Songs from the soul

30th April 2004 at 01:00
From freedom choirs to gypsy violinists, our neighbours bring music to move and dazzle us, says Michael Church

I would be nice to be able to say that the 10 new countries that are joining the European Union will enrich it with 10 new cultures. But the reality is not so romantic. The march of American mass-entertainment is now so ubiquitous that no local culture has been untouched: the aspiration of many young people everywhere - and often their parents, too - is to Americanise themselves.

But there is one form of art that can easily cross borders from the new EU members and give us an insight into their cultural soul: music.

Viewed in this light, Europe's enlargement is full of possibilities.

We have choirs in the UK, but nothing to compare with the choral tradition of the Baltic states. Since the mid-19th century, giant singing festivals have been a feature of Baltic life. It was just such an event - ironically, in view of Stalin's encouragement of choral singing - that helped free them from the Soviet yoke.

What is now looked back on as Estonia's Singing Revolution was the Eestimaa Laul ("Estonian Song") rally of September 11, 1988. Some 300,000 people - one in three of the population - gathered in the traditional songfest site in Tallinn, the capital, and sang previously banned songs. When Trivimi Velliste, the head of the Estonian Heritage Society, used the occasion to call for the country's independence from the Soviet Union, people linked arms in human chains across the countryside to sing for freedom.

Each of the Baltic states has its own traditions. That of Estonia's Setu tribe has already influenced contemporary roots singers in other countries.

More musical crossovers may take place thanks to the zither, one of the most important instruments in Latvia and Lithuania, and the way it could connect with zither traditions all over Europe.

In Hungary, the zither is known as a cimbalom, a multi-stringed beast set up like a grand piano and hammered rather than plucked. In the hands of a master it can dazzle, but simpler versions make ideal tools for tuition.

The country probably has the strongest musical heritage of any on earth, having produced a stream of composers and virtuosi that shows no sign of drying up. Through the conduit of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Hungary's influence entered classical music's mainstream; by fiercely preserving their Magyar identity - in contradistinction to the Slavs all around - Hungarians have also ensured they now have unique folk music to offer.

Hungarian composer Bela Bart"k celebrated this culture by collecting songs in villages in his native country and setting them for piano, voice and orchestra. The country's Muzsik s ensemble, which periodically visits London's South Bank Centre, continues his crusade today. Led by folk singer M rta Sebestyen, the group presents laments, lullabies and dances with the aid of fiddle, cello, flute and zither.

Muzsik s has made a point of preserving the European Jewish music that Nazism all but snuffed out 50 years ago (for instance in their album, The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania). Jewish music is one of the links between Hungary and the other new EU states of Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic; another is the music of the gypsies, with which it has for centuries been intertwined.

Jewish musicians have always followed their own precept: "Whichever wagon you get on, sing the same song." Riding along on the wagons of central Europe, they have coloured their songs accordingly. Their klezmer music (described by a klezmer web site as "upbeat party music" that grew out of religious music in the 19th century) has now become one of the hottest genres in New York and is blooming in Paris and London. Klezmer comes from two Hebrew words, kley and zemer, meaning "instrument of song".

Meanwhile, some of the hottest music in Brussels is that made by Roby Lakatos, a resident, and his band. Lakatos is a descendant of Janos Bihari, the man whom Beethoven christened the Hungarian Orpheus, and is the world's pre-eminent gypsy violinist. Last month, he was dazzling audiences at the Genius of the Violin Festival in London.

Poland has its own folk traditions, which are entering the bloodstream of Western pop via groups such as the Warsaw Village Band, winner of the Newcomer category at this year's Radio 3 Awards for World Music.

But what can we expect from Malta and Cyprus? Cypriot folk music is a triple hybrid, in that it draws not only from Greek and Turkish traditions, but also from Britain, thanks to the UK's former colonialism. But in its truest state, it is dominated by the bouzouki, the saz (the most popular stringed instrument in Turkey) and the flute.

Malta is the oddity in this musical pot-pourri. Colonised by Britain, but imbued with the contrasting influences of Italy and North Africa, its indigenous music is enjoying a renaissance. This goes by the name of ghana, where the g is silent: the word simply means "song", its form reflecting Malta's meld of Christian and Muslim elements. It comprises a guitar overlaid with the falsetto timbre of male singers weaving Arabic melismas as they deliver rhyming couplets. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, this art form is virtually extinct. But I found it flourishing in Malta last year and I shall encourage my ghana-singing friends to bring it to London forthwith.

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