Score One for Tradition : Marta Sebestyen gave ‘The English Patient’ its distinctive sound with a Hungarian song.


Marta Sebestyen’s name may not ring a bell. But anyone who saw “The English Patient” is familiar with the distinctive sound of the Hungarian singer, who is rapidly becoming one of the principal divas of world music. It is Sebestyen’s voice, with its focused, penetrating sound, recurring in the theme “Lullaby for Katharine,” that gives the score its singular character.

Sebestyen and her longtime musical companions, the group Muzsikas, will perform that music, as well as a broad array of Hungarian melodies, when they play at the House of Blues on Sunday.

Sebestyen, 40, is pleased at the impact her singing had on the success of the picture. But at the time she did it, she saw the performance only as an interesting creative challenge.


“It was miraculous, the way it happened--like everything in my life,” she says. “Last year, when we were playing in Berkeley, a man came backstage and introduced himself as Anthony Minghella. He said he was just editing his new film, and loved one of our tunes.”

Sebestyen was doubtful at first, but accepted Minghella’s invitation to go to the studio to see parts of the picture.

“When I saw it,” she recalls, “I had to agree with him that, yes, he has a reason to want that song. And I was very proud that someone who didn’t understand a single word of the song could be so touched by it.”

A London recording session was arranged for Sebestyen to place melodies against some recorded music.

“There was a big screen, with film running,” she says. “And as I watched the picture, I saw the scene in which the woman is kind of dying in that cave, and I spontaneously started to sing the song which became later the ‘Lullaby for Katharine.’

“Anthony asked me, ‘Oh, Marta, that’s beautiful, what is that?’ And I said, ‘Anthony, it’s a traditional song from northern Hungary, and it speaks about the same thing, about how impossible it is to survive without seeing one’s love.’ The same thing I had seen on the screen. And he said, ‘Oh, wow, we shall keep it.’ ”

The success of “The English Patient” has clearly impacted Sebestyen’s visibility. But she insists that the greatest reward for her was what she describes as “proof” of the universality of her music.

“It’s the perfect answer,” she says. “People say to me, ‘Oh, how can you sing Hungarian songs for American people? They won’t understand them.’ And the answer is that, yes, they will understand--with their hearts.”

Sebestyen comes from a distinctively musical background. Her mother was one of the last students of the great Hungarian composer and folklorist Zoltan Kodaly, studying ethnomusicology.

“Kodaly’s theory was that a child’s musical education should start nine months before the birth,” says Sebestyen with a laugh. “And in my case, it really worked, because I was inside my mom’s body while she was going to school, studying all that music.”

“All that music” led Sebestyen to the group Muzsikas in the early ‘80s, when the ensemble was one of the most important members of Hungary’s tanchaz movement. Tanchaz (“dance house”) emerged in the ‘70s in Hungary and among the Hungarian communities of Transylvania as a method of retaining traditional Hungarian roots in the face of repressive socialist policies--especially, at the time, the policies of neighboring Romania, which includes large parts of Transylvania.

Sebestyen’s affection for and growing knowledge of musical folklore blended with the quartet’s ability to combine traditional sounds with a surging, rhythmic excitement that transcends style and time.

Says the singer: “I think that this music, even though it might sound unfamiliar at first, is important because it is not artificial. It is not like an actress who thinks, ‘If I do this kind of smile, or that kind of look, then people will love me.’ With Muzsikas, we don’t have to think about that. We just play, with real passion, and that touches the people. No trick, no Hollywood hubbly-bubbly, just the music itself.”

Most of the tunes in their latest album, “Morning Star,” are traditional Hungarian ones. But in concert, Sebestyen reaches into related areas of music, and in the past she has recorded Irish and Indian songs. The current album includes a lovely Siberian tune, “I Wish I Were a Rose.”

“The source of these songs may be different,” she says, “but the essence of traditional music is the same, no matter what the country. The melodies carry all these feelings, the true feelings of the people.

“And what’s interesting, when you listen closely, is how the tone of the voice, the ornamentation of the melodies, are different, from country to country, from region to region. It’s like embroidery or pottery, in which you can identify its source by the color or the decorations. Melodies are the same way.”

An articulate spokeswoman for her music, Sebestyen, even when speaking her precise English, is not ashamed of the passion she feels for traditional music. Nor does she hesitate to refer glowingly to the importance that singing has had in her life.

“I don’t think I could survive without my voice,” she says, “because I love singing. It could be in my bathroom, in a concert hall or in the chambers of Parliament. Living, breathing, singing--they’re all the same thing to me.”


Marta Sebestyen & Muzsikas, Sunday at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 9 p.m. $20. (213) 650-1451.