Interview: Ági Szalóki

By: Sam Murray
15 August 2014

Ági Szaloki is one Hungary’s most exciting performers often combining music and literature in imaginative ways writing music that can reach across many generation and bringing to life many folk music traditions including those of Hungary live and on record. Her latest project Körforgás is an exciting collaboration with Marton Fenyvesi combining music with poetry and short stories for children and young adults but appeals across the ages. Secretly Rad’s Sam Murray caught up with Ági to find out about her inpirations, compositional processes and her new release Körforgás.

Secretly Rad: What is your musical background?

ÁS: I was playing violin from age of six, but I was playing more the piano on my own in the same time. We didn’t have an upright piano at home so I had to contribute my primary school’s doorman to let me in the music room after teaching till closing time. I was really happy with those lonely hours, studying Mozart, Beatles or improvising just for fun without any restrictions.

At the age of thirteen I decided to quit from my violin classes and I jumped into traditional hungarian folk singing.

I was listening traditional hungarian folk music from my really early age, mostly those records where Márta Sebestyén sung (‘Dúdoltam én’; “Régen volt, soká lesz”; Cserepes Károly – “Jeles napok”). Zoltán Kallós and the Ökrös Ensemble was an other big inspiration. It was a so big deal for me when fifteen years later they invited me to the ensemble as their lead vocalist, touring all around the world for three years, playing one-two hundred concerts together It was such a big effect on my musical education and carrier.

In the beginning I got really deep in the certain style of traditional hungarian folk singing on my own, I learned the traditional ornaments and other tiny stylistic details very soon for my own joy and happiness. My master obviously was Márta Sebestyén, I couldn’t have found any better than her. I didn’t meet her till my age for twenty years, it was a big revelation to sing with her together few years ago together.

There were only two official institutions where there was the opportunity to study this musical culture, the traditional music of Hungary and the ancient Hungarian territories such as Transylvania. I was taught by Klára Bodza first, I studied some classical techniques from her and I got closer to the medieval and renessaince music as well. She was one of the first teacher who established an educational method for folk singing and folk music.

SR: What inspires you to create music?

ÁS: I’m so attracted to nature, I’ve been always amazed of the sounds of nature. There was a time I was strongly inspired by love affairs and depression, sadness. It’s a constant self-therapy, I heal myself all the time in a way with the music I create. I like to see my creations as a personal games in this self-treatment process that constantly annoyes and inspires me at the same time.

I’m very inspired by my collegues (András Dés, Péter Szalai – percussion; Zoltán Kovács – double bass; Krisztián Rácz, Zsolt Csókás – guitar; Gábor Juhász – guitar; Kristóf Bacsó – saxophone), we usually get much closer to each other towards music than with words and talk. They are all co-writers of my songs, I need them to form the pieces till the end of the process, to develop them, to make and keep them alive.

I worked with David Lamm in the beginning, we did four wonderful albums together. We spent so much time just playing the basic ideas I brought for the poems, his strong patience towards me and professional musicianship helped us to born all that material recorded on “Téli-nyári laboda”, “Hallgató”, “Cipity Lőrinc” and “Gingalló”.

The new recording “Körforgás” was born from our first co-operation with Marton Fenyvesi, also a guitarist and arranger. This process was much faster: I sent him a complete melody of a song, he answered with a full orchestral sketch with more or less complete structure and instrumentation. These were the basic sketches we started to form together afterwards in the studio.

With the multi-instrumentalist drummer, Gergő Borlai we formed the band “Kishúg” together, where we finalized his early sketches with some vocal parts and lead melodies, extra lyrics. It was my first time I made few sketches almost totally on my own: I did some loops on my Mac, wrote some lyrics, established some basic sounds in production, and Gergő made the final versions.

SR: How do you compose your songs? Is there a process?

ÁS: I usually hate messing around too much with a basic idea, my best melodies are coming out so fast without forcing them too much. If there is a need to push myself to get to the core, I easily get lost and rather stop working.

The second step – the structure of a song, and the arrangement – is more complicated, sometimes slow and excited process where a lot of ideas and versions can come up at the same time. One of our most popular song “Huszonhárom király” is built on a strong bass-drums-guitar sound: after jamming a lot on this I suddenly started to here other instruments such as tabla that gives so much power and some spicy feel for the groove and a lots of vocals that put the whole thing two level up.

