Secret World of Songs: Beata Palya

formerly in Wild River Review

by Kimberly Nagy


Beata Palya’s voice hits you beneath the skin, seeps inside your stomach the way that a good wine might spread slowly, warmly, from your throat to your ribs.

Known for her creative blend of traditional Hungarian folk, jazz, pop, Indian, Persian, Bulgarian and an ever-growing list of influences, I first saw Palya perform at Webster Hall in the East Village of New York City. Inside the dark smoky room with high ceilings, a thick almost heartbreaking voice filled the air as the mesmerized audience sat (and/ or swayed) in rapt attention.

“Good music moves from belly to belly,“ laughs Palya, who is warm and bright-eyed, immediately offering me a friendly embrace, when I introduce myself to her after her performance.

Palya has been singing for as long as she can remember. Born in Hungary in 1976, she joined her first band, Zurgo, at the age of 16. During University she studied the ancient and modern songs of Transylvania and Hungary. She launched a solo career in 2003, and formed her own quintet in 2005.

At the time I wrote this interview, Palya was singing in Mexico and continues to tour the world. She has performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. Her album, Adieu les complexes won Hungary’s best world music record.

Fame does not seem to have hardened Palya. In fact, last year Palya served as Ambassador of Equal Opportunity in Hungary, touring children’s homes, institutions for the disabled, youth custody centers and gypsy communities on what she called the Dream Tour (which she plans to repeat). In a recent article for Marie Claire, Palya describes her approach, using music to communicate and connect:

“I didn’t want to wear any false angel wings…I wanted to feel good, be with them, laugh together, to understand, and lovingly provoke them. But… it’s not easy to think with the mind of a blind or disabled child, or understand the anger in the words of a rap of a young guy in youth custody… So here the bridge that music builds was crucial.

“After the tour, they wrote me letters saying what they wanted to be. And this is the most important thing of all—to imagine something in your head that is then created on another level, be it a one-minute musical improvisation or three sentences on paper, this is how everything begins.”

WRR: Tell me your earliest memory of music

The music I listened to most growing up was the Hungarian folkmusic collections, so old peasant uncles and ladies who were singing from old tapes. Bascially a capella. For me, it just went under my skin. To me, the silence around voices has a very important role in constructing music.

WRR: Your mother is part gypsy. You once said, “In gypsy music, the interpretation is much more extreme than in Hungarian music.” Can you expand on that?

I have a little gypsy blood, but I don’t have special musical or other souvenirs from that culture. I learned it later.

Actually mama has a kind of shame because of that. Her father was a gypsy bass player, but she married my father, from a Hungarian village. So I grew up in a peasant milieu, not really gypsy. But I feel this extremity in me, in my emotional reaction, in my gestures, in my intensity.

For example, I had the chance to listen to old recordings of the same song–one Hungarian peasant and one Hungarian gypsy version of the Three Orphelins’s ballad (the dead mother and the orphelin’s dialogue.) The gypsy woman is almost crying, hiccouping-singing, all the extreme emotion is there while the Hungarian woman is more low key, just repeating the phrases or musical strophes, with great sadness. No big emotional lines –more hidden, more shy. Of course, the same pain could be in there.

WRR: Do you feel your songs tap into shared and timeless experiences?

Really our emotional life has not changed so much during the long centuries: birth, growing, quitting mama, papa (or not), sexuality, falling in love, getting married, having children, death… for all of these events, they had a song in the old times.

So, really only the forms have changed: my baby is not taken into the army for three years, but I live in a long distance relationship or I don’t really write letters with a pen and paper to my love, but I call him or send an e-mail to him. I don’t go to the fields to work, but I go to work in the studio and rehearsal room, I don’t take a cart (wagon), but an airplane, etc. I write my own songs about the things I live with – but I use the emotional point of view that I learned from folkmusic.

WRR: How does this come out in your music?

This perspective can touch people deeply because it brings the songs closer to who they are (even if it’s in another language): because though, on one level, a song might be about me, on another level it could be anyone else, because of the common – actually universal – emotional background of songs.

There are similar experiences we all share, everyone might have conflict with their parents, or hesitate about getting married, yes or no, with whom, etc. Everybody loses someone in their life. Or many women find men unreachable, once in a while singers get fed-up with the media…My songs are about all of this.

I use the traditional music to tell my stories, to shout out my emotions, to tell my secrets.

WRR: And on top of the stories themselves, the music seems to have its own energy in the melody and rhythm.

On top of my desire to relate to others, I want to find precise emotional expression through words, So I look to the grammar of the music. Even if I’m emotional, I want to turn those feelings into a nice, musically worked out song. I like words and meaning but I also like sounds, rhythm and melodies. So, I‘m like a mother, looking after her two children – words and music – playing together, I love them both. I want to make both happy, but I don’t want to see that one is pushing the other down.

That’s where my eternal searching (and my fight with perfection) comes from. Making beautiful songs is, on the one hand, soul-work. I need to travel inside of myself and bring up something tender, express it through words. On the other hand, it is a very technical practice: voice training, searching for melodical lines, rhythms… finding the good musicians to make the arrangements.

WRR: Tell me more about the ways in which you infuse your work with so many different international influences?

Certain things are a given. My musical cradle was Hungarian folkmusic. Then Bulgarian and gypsy music came, also from old collections. Then Indian, Persian, Turkish and Arab classical music, Greek and Sefarade music. These are the main influences which define my singing.

So I have a voice timbre which I certainly brought from the Hungarian folk singing. Than it was injected with the shrill timbre of Bulgarian voices, and the hoarse sound of gypsy singers.

