By Zina Bozzay, Founder and Teacher of the Hungarian Folk Singing Circle
October 10, 2013

Editor’s Note: Zina Bozzay is a traditional artist based in Northern California, who works across national borders.  Deeply involved in the research and teaching of Hungarian folk music, her reflections on a visit to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer en route to Hungary, points to the value of this work on a personal and collective level.  Zina’s visit to the Festival was supported in part by a contract through ACTA’s Development Program

Zina actively continues her research in Hungary.  Living there for two years, Zina studied traditional Hungarian folk singing with Éva Fábián at the Óbuda Folkmusic School; Zina works with the last living generation of Hungarians that grew up in the traditional culture.  She lives in the Bay Area, where she teaches Hungarians and professional Eastern European folk musicians, performs locally, and runs a weekly singing circle out of her home.

Standing in the middle of the National Mall on a hot summer day, one listened from all angles: a brass band playing for boisterous dancing in an open wooden barn, a string band on a big stage serenading an audience of listeners, an engaging lecture in an open tent, the bustle of dozens of booths of artisan crafts, hundreds of conversations, thousands of visitors.  Every year, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. features different themes and cultures, and this year’s program was Hungarian Heritage: Roots to Revival.  It filled the Mall for two weeks with a once-in-a-lifetime event of this magnitude showcasing Hungarian culture on U.S. soil.

About 100 culture bearers arrived from Hungary for the occasion, including some of the top experts in their fields: internationally-renowned musicians, directors of institutions, winners of national competitions, accomplished artists and scholars, and not at all least, peasant villagers raised in these traditions.  It took many months of planning, and Hungarian-Americans and many others traveled from across North America to participate.  I was so honored to receive funding through ACTA’s Development Program to have the opportunity to attend, for me another step in a journey in Hungarian folk singing that has consumed the last several years of my life.  More importantly, it has radically changed my perspective on life — my worldview, my friendships, my plans for the future, and what kind of person I strive to be.

For some passersby at the festival, a breeze carrying unfamiliar tunes tickles their ears, introducing them to something new.  Another knows where Hungary is, and enjoys the opportunity to see the costumes, hear the language.  Other visitors come to connect with their own roots, whether they arrive with little more than a last name, memories of a few dishes, and curiosity, or have spent a lifetime immersed in a Hungarian-American immigrant community proud of its heritage.  Some ask questions and meet new people, others arrive to spend time with existing friends.  For a Hungarian it might be nostalgic and a taste of home, and for a folk dance enthusiast, an opportunity to deepen their exposure, knowledge, and skills.

For everyone on different levels, it’s a reminder of the variety of culture, and the variety of human expression.  From awareness, to acquaintanceship, familiarity, deeper knowledge, immersion, and profound personal connection, people have a range of experiences with culture, their own or of others.  This festival is an opportunity to move along that spectrum, whether through a touching performance, a child’s handcraft, or a shared beer and conversation.

As I went to the festival en route crossing from the East European folk music community in the Bay Area to the Hungarian folk music community in Hungary and Transylvania, it built several more pieces in my own multi-faceted web of connections across those worlds.  Relationships cultivated over many years easily extended to new ones with one degree of separation — and new friends immediately pointed me to new information.  It was affirming to hear songs I knew and loved, and exciting to record new ones I’m eager to learn.  Relationships mean I can follow up on those songs, gathering more recordings of them, finding the song texts, checking my translations of those texts, asking questions about style, rhythm, dance, and region.  That’s why ACTA’s support is so important, because only in this web of collaboration and friendship can we all move toward deeper and more complex understandings of this heritage, and every piece of information I gather gets passed back to my students and audiences in the Bay Area.

It’s an incredible thing to have an elderly woman from a small village in rural Transylvania standing on the big stage in Washington D.C., sharing her powerful songs with the audience.  I lead a weekly singing circle in my home in San Francisco, where we sing these beautiful Hungarian folk songs, and in a way it’s like bringing her to sit down at the kitchen table.  We use source recordings, which are recordings of local village singers who learned in an oral tradition, meaning from their parents and neighbors, in the winter evenings, at the weddings, at the graves.  We learn through listening, repeating, and singing together.  We go over Hungarian pronunciation, translation of the song texts, and interesting bits of language.  Through the songs we work on ornamentation, chest voice singing tone, and all of the beautiful and rugged musical details we discover as we listen, listen, listen.  There are stories, there are cookies, there are laughs.  I feel friendships forming, I feel my heart swollen with warmth by the end of the evening.

This is the táncház method, the same method currently used in Hungary, a model for oral transmission in an urban setting that is participatory and multi-generational.  Participants practice hands-on, gaining profound familiarity with traditional culture, raising awareness and sustaining diversity, becoming active bearers and creators within the tradition, integrating it into their everyday lives.  They form grassroots communities that are self-sustaining and self-perpetuating.  In 2011, this method was selected for the UNESCO Register of Best Safeguarding Practices of Intangible Cultural Heritage, a nomination I was involved in preparing.

When we listen, like listening in other spheres of life, we learn.  In a world of ‘doing’ or ‘passively watching’, we actively engage in receiving, perceiving.  At first, the basics: the melody, the rhythm, the words.  The more you listen, the more is there.  That ornament, that scratch, that slide, that breath.  The tuning of the scale, the lilt of the dance.  Metaphors in the text emerge, symbolic poetry and backstories between the lines.  You listen to what the song is saying, to what the singer is saying, on more levels.  There is no line between ornament, timbre, and that quiver in the singer’s voice.  The closer you get, the more you learn, and the more you want to learn.  You hear her verbal communication and her emotional communication.  If she is singing about her life, what is her life like?

If I am human and feeling, I have to care about these humans.  I crave learning more about their lives, their histories, their families, their daily tasks.  When I spend time with them, I am struck by moments which show their humility, generosity, patience, or other ways of being that are different from an urban culture, and it changes my values and the lifestyle choices I make.  I care about their human expression – in music, in how they decorate their homes, in worldview.  There is so much richness, so much beauty, so much detail in these expressions.  It’s infinite.  It’s profound.  It’s satisfying.

These colorful ways of expressing oneself, from sounds to words to mentality, might disappear if we don’t treasure them and continue them.  Many of the singers I learn from are the last from their village who were raised in the tradition, but fortunately there is a big movement to continue and revive it, as exemplified by the Smithsonian Festival.  People move from awareness of this heritage, seeing or hearing it, to participating in it.  The expressions are intangible, and they can’t be frozen in recordings, because they are more than a string of notes — they are a way of learning and creating art, and a way of thinking and living life.  We learn the sounds themselves, first simply imitating but then learning the variations and being able to improvise and create and express ourselves on a personal level.  We move from performing a song to communicating it.  Songs communicate verbal and non-verbal things in delicious and uniquely-human ways, and this nuanced story-telling reminds us of the basic elements of human existence: hardships, joys, love, and love lost.  So from traditional music we gain not only musical skills, but empowering ‘new’ ways to express ourselves as people, process our experiences, live our lives, and connect with each other.

To learn more about the Hungarian Heritage: Roots to Revival Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2013, visit and  To learn more about the Hungarian folk singing circle, see visit their Facebook page or contact Zina directly at