This kind of concentrated studio work needs strong and fast decisions. It’s so challenging for me usually, because I’m not so confident in the everyday life: I’m not able to make decisions at all… 🙂

SR: A lot of your songs are based on poetry, how do you choose which poems to work with?

ÁS: I have been always attracted to the transcendent meanings, the dreams, the undescribable, the miracle, I’m so attracted to poems that have such layer of understanding. From the musical side, I always work so easily with the simple-structured poems that maybe have some musical relations in form or in rhythm. There are plenty of authors in the Hungarian literature (such as Sándor Weöres, Charles Sirató or Sándor Kányádi) who worked with words primarily in a rhythmic sense, that so easy to lay on a groove. I tried to work with contemporary, postmodern texts as well without any success. I couldn’t handle them at all in a musical environment, I felt I cannot grow the music to that complexity where these poems are working so well.

SR: What can we expect from Your latest record Körforgás, and why have you decided to combine your songs with tales?

ÁS: The musical world we created with Marton Fenyvesi is brand new in my life. It’s more psychedelic, it gets much further with its assimetric rhythm. The jazz, the music of the pygmies, the gypsy music and the indie rock makes a really unusual unity here. The whole thing is so much guitar orientated that you cannot really categorize.

The “Körforgás” (“Circulation”) is a cycle of children songs, but the sound and the feeling can be attractive to the teenagers as well. My first three children albums were totally for the youngest kids who have grown up since then, they are teenagers now. After the album release It’s just came out for us, this music touch them as well, but we are still able to reach the youngest generation too, although sometimes the topics of the songs are really strong and heavy (the death, the phisicality of love, God and belief).

The format is also pretty new for me. We published a book as well with the poems and amazing illustrations by Eszter Kiskovács extending the CD with three short stories written by Anna T. Szabó, a wonderful poet who established an interesting textual unity around the topic “circle”, “circulation”.

I call it “Zenéskönyv”: “musicbook”.

SR: You have collaborated with a variety of artists such as Besh O droM and Oi Va Voi, how did these collaborations come about and what do you get out of them as a musician?

ÁS: I met Adam Pettik, the founder of Besh o Drom at my age of seventeen, we were playing in several bands together. Adam and his brother-in-law, Gergő Barcza founded the Besh o Drom, I was singing in the band from the really beginning. I was so shy little girl that time and that music was so powerful and energetic, it was a big revelation for me to feel the crowd waving and dancing with us all over the world. We were on tour almost six years constantly, playing the biggest festivals in the world such as Glastonbury and the Montreal Jazz Festival. We were like a big family quarrelling and loving each other at the same time. Gergő and Adam had their unique philosophy of life based on the total freedom and the constant questioning, that was a strong effect on the whole band all the time.

I met the Oi Va Voi in Glastonbury, we were playing on the same stage after each other in the dawn, in a sleepy but revolutionary mood. We met few years later at the Sziget Festival, they invited me to work together on their next record. They sent me their sketches that I found so inspiring, few months later we recorded the album in London. It was my first serious musical co-operation abroad. Two years ago the new formation of Oi Va Voi asked me to join the band as a constant member, but I was doing my own projects that time that I didn’t want to quit and start a new life in London.

SR: Do you think your songs can be appreciated if you do not speak or understand Hungarian?

ÁS: I constantly listen to music with lyrics from all over the world that I cannot understand, but still it takes a great effect on me. The music is pure emotion, the conscious understanding is a secondary level for me. Most of my music is meditative, silent: pure atmospheres with simple structures, that can be effective on more certain levels.

I’m receiving messages and feedback on YouTube and Facebook from all over the world, these mean to me a lot, inspire me and turn me on to investigate more and more unknown musical cultures. In the past few years I’ve started to feel this big human unity, the conversation of different cultures, the joy of being together in our world.

Few years ago I got a letter from a little village in the South of France where small kids are singing my songs all the time in Hungarian. A Japanese label released my four albums in the past few years and I’m preparing for a tour in 2015 in Japan.

SR: What music have you been listening to and enjoying lately?

ÁS: Bobby McFerrin, Lhasa de Sela, Anja Garbarek. Sting anytime, anywhere. Music of the pigmies. I m trying to show up every single concert of the Hungarian Kelemen String Quartet playing mostly Mozart, Tschaikovsky, Bartók, Kurtág.

SR: What is the future for Ági Szalóki?

ÁS: There’s a big change in my private life now with a lots of new things I need to develop and explore. I’m sure I would love to study and get to new territories where I can help much more with my music.

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