Muzsikas gives the Al-Bustan festival a taste of folk music from Hungary
Group makes the evening entertaining amusing and even informative

By Hannah Wettig

Daily Star staff

ds-bustan.jpg (26142 bytes)Marta Sebestyen can play the bagpipes without bagpipes. A deep strident sound coming from her chest, she trumpets short peeps through her lips. "An old lady taught me this," she said. "The old lady said you could never learn it, it's talent. But I practiced a lot."
Sebestyen is the most famous folk singer in Hungary. She sang two songs in the Oscar-winning film "The English Patient," and another one of her songs is on the soundtrack of the Robert Altman film "Pret-A-Porter." On Thursday night, she performed with the folk ensemble Muszikas at the Al-Bustan Festival in Beit Mery.
Her deep almost haunting voice filled the packed Crystal Garden at the Al-Bustan Hotel, as she and the four musicians gave the audience a tour of Hungarian folk music. Far from the fast and happy folk dances one might associate with Eastern Europe, this was a rather melancholic evening of ballads and sad love songs.
The title of the concert may have been a bit misleading, said Myrna Bustani, the coordinator of the festival, before the show started. It was entitled Selections from the Bartok Album. Yet Muszikas were not playing anything by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. Bartok was fascinated by Hungarian folk music and collected it, traveling to remote regions and recording what village people sang to him.
The ensemble explored these recordings a little, almost unrecognizable because of the poor sound quality at the beginning of last century, with noises reminiscent of tractors in the background. From this musical archive, they derived their repertoire.
There was the fast and short song Bartok had found two girls singing. It seemed like Sebestyen was performing a miracle with her voice when she imitated this guttural singing, which was almost a screech.
There was a ballad from Moldavia about a shepherd who asks his murderers to place a flute on his grave so it may play on its own when the wind blows.
There was also a long, sad love song. Sebestyen said those were her favorites because of the deep sad emotions conveyed in these songs, which are found in many cultures. She intoned Ya Habibi, saying that Arabic love songs must be similar.
In its sometimes strident tunes, the melodies were indeed at times reminiscent of Arabic music. Much of Eastern European music can only be written on what in European music is called a gypsy scale, because it includes, like Arabic music, not only half, but also quarter tones.
However, the deep melancholy in Sebestyen's voice, the violins and flutes could be much more easily associated with a country where forests are deep and grass grows high on vast plains. Much of the happier pieces, like a wedding song the ensemble played as an encore, sounded like Irish folk music. So did a song the musician Daniel Hamar introduced as Chardash. "This is sung in the countryside after drinking the necessary amount of wine," he said.
Hamar and Sebestyen provided humor and background information throughout the show. This is how the audience learned about the gardon - an instrument looking like a small cello, but with rough wood as if it was quickly put together in a carpenter's shop. Despite its strings, it is only used as a percussion instrument and exists nowhere in the world but in the Carpathian mountains, Hamar explained.
Other typical Hungarian instruments played were the long flute and a special kind of mandolin.
Even though the sounds were sometimes strange and new to the ear, Sebestyan and Muszikas proved to be another example of the high quality of artists Myrna Bustani chooses each year for her prestigious festival, whether they are classical or folk musicians, ballet dancers or opera singers. Thus, when Hamar said "You are very lucky people here because now you can buy a CD from us," this was for many the thing to do.