Szilvia Bognár, Ágnes Herczku and Ági Szalóki – “World music from Hungary”

13. 11. 2008 | Rubriky: Articles,Live reviews

H’ART Festival, Centre of Contemporary Art, Glasgow, Scotland, 8 November 2008

[by Ken Hunt, London] Szilvia Bognár, Ágnes Herczku and Ági Szalóki’s album Szájról szájra – first released in Hungary in 2007 but invisible to the outside world until early in 2008 – ranks as one of the benchmark albums to emerge from the pan-European folk scene this decade. It is a master-class in the subtlety and power of interwoven voices as well as being a torrent of lessons on how to draw on traditional folk music and make it both now and timeless. But the wondrousness of Szájról szájra only really comes across in live performance when you match lips to sound. Revealing how they do it was nothing less than awe-inspiring in the way that seeing the Watersons – when Lal Waterson was with them – brought home the otherness of talent and intuitiveness. Furthermore, Szájról szájra‘s UK premiere at the H’Art Festival – subtitled ‘Celebrating Hungarian Culture in Scotland’ – revealed how it was almost as much a visual work as a musical one.

Szájról szájra translates as ‘From mouth to mouth’. The H’ART Festival translated it as ‘hearsay’ – inappropriately to this mind (with its sub-primitive Hungarian leanings) because, instinctively, the sense beyond the literal words is all to do with passing something on from voice to voice. Or if big words help, the ‘oral process’.

In the trio’s case they draw primarily, but not exclusively, on regional Hungarian and Transylvanian music. However, in their repertoire and singing, as Ági Herczku mentioned afterwards in conversation, they have taken a dictum of Béla Bartók’s to heart, namely how by drawing on a continuum of neighbouring folk cultures one comes to appreciate and understand one’s own native folkways better. Like some Bartókian field expedition, the Szájról szájra project touches on Bulgarian music while instrumentally, under its musical director Gábor Juhász’s watch, it delves into Hungarian folk music, jazz and Eurocentric folk roots.

Now, Hungarian is a gnarly language. For outsiders, where Hungarian is concerned sense goes out the window – or, pardon the Czech image, gets defenestrated. Bognár, Herczku and Szalóki create such a heady concoction of sound that no knowledge of the language is needed. It is enough to luxuriate in Szájról szájra‘s sound and glory.

The concert order in Glasgow departed from the album’s track order beginning instead with Sem eső/No Rain Falls. Once Ági Herczku came in on Sem eső, it was clear straightaway that the concert performance was bound to outshine the ‘artefact’. László Mester’s viola took on a greater prominence in the mix; Mester’s brácsa was bedded in Hungarian village music but it strayed – proof that infidelity can have good results. Miles more relaxed and lived in than the album’s renditions, it was plain from the off that, though the ensemble might be re-presenting the album that this was going to be a performance with impromptu touches, not a faithful rehash of the album. Sem eső laid out the rules. As on the album, Juhász played a delicious solo guitar bridge that linked Sem eső to Tűzugrás/Fire Jumping. As with most of the material that followed, they kept close to the album arrangements but the ensemble’s playing and the trio’s singing eclipsed the studio versions.

Touring the material, it was evident, had made the performances both tauter and tighter, looser and more limber. A lot of air and space had entered the arrangements. Somogyindia (it gets no translation on the album) was a case in point with its full-strength unison and overlapping vocal onslaught and hand-clapped rhythmicality. And keeping to the project’s folk-jazz spirit, bassist Zoltán Kovács and drummer/percussionist András Dés each had opportunities to solo towards the end.

What became plain was how powerful its suites – or mini-symphonies – were. Betlehem/Bethlehem, with its prominent nylon-strung guitar from Juhász and gadulka (bagpipes) from Nikola Parov, emerged as an ace in the Szájról szájra band’s hand. Compared to the concentration required to sing the interwoven vocal pyrotechnics that is Lidlidli (the bagpipe song that followed Betlehem), Betlehem seemed like a sea of tranquillity and contemplation. They held back its counterpart religious piece Paradicsom/Paradise until the very end and then as their only encore. The Szájról szájra repertoire is not easy to sing or accompany. One pre-gig pálinka for the nerves and the whole thing could unravel.

What remains uppermost in my mind is how Szilvia Bognár, Ágnes Herczku and Ági Szalóki construct their vocal parts. While one of them might be singing the lyric, the other two might be adding nothing whatsoever vocally or contributing tight-knit vocal parts that constituted little more than stressing a syllable or adding a vocal shiver, effect or embellishment. Herczku’s final sigh on Édes kicsi galambon/Sweetest Little Dove of Mine, for example, was pure theatricality. It worked much better than on the album, proving that practice makes perfect. Szilvia Bognár’s singing on the introduction to the knee-knotting Elmegyel/I’m Leaving reminded why she has the consummate touch. Similarly, Ági Szalóki showed how commanding she is vocally on Jólesik/It Feels Good. Uppermost in the mind must remain how, in my experience, when they join forces the trio can create vocal fireworks quite unlike any ensemble on the planet.

The eighth of November was a great day for music in Glasgow. That afternoon five kilted bagpipers busked at the other end of Sauchiehall Street and did a bagpipe version of ‘'Okey Cokey complete with moves and movements, with skirls and twirls that was nothing less than a street music sensation. That evening Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame had a sold-out concert at Òran Mór on the Great Western Road; the Wolfetones were at Barrowland at Gallowgate; and, a hop, skip and a jump downhill from the Centre of Contemporary Art on Sauchiehall Street, the Fleet Foxes were at the ABC. But Szilvia Bognár, Ágnes Herczku and Ági Szalóki’s concert was where the creative juices really flowed. It was a privilege to witness something so inspirational.

Photograph: c 2008 Ken Hunt

Further listening:
Szilvia Bognár, Ágnes Herczku and Ági Szalóki: Szájról Szájra FolkEurópa Kladó FECD035 (2007)

Szilvia Bognár:
Enek őrzi az időt/Song preserves the heartbeat of time Gryllus GCD 057 (2006)
Szilvia Bognár and István Kónya: Rutafának sok szép ága (2008)

Ágnes Herczku: Arany és kék szavakkal/In gold and blue Fonó (2003)

Ági Szalóki: Hallgató / Lament FolkEurópa FECD020 (2005)

Have you enjoyed the article? Digg

Directory of Articles

Most recent Articles