Listen to traditional folk songs at the new Hungarian Culture Museum in Berkeley
Nestled on the slopes of the hallowed hill of Berkeley is a small island of Magyar culture that offers a window into one of Europe’s most consequential yet misunderstood peoples.
What was once a family home at 1720 Arch St. is now Berkeley’s youngest museum, the Museum of Hungarian Culture at Orly, which is free to the public two Saturday afternoons a month. Founded and run by Elvira J. Orly Machell and her older sister Ilona Orly Magyary, the museum opened in September 2019, only to be closed by the pandemic six months later.
Using the Backyard Garden as its main venue, the museum resumed operations in June 2020, adding paid concerts to the schedule. Sunday afternoon’s performance features singer Zina Bozzay and her trio Vadalma, who perform her arrangements of Hungarian folk songs she has collected both from archival recordings and in person from the alumni of the town. On September 18, the museum is hosting a reception for a new exhibition of paintings by Margo Szabo Szilas featuring violinist Tibor Horvath.
Work in progress, the museum occupies the house where the Orly sisters spent their teenage years. Their American-born parents, Cyrill and Elvira Orly, were the children of Hungarian immigrants from territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that came to be ruled by Romania and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the aftermath of WWI. Cyrill and Elvira played a pivotal role in the Bay Area Hungarian community for decades, starting the theater and singing group Dalarda and helping to settle Hungarian immigrants and refugees who landed in the Bay Area. the Bay.
Amidst the museum exhibits are references to key moments in recent Hungarian history, such as the 1956 uprising against communist rule that was crushed by the Soviet Union. There are many cultural artifacts collected by the Orlys or donated by other families, including traditional outfits decorated with intricate embroidery and beautiful figurines, bowls and tableware by famous Hungarian porcelain companies Herend, Zsolnay and Fischer. There are also two working cimbaloms, the large Central European hammered dulcimer often used in Roma ensembles.
“Music is such a welcoming way to share Hungarian culture,” said Elvira Orly Machell. On a recent Saturday morning, she and her sister showed me around the museum as they prepared to open to the public that afternoon. Concerts in the gardens provide an intimate setting ideal for families, “which is why children nine and under are free,” she said.
Singer Zina Bozzay has known the sisters for years in the Hungarian Bay Area community, but Saturday’s concert is her first at the museum with Vadalma, a trio made up of Berkeley violinist Matthew Szemela and San Francisco cellist Misha Khalikulov. Composer trained at the conservatory and talented pianist, Bozzay does not play the instrument in the group. Instead, she sometimes takes to the percussive cello, known in Hungarian as ütőgardon or roach.
Now based with her family in Budapest, she’s been in the Bay Area this summer teaching outdoor singing workshops in person (including a Saturday session hosted by Kitka through the Kitka Institute). She hasn’t had the chance to record since her first release in 2018 Vadalma: Elderflower Musicbut she presents new arrangements and creates several songs “which I have personally collected from singers in the villages”, she said.
“There is a song of a person born over a hundred years ago. I collect, collect, collect all these seeds and select them very carefully, dreaming and fantasizing the world of sound to create a setting for them.
Hungary has suddenly taken a prominent place in the American imagination if you pay attention to the culture wars designed to fuel cable news traffic and Twitter engagement. The debate focused on Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in power since his Fidesz party won a large parliamentary victory in 2010. Praised by certain figures of the American right in recent months, in particular Tucker Carlson, for his refusal to accept refugees from Islamic countries and his defense of traditional Hungarian culture, Orbán was also demonized on the left for these policies and for undermining the independence of the Hungarian judiciary and press.
Living in Budapest for the past four years has given Bozzay a perspective that eludes simple left/right schemes. Bozzay said she’s not apologizing for Orbán, but she understands why Hungarians bristle when the US media squeezes Hungary into a familiar red state/blue state political matrix. For Hungarians, an issue like the closing of borders resonates with the country’s history as the homeland of a people who struggled for centuries to maintain their culture in the face of domination by successive empires (including the Ottomans, Habsburg and the Soviets).
“There is a desire for autonomy and not letting others choose how Hungarians live,” she said. “The position is that just because the United States and Europe have a multicultural society, we shouldn’t have to make the same choice. It is a small nation whose language and culture are under threat. Which does not mean that Hungary is homogeneous. The Carpathian Basin is diverse, but this diversity is very different from a country where there are people from all over the world.
Despite Hungary’s position at the center of Europe, the country is a cultural island with 13 million speakers of a language unrelated to any language closer than the Khanty and Mansi peoples of Siberia. After centuries of plunder across the continent, the Magyar people settled in the Pannonian grasslands, where the coronation of Stephen I in the year 1000 solidified this country’s identity. He made the consequential decision to align Hungary with Roman Catholicism rather than an Eastern Rite Church, making his kingdom the eastern redoubt of Western Europe (instead of the northwesternmost border of Byzantium ).
But in the case of Hungary, the linguistic singularity does not translate into a genetic distinction (unlike the Basques, for example). Razib Khan, the founder of the blog Gene Expression, who often writes about population genetics, recently noted in a column on Hungary that “by examining hundreds of thousands of genetic markers, researchers have been able to compare Hungarians to their neighbors . Are they as unique genetically as they are ethnolinguistically? No, Hungarians are just another European population… genetically very similar to Bulgarians, Romanians and Slovaks.
So what is gained and what is lost if Hungarian culture merges into the European Union? It’s no surprise that Bozzay, who has dedicated his life to documenting and preserving traditional Hungarian music, places great importance on the country’s rich musical heritage. But his take on the United States also indicates the cost of losing touch with traditional culture, when music no longer binds people together.
“We feel we have access to everything, but we struggle to find a shared repertoire,” Bozzay said, including herself on both sides of her Hungarian/American identity. “A villager can know 300 songs with many verses by heart, and they can sing the songs together. It’s not just that people here don’t sing folk songs, they don’t sing! People look at pictures of me with these old village aunts and see the poverty. I see wealth. Wealth of traditions, culture and knowledge.
She returns to Budapest next week, but before that Bozzay will raise her voice at the Orly Museum in a striking Magyar song, sharing some of the traditions, culture and knowledge she has gleaned from the countryside.
A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture journalist who has been contributing to Berkeleyside since 2011.