian rural culture in neighbouring Romanian Transylvania.

This challenge to official state policy did not go unnoticed. Dance-house organisers were harassed, their phones were tapped, they were followed. The problem was, of course, that it was hard to define just what was wrong with dance-house. What is subversive about dancing? Could the government explain that this type of dancing represented reality while the ensembles were dancing the same kind of idealised fantasy as the economic five-year plans? That the entire edifice of Soviet Socialist Republics was based on a glossy illusion that had little to do with real life?

I witnessed the denouement of this clash in 1987, when Muzsikás and a group of dancers finished a thrilling evening with the traditional wedding song about the "Unwelcome Guest". "You've drunk all the wine, eaten the food, spoiled the party, now please just leave." The audience gasped; the meaning was clear. Two years later, Soviet troops climbed into their tanks and left Hungary.

Shortly thereafter, on one of their research trips into Transylvania, they met Gypsy musicians who remembered performing for the rural Jewish communities that were wiped out by the Holocaust. Muzsikás' recording of the music they learned from them became the first CD stocked at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

Muzsikás' mission has changed over time. Last year, they filled New York's Carnegie Hall with the great Takács Quartet. They played the czárdás that Bartók collected on his field trips a century earlier and Takács performed the great compositions he was inspired to write. Once, Muzsikás inspired a generation to understand the beauty of their own rural traditions. Now, Muzsikás shows audiences around the world that the sources of inspiration for great classical composers are actually great music in their own right. And this is not done in any academic way. Muzsikás are the epitome of authenticity as entertainment. Audiences who know nothing of Hungarian music are left breathlessly exhilarated and inspired by a Muzsikás concert.

In recent years, Csoóri and Márta Sebestyén have left and László Porteleki – another eager member of the early dance-house movement – has joined. They often tour with dancers like Zoltán Farkas and Ildikó Tóth, both classically trained for the ballet but who left to join the dance-house movement in the early '70s. Whatever their line-up, they inspire, they communicate and they bring a sense of history, both ancient and modern. We take so much now for granted. Listening to Muzsikás connects us to a time and a place when music was intrinsically a political statement and playing your instrument a certain way was a courageous act. The intensity of those times has never left Muzsikás, and we remain lucky to be able to commemorate the spirit of those times and these wonderful musicians with this award.

2008 by Joe Boyd

Joe Boyd's Hannibal label released Muzsikás and Márta Sebestyén recordings outside Hungary from 1987 – 2001.