Eastern European folk music has had a stronger and more pervasive influence on the world's music than we even realize. In classical music of this century, Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly are among the composers who tapped directly into its rustic charms and adapted it to concerns of contemporary music. And, in recent years, we've heard passionate, exotic sounds from the likes of the Hungarian group Muzsikás and vocalist Marta Sebestyen. Their new album Morning Star (Hannibal 1401; 55:58) is another powerful statement of the lost-or at least underexposed-beauty of folk musics from behind the former iron curtain, of traditional tunes from Hungary, Romania and Transylvania.
Sebestyen first collaborated with Muzsikás in the early '80s, when all the musicians were engaged in the "tanchez" (dance house) movement, retracing the roots of Hungarian folk music. Not unlike Bartok, they sought out musicians in rural outposts, gathering artistic data from "the field," enriching their sense of connection with a tradition that has little to do with urban experience or the global village.
In recent years, they have become well-known and well-traveled with their music; Sebestyen was heard in The English Patient, and the group has toured far and wide. There are fundamental deposits of joy and sadness in this music, based on fervent fiddling over syncopated bass tones from Daniel Hamar, who also plays the hammer dulcimer and the hit-gordon, a mutant cello which doubles as a percussion instrument.
The album is a balanced affair, between exuberant and harmonically terse fiddle workouts and the tranquil poise of Sebestyen's voice on the tune "If I Were a Rose," whose ancient melody bears a resemblance to Oriental modes. The title song "Oh Morning Star-Farewell to Soldiers" is a salute to departing young soldiers, with a complex mixture of emotions which epitomizes the bittersweet luster of this music.