I like ornamented melodies, and basically I think modally, not harmonically. I like gypsy scatting, I like strong, extreme expression in sound. I like uneven rhymes: 5/8, 11/8, 7/8.. which I brought in from Bulgarian music, and use a lot. I like the sound of the Bulgarian kaval, the Hungarian bagpipe, flute, or the cymbalom, the Arabic derebuka, the Iranian daf. All this could sound exotic for some, but for me it is just natural.

WRR: Can you give me an example of how you bring all of these musical factors into a specific song?

Well, I rarely use the song form: intro-verse-refrain – bridge – intro-verse-refrain… I rather use a strophic form, (the strophes with the same melody come one after the other) which I brought from the folksongs, or this: a slow, note-by-note intro, a middle and a fast part, an explosion, and a slow ending. For exemple the song Moon is like this. This last form I brought in from oriental music.

WRR: What performers do you like to listen to?

Lately, I have been listening a lot of jazz, and songwriters from all over the world. I’ve been most influenced by Joni Mitchell, Patricia Barber ( I love these two fantastic women!), Cassandra Wilson, Sarah Vaughn. Then Boris Vian, Charles Trenet or Lara Fabian from the chanson francaise, Caetano Veloso, Amalia Rodriguez from Brasilian and Fado music… and many others. I learn a lot from them.

WRR: What do you learn?

To be daring. To write about anything, I got a lot from Joni Mitchell and Patricia Barber. From Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald I developed the courage to sing jazz songs: not because I know as much as they do musically, but because I started to see jazz just like songs: I can sing them if the story of the song touches me, and I can make it mine. I just follow my emotional axis in song-making.

That’s how I made Lover Man or Sometimes I’m Happy personalised.

I sing the melody of Lover Man with Hungarian ornaments, or we play Sometimes I’m Happy with cymbalom, or I gypsy-scat the melody of Someday my Prince will Come, accompagnied by milk-can, the typical gypsy percussion. The same personalisation for Piaf’s Hymne a l’amour, I sing it with my ornaments, a capella or with the cymbalom.

WRR: How do you incorporate the spoken word into music and how has your work with Sebo [a respected Hungarian group] impacted your pursuits in poetry?

For me, words are as important as melodies, and I know that these two have the same roots. So for me, the aim is to sing like I speak, and to speak like I sing. I mean, with the same emotion, in the same natural way.

Sebö was like a collegue-friend-father, a very strict and professional one, and he pushed me a lot– to be even more daring in my singing and message. In certain musical questions we had different tastes, but he encouraged me speak, to speaaaaak, to siiiiing, to deliver the words with an energy. You know, he is over 60, but he has a red face while singing, he pushes his energy into the audience. Incredible.

The other great thing about him is that he is more than a musician: he is a philosopher, a collector of songs, a scholar, a thinker, a reader. He knows and studies words from many different angles, and I love his writing style too. On tours, in the bus I was listening to his strories about Bartók, about famous peasant musicians, but also about greek mythology or anything else.

And now, when I see myself writing or making songs, writing lyrics, I try to use this heritage, Sebo and the big poets we sang about together.

WRR: You have the ability to connect deeply with your audience through your voice. How do you create emotion with your voice? In the words of a reviewer, how do you take the public to ecstasy and reach the frontier of the human voice?

I think the most important thing in giving concerts, performing on stage, is this communion with people. There is a way to stay a strong person, a shining individual, by making very personal music. The secret is to open up everything, show all of the fragile sides as well as the strong ones.

During these concerts, I’m often alone on stage. So, I don’t have any choice other than to lean into my fragiliy and through it draw strength for I see these qualities have the same roots. I become transparent.

WRR: You are on the road a lot…In one quote that I read in a Hungarian women’s magazine you said that you “search in all of your travels, and what you find, you give back to your audience.” What do you seek, and what do you feel you find?

Just like anyone: I look for a little piece of mirror in everybody’s face. There is a courage in daring to see that you are responsible for your own reality, actually that you are creating that in every moment. That‘s how you meet – or avoid – people, love, friends, work, colleagues, landscape, animals.

An interesting thing lately is that I’m much less drawn to cities, civilization. I want to see water, ocean, landscape, animals—in this way I always learn something new.

WRR: Your main paper at the Faculty of Arts and at the Faculty of Folklore and Ethnology concerned the relationship between contemporary and traditional music. What was your approach?

I am interested in the process of creation. Also I was intrigued by what kind of musical language was chosen to bring a message to the people. I learned a lot! Folkmusic offers such wonderfully rich material, treasures, but there is another secret treasure: an inspired creator. A musician, a singer could multiply the value of a folktune, when it becomes personal, or crossed by his or her own musicality.

WRR: Do singers and performers have more social responsibility since they (for the most part) are in the public eye more than others?

Oh, singers and music can make a lot of difference. But if I describe my own personal work, I would not use the word “help.” I do not go to gypsy settlements or to handicapped children’s places because I want to help them. As I’ve said, I don’t wear any false angel-wings. I go there because I’m actually interested in what I find there. And I give them love and attention, and I receive from them the same. I accentuate this reciprocity in equal opportunity work, because it is a question of point of view, who is handicapped. I learn from them.

One thing I’ve learned is that you cannot point your finger at others (when people say, oh I have bad life because of you), because I believe you create your own reality, and you are responsible for your own pain and pleasure. That’s not easy, to put all this into practice, because this takes a lot of self-mirroring, and it is not always comfortable. But I’ve chosen this way for my life, I’m feeling beter and better, and I express this in songs. I hope it shows.

For Beata Palya’s discography go to:〈=en