For most of us the countries of Eastern Europe, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria in particular, remain places of either mystery or romance. When we think of them we either visualize dark and mysterious forests and mountains populated by the likes of Dracula or werewolves, or dark and handsome men and women singing and dancing round campfires all night long. What we fail to realize is that for over a thousand years these countries have experienced every major cultural influence in Western history. The Danube River has long served as a migratory path for humans moving from the Near and Middle East into the West, which means that everybody from invading armies to refugees fleeing conquerors have passed through the countries surrounding it.
The early Celtic tribes, the ancestors of the people we know as the Romany (gypsies), the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, and countless others have brought their beliefs, music, and stories to the region. While some of these travelers were only passing through, many of them stayed and settled in isolated pockets throughout the three countries. While the larger metropolitan centres may not differ too much from their Western counterparts throughout the world, in the smaller rural communities dialects that have died out elsewhere continue to be spoken and you can still hear the songs that were sung hundreds of year ago. Geographical isolation has played no small role in this, as cut off from outside influences old traditions haven't had to compete against the modern world until recently.
While there has been an upsurge of interest in some Eastern European music, it only becomes clear when you start listening to something like Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen's latest release, I Can See The Gates Of Heaven, on the World Village Music label, how little we've scratched the surface. Subtitled "Hungarian religious and secular songs", the disc provides the listener with an introduction to the amazing array of music that exists in Hungary today. For these aren't "museum" or "ethnic" recordings of songs only hauled out to be played as display pieces or as examples of cultural heritage; these are part of the living and breathing culture of Hungary today performed by Sebestyen in concerts all over the world.
On I Can See The Gates Of Heaven Sebestyen has put together a collection that represents a cross-section of the different styles of music to be found in Hungary, or where Hungarian is spoken (there are Hungarian-speaking communities across the border in Romania's province of Transylvania). It was the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok who first exposed the world to the joys of his county's folk music by incorporating it into his symphonic compositions. However Bartok's role in uncovering the hidden treasures that still existed through out the country is probably of equal, if not greater, importance as it was through his efforts that so much of what people like Sebestyen perform today has survived. So it's not surprising to find Bartok's name listed in the credits for the first song on the disc, "Vision," as collector of one of the tunes it incorporates.
What Sebestyen has done in putting this disc together has been to create a series of medleys representing the various regions and dialects of Hungary. Each of the eight tracks on the CD are made up of at least two, and in some cases as many as seven, different songs which when blended together give the listener a good idea of the nature of a particular region's music. So "Vision" is comprised of two pieces, both of Moldavian Csango origins, "I Have Walked On Mountains And Valleys" and "Mary's Lullaby." What's amazing is that throughout the disc, whether it's two combined as in the opening track or seven like in the sixth track, "Valiant Knight" (Rare Hungarian dance melody, "Farewell To The Reigning Prince", "Jumping Dance", "The Nationalist Soldier Is Pure", "Heyduck Dance", and "Jumping Dance"), you can't tell it's a medley. Each part has been so seamlessly integrated with the other, thematically and musically, if Sebestyen hadn't told us we would never know they weren't originally single pieces.
I imagine most of you, like me, have some pretty set ideas on what you think you're going to hear listening to Eastern European music — either something that sounds like gypsy music or has a Cossack flavour, with violins and other stringed instruments playing a predominant role. What you're not going to be expecting to hear are bagpipes, tin whistles, and something that sounds suspiciously like pan pipes from South America (listed in the credits as a shepherd's flute). In fact the only stringed instruments you're going to hear on this disc are listed as an oriental fretless lute and a zither. There are also two instruments listed in the credits that are unique to this part of the world. The tarogato is a clarinet-like instrument and is actually quite modern, having first been made in the late 19th century, while the fujara is a traditional bass flute played by shepherds in the region for centuries.
Sebestyen is an amazing singer (she also plays tin whistle and drum) who seems able to effortlessly find any note on the scale no matter how low or high it might be. While all the songs are, of course, sung in Hungarian, we're still able to have a good idea of what the song is about due to her ability to express character and emotion with her voice. Unlike some singers who are content with just sounding good, she takes the risk of taking her performance a step beyond that by imbuing it with an emotional honesty that crosses all linguistic barriers. Joining her on this disc are two splendid musicians, Balazs Szokolay Dongo, who plays all the wind instruments, and Matyas Bolya, who handles all the plucked instruments. Both men display a virtuosity on their instruments that make them ideally suited to meet the demands of this disc as they appear to be comfortable playing any and all styles and techniques that come their way.
I Can See The Gates Of Heaven is not only a wonderful introduction to the world of Hungarian music, it's a disc of great music. Vocalist Marta Sebestyen has a voice you can listen to for hours on end, and the material on the disc is equally captivating. Rid yourself of any preconceived ideas you may have had about Hungarian music because you're in for a big surprise when you listen to this disc, but it's one of the nicest surprises I've had in a while.