Makám, with Irén Lovász - Szindbád
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Makám, with Irén Lovász
Fonó (

cd cover Exhibit the Hungarian folk ensemble Makám, formed in 1984, when party hacks still called the tune, quite literally. They've no doubt come further in two decades than many artists move in a lifetime. Comparisons of their music with the familiar seem easy, but to say that aficionados of Celtic, folk or "gypsy" music (everyone thinks they know what those are) will find something here, one may as well say nothing at all.

How then to assess a recording without props (liner notes, promo boilerplate, knowledge of the musicians themselves), foundering outside the languages one speaks or comprehends, even presuming to know something about the broader cultural and musical traditions that seem to inform the work?

Closer scrutiny: start with trying to count the beats on the first two tracks, time signatures like nothing most listeners will have encountered. There's something more here. Truly, a music capricious, coquettish, full of tenderness and bittersweet longing, trains in the night ("Balaton"), casually seasoned with found sounds, garlic and paprika, a Proustian sensibility, the hue and cry of childhood, whimsical snippets of vocal games sung by children ("Mátyus," "Panyiga"), play songs ("Tá Tia Tá"), the curiously familiar (one wants to say, cross-cultural) spoken breaks, rhetorical markers of the storyteller's universal trade, even when the idiom itself is unintelligible. Memory of things lost and dreams half forgotten, an idiosyncratic, theatrically charged sonic sketchbook of the Sinbad odyssey, castaway of time and space. Iconic as the cover illustration, Paul Klee's fanciful portrait of the mythical mariner, a work dotted throughout with what can only be the wretched sailor's own mad mutterings, mere mortal cast before cruel winds of destiny and desire.

Instrumentation, the precision attack and lovely, spacious accent of Moldavian flute, kaval and tin whistle, the driving insistence and utter transparency of the contrabass and acoustic guitar bass lines, the syncopated cross-rhythms of marimba, sundry percussion, clay and bass drums, echoes carved out once more on violin and its throatier Turkish counterpart, on muted guitar and piano, all against the power of human voice. Above all, a terrifyingly talented singer, Irén Lovász, whose take on "Zengövárkony" merely hints at her microtonal sensibilities, her intuitive sense of dynamics, her gutsy contralto range, less manifest elsewhere than the striking girlish timbres heard throughout. Spellbinding too is "Madárijesztö," wherein Lovász eerily matches every pulse and tonic subtlety of the droning harmonium and reedy Turkish violin, producing a unison from beyond.

The lyrical compositions by Zoltán Krulik (guitar, harmonium, piano, vocals), shot through with Oriental allusions, near east and far. Quite randomly, hear the kaval on "A Néma Halfiú," the syncopated hand-clapping and droning vocal call-and-response of "Malom," the octave-swooping, sweetly restrained violin of "Zöld Csoda-Fény," as understated an album closing as you're likely to hear. All this, a sparseness unassuming, the disarming assurance of a naďveté and simplicity more apparent than real. The ensemble teases out the veiled affinities between Hungarian folk and European classical traditions, a charmed encounter whose palette also yields Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, strains of rock and jazz. But there is no surrender to any of their dictates. Indeed, every offering renders something distinctive, enchanting aural fragments of a pointillist portrait in sound. To see and hear Makám perform live must be a treat indeed, to savor the bracing air of global folk from Budapest in contemporary ferment, an artistic endeavour deserving wider hearing among all adrift at sea or longing on the shore against a counterfeit tide of "world" music. - Michael Stone

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