FOLK Muzsikas / Marta Sebestyen Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture
According to Hungarian humorist George Mikes, everyone is Hungarian. And so it seemed at the Barbican's Hungarian-themed presentation on Sunday night, featuring Hungary's leading folk group Muzsikas, legendary chanteuse Marta Sebestyen and a host of minor Magyars and honorary Hungarians clamouring for the public ear. The sprightly 80-year-old Toni Arpad gave a rousing cimbalom zither performance which seemed, eccentrically, to include the Bohemian equivalent of an East End pub singalong as well as renditions of "Happy Birthday" and other virtuoso gypsy rhapsodies; the Vaganti Players, economic refugees from the concrete wastes of, erm, Greater London, ran through their selection of tunes "from Budapest to the Black Sea" before oud / percussion virtuoso Raph Mizraki joined them to show off his instrumental skills and Egyptian wardrobe; and finally, for the main course, Muzsikas and Marta Sebestyen appeared before a capacity crowd in the main auditorium.

Billed as "The Voice of the English Patient", it is Marta's rendition of the tragic love song "Szerelem, Szerelem" that aids the seduction of the heroine in that film. She's also familiar to Western ears through the medium of Deep Forest, who used her voice on their second album, after they'd done disco-pygmies. The surroundings of the Barbican were doubtless more austere than a Budapest coffee-house, from whence Muzsikas and Marta hail, but professionalism and an easy stage demeanour, deriving from 15 years of Hungarian superstardom, aided the breaking-down of barriers, and the audience responded ecstatically to, well, everything.

They loved contra-bassist Daniel Hamar's guide to Hungarian music, his musings upon why most Hungarian love songs are sad and his sharing with us the result of his ponderings ("If love is unhappy, then it is a release to sing; if it is happy, then there are... other things to be done"), they loved his brief exposition of the flute - "lots of holes, blow in here, notes come out here" - and they were gagging for his Bartok-made-easy- going explanation of how that great musicologist / composer preserved Hungarian folk tunes that were being forgotten, a prelude to a rendition of a selection of folk melodies featuring familiar Bartok motifs.

Marta Sebestyen, whose elfin figure belies the crystalline clarity and power of her voice, and the four-piece group (two violins, bouzouki and bass) were augmented by a pair of dancers, who kicked up (strategically- placed?) dust as they whirled through Hungarian wedding dances. Toni Arpad reappeared as Muzsikas launched into lost music from the Jewish-Hungarian heritage - "His tradition does not involve reading music, sometimes it's just like jazz," said (geo-physicist) Hamar, "but we'll try to keep up."

The second half continued in similar vein - dancing, solos and the extraordinary gardon, a kind of cello beaten fiercely with wooden sticks - before the show closed with Marta's a cappella rendition of "Szerelem, Szerelem". But they weren't going to get away that easily and three encores later, the audiences were still on their feet, clamouring for more of that old Magyar magic.

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