We should give our children roots and wings – according to Goethe – but this is exactly what my generation, the children of Socialism, did not receive. Roots were not important, since we were fed internationalism in place of a patriotic upbringing, and instead of being given wings, we were deprived of the ability to orient ourselves in time and space.
I remember that when we received passports for the very first time, we went to the sea, to the Italian Adriatic. We left in the morning, and by three in the afternoon we were bathing in the sea. I was bewildered; I thought that there was something wrong with my watch. I refused to believe that the sea was merely an arm’s reach away, and the realization that this had been kept secret from us for all those years almost hurt.
Péter Pál Tóth’s film The Muzsikás Story – 35 years of the ensemble reminded me of this.
I wondered initially why five, almost one hour episodes about an ensemble were really necessary, but soon realised that the film was more than that, an attempt to portray
the complex truth noted by the Hungarian writer László Németh: “culture is not merely knowledge, it is not some sort of artistic accomplishment but rather a way of life.”
With the passing of nearly four decades, the extraordinary significance of 1972, the birth of what came to be known as ‘the dance house movement’ and the role which the Muzsikás Ensemble played in this, became apparent. A fading culture was saved at the eleventh hour, and its preservation helped shape or strengthen the identity of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians.
In the first part of the film we see how each of the players was drawn to folk music. Péter Éri and Sándor Csoóri junior, and to a lesser extent Márta Sebestyén, were born into the world of folk music and dance. Mihály Sipos and Dániel Hamar came from classical music backgrounds, and the recognition that “this is our true music”, came as a result of an accidental encounter. Each had played songs by The Rolling Stones in their school bands.
Later on, their fantastic travels to Transylvania, to the Mezőség region, to Kalotaszeg and Gyimes enabled them to collect and learn from the last generation of authentic folk musicians and folk dancers – following in the footsteps of scholars and ethnographers like György Martin and Zoltán Kallós. We witness the respect and mutual love which tied the youth to the older musicians and which still connects them even today. By now well-known musicians in their own right, they still utter the names of István Icsán, János Zerkula, and Sándor Neti with the same awe as they would a classical musician like Yehudi Menuhin. In the 1970s it did not matter if a musician was of Romanian or Gypsy descent. All that mattered was whether he or she could play and was respected by the community. That respect was mutual, as illustrated by the case of a ten year old boy from Budapest – Péter Éri – celebrated by the older musicians in front of the village for his ability to perform the legényes dance cycle. They absorbed that most important fact from the elders: that the village musicians were not amateurs. Although they never attended music school, they trained as musicians from childhood. If they were not good, they would not be called upon to play. Music has a role, a function within the community, and musicians fulfil that service. They have to play in a way that they could survive a two day wedding celebration.
It was fortunate that by the time the ensemble emerged, the first video cameras were available, so the director could choose from a rich archive of images of the young, tradition-loving musicians. The Renaissance of folk music and dance inspired many filmmakers, from the pioneering Gulyás brothers, still working on 16mm film, to Csaba Bereczki, and György Szomjas. Those constantly smiling, laughing faces, and intertwined hands, seemed incorruptible – the self-certainty of youth in linen shirts, jeans, sheepskin jackets, Transylvanian scarves and straw hats, and haversacks.
The young Márta Sebestyén is transformed first into an accomplished vocalist, then a world star, before our eyes. Angel-faced, adolescent lads become graying adults, fathers, even grandfathers. Contemporary footage livens up the talking-heads documentary film format. Members of the ensemble reflect upon the past, from homes which are conspicuously similar in style and taste. The reporter-director, Gyula Gulyás knows everyone and everything, and this serves the cause of continuity well, often contributing to the flow of the narrative with a nod or a missing detail.
At the time we thought we went to the dance house for companionship, or out of curiosity, but with the benefit of hindsight we see ourselves mysteriously drawn to an un-official, counter culture. We only found out about that, fortunately, thirty years later from a book entitled “Open Files” (Nyilvántartottak), by Tamás Szőnyei, which portrayed the interest shown in the movement by state security organs – on any given night there were at least six or seven informants among us. “We lived freely at a time when that was not normal behaviour” says Péter Éri.
