Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Hungarian vocalist of astonishing diversity, described by Downhome News as 'one of the world's great folk singers'. Her music reflects Hungary's multicultural legacy, while much of her repertoire was from Transylvania, where many of the purest forms of Hungarian folk music survived. At the beginning of the century Béla Vikár, Béla Bartók (b 25 March 1881, Rumania; d 26 September 1945, NYC) and Zoltan Kodály (b 16 December 1882, Hungary; d 6 March 1967, Budapest) collected folk music; Kodály headed the Folk Music Research Group of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (founded 1953) and figured prominently in Sebestyén's musical development because her mother, Ilona Farkas, had studied with him. 'Hazafelé' on Sebestyén's solo Kismet '96 was collected by Ilona in southwestern Hungary during her field research 1953-6; her father, an economist, wanted her to get proper qualifications, but she told Folk Roots that 'I heard all these lessons she was listening to and I heard the words of Zoltan Kodály. I had all this music in my foetal life.' She has tended to work with specific ensembles though also as guest vocalist with others, such as the Ökrös Ensemble; her recordings appeared on Hungaraton, Hannibal, Koch World and Munich. Muzsikás was formed '73 to play in the style of old peasant bands, violin accompanied by viola, bass, bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy; Sebestyén joined as its main vocalist '79. By the time she guested with the East European Folk Group '83 she had 'appeared on 14 records' and was able to sing 'in any language'. For the album East European Folk Group on Goat Bag Records '83, the band consisted of Chris Gunstone (ex-Blowzabella), Nikola Parov from Bulgaria and Gabor Kiss, Robert Mandel and Sebestyén from Hungary.

She was voted the most popular singer in Hungary in 1984, and worked as guest vocalist with the Hungarian sextet Vujicsics, who specialize in Southern Hungarian music, especially Serbian and Croatian traditional music; she appeared on their album Vujicsics, licensed by Hannibal from Hungaraton '88. (The group was named after the Hungarian composer and musicologist Tihamer Vujicsics, who was killed in a plane crash in 1976.) Muzsikás, the Jánosi Ensemble and the Antal Szalai Gypsy Band all took part in the 'Magyarok -- Britain Salutes Hungary' festival at the Barbican Centre in London in 1989. Márta Sebestyén Sings on Hungaraton '89 compiled songs from various regions; Blues For Transylvania was a Muzsikás album on Hannibal that year, and she appeared in the film Music Box directed by Kosta Gavras. Sebestyén's Apocrypha '92 on Hannibal compiled tracks from Bravo, Favorit and Hungaraton; her one-time Bulgarian husband Nikola Parov had introduced her to a world of music ordinarily unknown to non-Bulgarians, subsequently figuring in her soundscape. She had her voice sampled on a Deep Forest project. Her second album on Hannibal, the aptly named Kismet '96, was produced by Parov; eschewing the usual Transylvanian Jewish or village music or Hungarian folk music, she selected songs from wherever she liked, including 'Leaving Derry Quay' (also known as 'Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore'), 'Hindi Lullabye' with sarangi (bowed Northern Indian stringed instrument) segueing into a Rumanian tune collected by Bartók, and the Greek 'Eleni'. She contributed to the soundtrack of the hit film The English Patient, leading to a best-of compilation The Voice Of The English Patient on Hannibal '97; she was also heard in Hal Hartley's film Flirt '97. Not to be moved by her singing was proof of cloth ears, and suddenly she was becoming world-famous: 'Wherever I go I can communicate. Words can be misunderstood, but never music.'