Once the center of the glory that was the Hapsburg Empire, Hungary stands like an island in the middle of Europe. The Magyar, as the Hungarians are known, are actually unrelated to the people that surround them, with origins (some believe) close to Siberia, a link that can be found in some of the very oldest Hungarian music. Around 900 A.D. the people settled around Carpathia and adopted Christianity, only to be forced under the yoke of the Turks during the 15th century. In the wake of the Turks, many Roma settled in the region, bringing their music, which influenced the sound of the country, but is actually only one facet of it, as music collectors in the early 20th century discovered.
The earliest roots of Hungarian music lie within the Church and plainsong, imported from Italy. The first real documentation of secular music comes in the 16th century. After the arrival of the Turks, Transylvania (which the invaders never occupied) became the focal point of Hungarian music, and 100 years, Hungary was essentially tri-partite, one area controlled by the Turks, one by the Hapsburgs, with Transylvania standing alone. It was a period of musical change, with the rise of both lyric poetry and the court musician, a time that lasted for a good century, after which one of the predominant forms became the rootsy verbunkos. Originally just a style of music used by army recruiters (and often played by Gypsy bands), it evolved into an important musical and lyrical form in Hungarian music. You can even hear it in the works of iconic geniuses like Romantic composer Franz Liszt, whose sweeping music first really made the world aware of his homeland with pieces like "Hungarian Rhapsody." But like most countries, Hungary had a divide between the cultivated music of the rich and the folk music of the poor. It wasn't until collectors went out to document the music of the ordinary folk that some realized what a treasury the country had.
Two of those collectors were celebrated Hungarian composers, Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, who travelled around the countryside with early phonographs recording the peasant music of the villages. What they heard became a large factor and component in the work of both men: for Kodály the foundation of a Hungarian national music, and for Bartók part of his deep love of peasant music, which he recorded extensively in Transylvania. Village music largely died away after the decimation of World War I, as society became more urbanized, making the work of the pair even more valuable, apart from their huge contributions to classical music,
Following World War II, Hungary became a Communist country, and music became a nationalized, sanitized industry of folk choirs and orchestras playing material authorized by the government. Its base might have been in raw folk music, but any edge it possessed had been carefully smoothed. True folk existed as an underground scene, and the closest you were likely to come to the true village sound was in the táncház, or dance hall, where people gathered to perform the old dances (most popularly the lovely czardas), an outgrowth of a Hungarian folk revival that began in the 1970s (and the táncház remains popular today, drawing large, diverse audiences), led by singers such as Márta Sebestyén and the group Muzsikas (which whom she's often performed and recorded). Together and separately they've explored several of the strands of Hungarian music, from the old Jewish tunes to the sounds of neighboring Transylvania, which retains a large Hungarian population. Some of that old music has been reinvented in electronic fashion by upcoming outfits like Anima Sound System.
Yet that's not to decry the power of Gypsy music, celebrated by composers like Liszt and still a vital factor in Hungary. Their way into the mainstream came as performers of verbunkos, but their music reached well beyond that. But it was far more than the wild flourishes of a violin in a restaurant; indeed, the true rural Hungarian music of the Romany people, its biggest tradition, is vocal, hardly using instruments at all, with grunts forming the rhythmic bass, and oral-bassing, where voices imitate the instruments. But outside of the communities they're hard to find, and young, city-dwelling Roma have developed their own sounds, like the rock and folk of Besh o Drom. As with many cultures, it's the young who've taken the music and given it a kick, removing the precious factor that seems endemic in any folk revival. Brands like the Transylvanians have brought a new energy and punk attitude to Hungarian music, treating it in much the same way the Pogues attacked Irish music in the 1980s.
Communism not only attempted to subvert folk music, it essentially destroyed the development of rock 'n' roll. Only bands that passed the standards of the Song Committee were allowed to officially perform and record, which drew the teeth of a rebellious form. When punk arrived in the early 1980s, some musicians found themselves in jail for their political outpourings in music. Times have changed for the better as government has become freer, but the country has yet to produce an international rock band of note. Chris Nickson