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Traditional Folk Christmas Music: 9 Colinda by Makám and Irén Lovász

András Rónai, the co-author of the Bea Palya’s I’ll Be Your Plaything 33 1/3 book, takes a deep dive into a traditional folk Christmas album: 9 Colinda by Makám and Irén Lovász. In particular, he looks at how the personal experiences of bandleader and composer, Zoltán Krulik, helped develop the multicultural sound of the album.


9 Colinda by Makám and Irén Lovász is a Christmas album that draws on many different musical traditions and genres: folk music from the Carpathian Basin and the Balkans, Eastern traditions, Gregorian chants etc., and you can also find tango and reggae elements in some songs. But all these disparate influences are woven in seamlessly, and serve the songs performed by Irén Lovász in an overwhelmingly charming way. (The album was published by Fonó Records in 2001.)

This peculiar seamless multiculturalism can be traced back mainly to two sources, one is personal and the other is cultural. The booklet of Skanzen, the previous album by Makám (then working with Szilvia Bognár as a singer, in addition to Irén Lovász) features a quote from Zoltán Kodály, Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist, a close associate of Béla Bartók. “Can we – between the European and Asian Cultures – [be] something other than a ferry in troubled waters? Rather, can we be a bridge, and maybe even a land connecting these two worlds?”

This image of Hungary as a nation and indeed a culture between the East and the West has its roots in the 19th century, and the metaphor of the “ferry land” (kompország) was first famously used in 1905 by the poet and author Endre Ady. It is still often quoted in the public discourse either as a warning that “we must choose the West”, or as an “assignment” (in the words of Kodály) to connect. Makám is committed to the latter. In the booklet of Skanzen, they write that “We are convinced that the ancient Hungarian folk music is in deep relation with Eastern traditions. So we arrived at the cultures geographically being far off Hungary.”

But the multiculturalism of Makám is also rooted in the personal experiences of bandleader and composer Zoltán Krulik. As he told me in an interview in October 2023, his upbringing in the 1950s in the then newly built part of Tatabánya, a city in northwestern Hungary, was steeped in different cultures. Of the villages that became parts of the city in 1947, Alsógalla and Felsőgalla were mainly inhabited by Danube Swabians, an ethnic group of German origins who came to Hungary in different times, many generations before; Bánhida was inhabited by people of Slovak origin, in Hungary called tót. As Krulik recalled, his environment was naturally multicultural and multilingual; one of his grandfathers spoke five different languages. Traces of centuries old folk traditions were still present in his daily life: people were singing folk songs and wore traditional dresses on holidays. Krulik also witnessed the betlehemezés: before Christmas, little children up to 8-10 years old, dressed as characters from the Nativity scenes, went from door to door, singing Christmas songs and asking for small donations. Similar traditions existed in other countries like Poland and Romania. As the booklet explains, “Kolinda is the comprehensive name of pastorals as well as Christmas carols, Nativity and New Year songs in the Romanian- and Slavic-speaking countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It has its roots in the Middle Ages, coming from the Latin word calendae.”

Photo of Zoltán Krulik by Marcell Krulik

Later Zoltán Krulik became a student of the Benedictine High School of Pannonhalma, a boarding school, and also one of the few Catholic schools that functioned under the socialist regime. There he was a choir member, singing Gregorians. Also in the afternoon he was forming bands playing songs by The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and other so-called “beat music”. Later he studied Indian music for three years under András Kozma, a disciple of Ravi Shankar.

All these influences found their way into the music of Makám, composed by Krulik. Though listening to 9 Colinda you might very well think that these are covers of traditional songs, all music and lyrics are written by him. Before making the album, he steeped himself “into this world, reading archaic texts, the Bible in different Hungarian translations, folk poems etc., and I also researched the music”, he told me. And once he created “a milieux” for creation, “the songs were coming one after the other”. Even though there is a considerable musical erudition behind his music, Krulik says that “during the creation I just let the music come intuitively”. His “rational” thinking only comes into play during the process of editing and making “well-rounded compositions”. For example, there is a strong reggae influence in the song “Ő jön a szánon”, but Krulik told me that when he was kind of confronted with the question “hey Zoli, do you know that you wrote reggae?”, he was a bit confused: “oh, did I? What is reggae? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?” (Now he calls the song “Eastern-European, North-Eastern reggae” due to other influences in the music and in the lyrics.)

Group photo of Makám (2001),by Róbert Szabó

Makám was founded in 1984, and for a long time they played instrumental music drawing on various traditions and jazz and chamber music. Their music then was “more abstract”, with improvised or composed pieces often 10 minutes long. Once they started to work with various (mostly female) folk singers (with the aforementioned Skanzen album published by Fonó in 1999), and the compositions were using the “song form”, they reached a wider audience as “singing can reach more people than instrumental music”. 9 Colinda as a Christmas album proved to be enduring for the band, as they’ve performed it in its entirety at least once each year ever since its release. Some of the songs like “Hajdan rég”are also part of Makám’s standard live repertoire.

“Hajdan rég” is also the only song from the album that is available officially on digital services, on the canon-defining compilation of Hungarian folk and world music, Vetettem gyöngyöt (Világzene Magyarországon 1972-2006) (Etnofon, 2007). The album is still available on CD, and various songs are uploaded unofficially to YouTube.


András Rónai has a PhD in Philosophy from University of Debrecen, Hungary. He is a music journalist extensively covering Hungarian popular music and the music industry, among other topics. His English language articles have been published in volumes like Made in Hungary: Studies in Popular Music (2017) and Popular Music, Technology, and the Changing Media Ecosystem (2020).

Bea Palya’s I’ll Be Your Plaything, for our 33 1/3 Europe series, is available to buy in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).

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