The first record came out at the time of the single-party state – with the help of reform Communist official Imre Pozsgay. It portrayed the spread and unity of Hungarian folk culture well beyond the borders, into Hungarian communities in neighbouring countries. “This was an identity record, underlining our Hungarian identity, and even the Russian occupation could not question that fact”. When they were able to travel farther, initially to the Netherlands, they were summoned to the Interconcert office, and instructed not to make statements to Radio Free Europe, nor bring back forbidden books. But none of this mattered when it became evident that: “everyone went crazy for this type of music and that this sound made Dutch and even German hearts throb.” Their second album was made in Holland.
The beginning of the 1980s brought two new albums, “It is not like it used to be” (Nem úgy van most, mint volt régen) and “The prisoner’s song” (Nem arról hajnallik) which attempted to harmonize the folk music sound with the city feeling, with great success. The combination of contemporary musical effects and beat music technology with authentic folk music resulted in the unique Muzsikás style. The censorship committee did not know what to make of them, since it was difficult to find fault with folk music; for this reason their next album “Cold winds are blowing” (Hidegen fújnak a szelek) could appear, underlining the tense discontent of a frustrated society within the guise of folk music. The censors were sensitive to the inferences, nonetheless. A sentence quoted by the composer Zoltán Kodály “The stranger is pretty – said the Jew, and within one year Jerusalem crumbled” – could not be spoken on stage. The orchestra was fortunate in Mihály Sipos to have a manager of empathy, and foresight. He recognised in the early 1980s that the time had come for Márta Sebestyén to release a solo album, which appeared in 1982 as “I was humming” (Dúdoltam én, Sebestyén Márta) and her solo career began, parallel to that of the ensemble. British producer John Boyd, who was also the manager of Pink Floyd, came to Budapest specifically because of her, and took note of the Muzsikás ensemble as well. During the time of the regime change, they decided to steer clear of political parties, but felt the challenge. As Mihály Sipos puts it in the film, “We cannot become a united nation until the traumas of the 20th century are discussed.” The next record “The cockerel is crowing now” (Szól a kakas már…) is an argument against urbanization, which illustrates the overlap of the Hungarian and Hebrew cultures through the folk music of the Máramaros region in Transylvania. And though the intellectual wrestling of Mihály Sipos may sometimes seem naďve, this record opened the gates of the outside world before them. “This is it!” said John Boyd, the British producer, and proceeded to organize concerts in the Carnegie Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, and others. After the Kossuth and Prima Primissima awards, they were among the first European ensembles to receive the Womax world music award.
The film encompasses nearly four decades, establishing the lives of the individual members, their careers, and what being Hungarian means to them, deep down. We also hear from their main helpers and mentors, Ferenc Sebő and Béla Halmos, who contributed so much to the folk music renaissance. As Halmos puts it: we will reach the end of folk music when the particular way of life which brought it about ends, as was also the case with renaissance and baroque music. In this day and age, the only thing that can preserve it is conscious instruction. The dance houses are the medium where it is able to function in its true form. And it is a major accomplishment that hundreds of thousands of people, several generations, have learned the basics of music in the dance houses; they are no longer consumers of cheap and shoddy goods.
The film offers rich and diverse research, abundant music and dance. One weakness is its tendency to avoid individual, human dramas. When asked why the relationship with his best friend, Sándor Csoóri deteriorated, Péter Éri simply answers, with tears in his eyes, “I will not discuss this, even if you turn off the camera.”
There is a personal sphere even in the age of tabloids and celebrities, and the viewer must accept this fact. But it seems tragic that just three months after the departure of Sándor Csoóri, a versatile and talented musician, and a determining figure for the first twenty years of the group’s existence, they accept the Kossuth award without him. Each member of the ensemble reacted differently to Csoóri’s departure, but there is little trace in the film of the irreconcilable differences which must have led to the split. Csoóri speaks on camera, but not about this. Márta Sebestyén, whose recent departure from the ensemble was also not without conflict, was also not available for comment. Yet had it not been for Mihály Sipos’ sense of talent and timing she might never have built a solo career. The dramas remain in the background, betrayed only by the tears in the eyes of the musicians, and the unexpected bitterness.