INTERVIEW WITH SINGER-SONGWRITER BORKA BALOGH
There’s a reason why many people add Budapest to their travel list. The fact that the city is split into two parts – Buda and Pest – makes it unique, diverse and truly magical. Connected by the Chain Bridge spanning the Danube River, Buda offers the spectacular Buda castle, historical thermal baths and a stunning view of the city, while Pest boasts an amazing shopping, bar and restaurant scene, especially known for its eclectic ruin bars. The city has it all – history, culture and a booming nightlife. That’s why Storied was so curious to explore the city even further but through its arts scene. Specifically, we wanted to find out what the city’s music sounds like.
Based in Amsterdam, the Hungarian singer-songwriter Borka Balogh was born and raised in the Hungarian capital. It’s been a while since we last spoke to the talented singer-songwriter but when the world turned upside down, it seemed more important than ever to reconnect and talk about things that inspire us and encourage a creative mindset during the most stressful times. Of course there’s always a bit of awkwardness that comes along with doing virtual video calls with someone you haven’t spoken to in ages but once we got going, we couldn’t stop. In an interview with Storied, Borka reveals why Hungarian folk music plays a crucial role in the country’s music and highlights the booming underground alternative music scene that’s taking over the country’s capital.
Folk music is preserved and highly respected in Hungarian culture. This can be accredited to Hungarian composer, educator, and expert on Hungarian folk songs Zoltán Kodály. After being appalled with the music teaching methods in schools around the 1920s, he helped establish the Kodály Method which was developed to teach musical skills and musical concepts to children through the use of Hungarian folk songs, solfa, rhythm, hand signs, memory development, singing, and more. Kodály picked out interactive and engaging techniques to create a method that focused on the expressive and creative skills of musicianship similar to ear training. It holds such a high significance in Hungarian culture that in 2016, the method was inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Alongside Kodály, Hungarian composer and pianist, Béla Bartók and Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt are said to be the Founding Fathers of Hungarian folk music. Bartók and Kodály even visited the countryside to record all of the music that was written and sung by the locals from over 200 years ago because they knew it held a special sound and significant cultural importance. The famous Hungarian composers took on this massive project and successfully recorded all the folk songs to help preserve it for the country’s future generations.
How does your music incorporate traditional folk? What are some of the qualities of Hungarian folk music?
Borka: Traditional folk music has an ascending melody and this kind of reverse U-like melody – it goes up, then goes down, then goes up again. I follow these unspoken rules of Hungarian folk music – some of the decorative sounds and patterns in my vocals are very specific to Hungarian folk. They’re in every song I sing, but it’s not conscious at all because I started singing when I was very young and was taught through the Kodály Method. This method is still widely used in the country today by many Hungarian musicians, no matter the genre.
In Hungary, there’s a big popular music scene that focuses more on mass production, which doesn’t give artists much freedom in songwriting and producing. Similar to other countries, the goal of popular music in Hungary is to make its way over to the US – the epicentre of music production and business – which may result in the music losing its authenticity and personal connections with listeners. As a response to this, an underground alternative music scene has emerged in Budapest. All of the musicians a part of the scene are given the freedom to do exactly what they want to do in their music. Many of them shine a light on the country’s political and social issues and create the music they want without losing the essence of the country’s past.
What’s the music scene like in Budapest? What are some of the most popular genres?
Borka: It’s amazing. Budapest is definitely the epicentre for the country’s underground alternative music scene. There’s a very strong alternative vibe to it, yet bands still value their roots and incorporate traditional folk music elements. The artists sing in both English and Hungarian, and many bands discuss important social issues that can be very political. Many of the bands in this alternative scene are against the system so they convey their important messages through songwriting. The music scene in Budapest is alternative in any genre form – alternative rap, alternative rock, alternative pop. We’re living in a rap era – rap is the rock ‘n’ roll of this generation – so it’s really popular in Budapest right now. But all of these bands are looking for something different that others haven’t heard before, so the whole music scene is built on that.
What musicians from Budapest should we listen to?
Borka: I grew up listening to Ivan & The Parazol. They’re the pioneers of Hungarian alternative music and are the most international bands in the country having toured in both Europe and the US. Their music is very rock and roll and they’re entirely self-made – so they created their own records and label. You should also check out Elefánt. The frontman is also a poet so he writes outstanding lyrics with metaphors and interesting themes. There’s also Fran Palermo, an eight-piece jungle rock band. The singer, Henri Gonzo, is originally from the Caribbean so he incorporates both Caribbean and Hungarian cultures into the band’s music. They have this cool Mediterranean sound and sing in English. Others you should check out are Esti Kornél, OHNODY, Mayberian Sanskülotts and my favourite artist, Platon Karataev.
In March, Borka Balogh released a new single called ‘did i just let u in?’ with a music video, and is currently working on a new project with her band (Marieke Berkvens, Remy de Kok and Stanley Ward) set for release on 10 October, which coincides with World Mental Health Day. The theme around the project delves into mental health issues and the problems people face when trying to fit in.
Your most latest release was the single ‘did i just let u in?’. Walk us through that writing process.
Borka: I was having writer’s block and couldn’t write anything for 2-3 months but then this song just flew out of me. The song is about opening up again after being in a relationship that was so negative. The single is more intimate, calm, and a bit more positive than my previous songs because I wrote it at a time when I felt more comfortable and safe. For the video, I got in contact with a friend of mine to help film this live session at a space in Budapest called Míves. The owner of the space has had it for over 20 years now, and it’s just one guy who’s very supportive of local artists. So we shot the video from 6am-11am and it felt like I was in someone’s home – I really need these intimate sessions to find out how I feel and collect myself. It was also really nice to film it in my hometown.
Tell us about this new project that you’re working on with your band.
Borka: It’s a new single called ‘Burden’. It’s inspired by the internal struggle that people with mental health issues face when balancing their need to belong and their need to be accepted for who they are. It’s a heavy song but it’s a meaningful project. I wanted to illustrate how insanely difficult it is for people to adhere to the standard of being normal and fit into society at the same time. I don’t believe in normality – I think that we are all different in how we deal with our life and some of us get ostracized from society because we are somehow ‘too’ different. I want people to know that there is nothing wrong with being that. If we all realize this, maybe we can create a more inclusive crowd full of us ostracized ones. For this single, we’re more open to alternative solutions for percussion and sound so it’ll be a bit of a different sound than our previous work.
Here’s the release of the new music video for ‘Burden‘. This DIY video for independent art was created by three of Borka’s friends: Nikola Fin, Merlijn Marcus and Matunda Groenendijk. They created a visual description to capture how people feel during their darkest moments. Watch it below!
On Spotify, which singers/bands are found on your most recently played list?
Borka: I’ve been really into Russian music lately. Russian alternative music is really good, actually. There’s Molchat Doma – a Belarusian band that plays dark wave music. I’ve also been listening to a Russian post-punk band called Super Besse.
You can explore a city without having to hop on a plane and travel to it. Take the time to check out some of these bands, along with Borka Balogh’s music and truly listen to the songs. Can you hear the musicians using the Kodály method? Do all the modern bands incorporate some element of traditional Hungarian folk even if the genre is say, post-punk? Is there a certain sound that makes the music stand out from the rest?
Follow Borka Balogh’s music journey and watch this space to get the latest updates on her band’s new single: