Márta Sebestyén with Muzsikás 
Hungarian Rhapsodies - Postmodernizing Central European Music
By Richard Harrington Washington Post Staff Writer

Most folks have come to know Marta Sebestyen's voice from the haunting theme song of the Oscar-winning film "The English Patient" or from the ethereal "Marta's Song" on "Boheme," the world beat album by Deep Forest. However, her work has been idely available for more than a decade, both with the Hungarian bowed string ensemble Muzsikas (which performs at the Birchmere Monday) and on her solo albums.

It's easy to understand why "English Patient" director Anthony Minghella was drawn to Sebestyen's pure expressive voice: the traditional Hungarian song heard under the opening credits, "En Csak Azt Csodalom (Lullaby for Catherine)," is a perfect vehicle for he haunting melancholy and languorous ornamentation common to Central Europe. There are several similarly plaintive songs on the latest Muzsikas album, "Morning Star" (Hannibal/Rykodisc), but the album is also full of whirling dance music and stately courtship songs that might be found in a Transylvanian village at the turn of a century.

That the year could be either 1900 or 2000 is a reflection of Muzsikas's role as a leading figure in the Hungarian folk movement of the '70s, which, as with its American and British counterparts, found young urban folk revivalists visiting isolated rural villages and learning the songs and customs from the elders. Muzsikas's primary focus has been Transylvania, which was ceded to Romania after World War I but is to Hungarian culture what the Deep South is to America -- a place where diverse folk forms were centered and where they have somehow survived modernization and cultural assimilation.

"Morning Star" is very much a celebration of village life and its varied rhythms: sensual love ballads, spirited wedding dances, deliberate work songs. All are played with grace and gusto by fiddlers Mihaly Sipos and Laszlo Porteleki, hammer dulcimer/bass player Daniel Hamar and violist Peter Eri. "Wedding in Fuzes Village" starts off as a boisterous fiddle-driven courtship dance, giving say to a stately vocal before racing to its twin-fiddle conclusion. On "A Song for Madosca," Sebestyen sketches grape harvest traditions before the melody is twice recast as an instrumental dance tune, once slow and then once fast. "Round Dance of Gyimes" is propelled by fiddle and hit-gardon (a struck cello-like instrument), racing to its ecstatic conclusion with the sounds of dancer Zoltan Farkas's steps added to the mix.

Songs with sadly gorgeous melodies include "My Mother's Rosebush" (about a bride's last-moment regrets) and "Oh Morning Star-Farewell to Soldiers," a mournful reflection on youngsters sent far away for military service. Sebestyen also shines on "I Wish I Were a Rose," a Siberian ballad with a Celtic gait, thanks to its flute-zither-mandolin textures. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8173.)

"The Best of Marta Sebestyen" (Hannibal/Rykodisc) draws from the singer's four solo albums, as well as her work with Muzsikas and Vujicsics, an ensemble that focuses on the traditions of Southern Hungary's Croats and Serbs. Though the sadness and sorrow that seem to grip the music are intact, the production is often more modern and far less stark. Most   intriguing are the melodic and harmonic parallels between Hungarian and Irish music evidenced on "Istenem, Istenem" and "The Shores of Loch Brann/Hazafele" (the later melding an Irish ballad learned from Dolores Keane with a southwestern Hungarian folk song collected by Sebestyen's mother).

Also represented: the Jewish music of Transylvania that almost disappeared after the Holocaust ("The Rooster Is Crowing" and a haunting a cappella "Farewell to Shabbat"); a beautiful, multi-tracked Bosnian love song, "Gold, Silver or Love"; Vujicsics's sprightly "If the Sour Cherry . . ."; and an extended, elegiac "Hindi Lullabye," which beautifully segues into a Romanian folk melody collected by Bela Bartok as the sarangi (a bowed Northern Indian instrument) gives way to the fiddle.

Muzsikás - Within each genre that comes to North America as "world music," there is always one group of musicians designated as emissaries, virtually equated with that music for a time. In Hungarian folk circles, that group is Muzsikás. Muzsikás delves deep into the roots of central European history by combining Jewish, Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Gypsy influences to bring the world a rich, complex and mysterious Translyvanian tradition. As part of the folk revival that swept Hungary two decades ago, in response to the straitjacketed approach of Russian state-sponsored folklore, Muzsikás played tanchez when it was dangerous to do so. Now an even broader audience has discovered the talents of their stellar vocalist, Marta Sebestyén through her work on the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning film, The English Patient and the Grammy winning BOHEME by Deep Forest. Exhilarating audiences with their outstanding musicianship and their devotion to seeking out obscure and interesting music, Muzsikás has become one of the world's top performing ensembles