“Could you ask him if there’s a place where we could all hang out?” Niki said, as I approached the hotel receptionist. After exchanging a few words in our native Romanian, the man told me we were welcome to use the adjacent restaurant. At 1AM, it was still hours away from opening for breakfast.
Behind me, carrying the gear from their recently-concluded performance, the band were practicing their impersonations of Dracula’s laugh and teasing drummer Franco Pinna about his methodical system for removing the luggage from the back of the van. “He’s the only one who gets to do it,” Niki told me with forced solemnity. “We just stand back and watch.”
Predictably, the impassive percussionist had no reaction to the banter, though a smile ghosted over his lips when I mentioned that I’d used him as inspiration for a character in one of my books. “What does he do?” Franco asked. “He’s a drug-dealer,” I explained, drawing a round of laughter from the rest of the band.
The round table seemed notably fitting for an interview with such a tight-knit group of musicians. While the others carried the luggage to their rooms, bassist Bam Rodriguez finally let go of the pizzas he’d been clutching for half an hour, at times threatening to keep them all for himself which, given the look of starvation on his face, may or may not have been a joke.
Eventually, the entire band sat down to eat and share what had amassed to a respectable collection of Hungarian wines and hard liquor, gifted to them throughout the week. With one single gig ahead, in Bucharest, the country’s capital, they were finally able to wind down and share their impressions of a tour that had already taken them to five cities in Romania’s mythical region of Transylvania.
When I found out that Hungarian-born, New-York-based singer-songwriter Nikolett Pankovits was bringing her sextet to my neck of the woods, I saw it as an opportunity not only to see a project that had recently received a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall, but also to sit down for a conversation with a group of musicians I’d been following for years. Joined by my wife, Ioana, I traveled to the charming medieval town of Sibiu, a few hours away from my hometown, to see the show and meet up with the band.
From trumpeter Josh Deutsch, who was featured on one of my all-time favorite records, to Franco Pinna, whose most recent project, Chuño, creates a unqiue dynamic between his self-designed Arpa Legüera and the educated voice of Argentine singer Sofia Tosello, Nikolett’s band features some of the most captivating musicians on the current New York scene. Completing the intercontinental line-up are Swiss pianist Manu Koch, Aruban bassist Bam Rodriguez and Colombian/Venezuelan guitarist Juancho Herrera, alongside Hungarian actor Adam Boncz in the role of narrator, reciting relevant poems from well-known Hungarian poets in between the songs.
What I’d initially planned to be a round-up interview with the entire band turned into a relaxed post-show hang. I decided not to dispell the intimate atmosphere by pulling out voice-recorders and asking questions. I just sat back and enjoyed a beautiful evening in the company of some of my favorite musicians, brought together by a special project centered around the bandleader’s cultural heritage.
This particular night was especially meaningful to Niki, whose family drove from nearby Hungary to catch her show at “The Wolf”, a cozy venue located close to the city center.
“Did you see that lady dancing?” she asked with a big smile. “Man, she was really into it.”
The interaction between the band – all long-time friends – was a sight to behold. Their chemistry was evident from the beginning, as was their affection for Niki, whom they lovingly referred to as “the boss” on several occasions throughout the night. “You have to ask the boss,” said Niki’s husband, Juancho, when I mentioned the post-show interview. Are we getting pizza? Ask the boss! Who’s driving the van back to the hotel? The boss, of course!
On stage, this household-dynamic translated into a heartfelt and harmonious performance. Infused with Latin American rhythms and the vocalist’s disciplined, jazz-rooted delivery, folk songs like “Szomorú Vasárnap” (“Gloomy Sunday”), “Tchiki Tchiki” and “Madárka, Madárka” (“Little Birdie”) were presented in a contemporary form that felt organic and authentic. The highlight of the evening, Moldavian song “Meghót, meghót a cigányok vajdája”, collected by Zoltán Kodály, found its new incarnation in “La Dama de la Muerte”, a fascinating take on grief and acceptence sung entirely in Spanish, with lyrics by Juancho Herrera. Gracefully tying together the set, Adam’s narration added a layer of depth and introspection to further solidify the thematic coherence of the music.
Dressed in traditional Hungarian garb that further accentuated the natural spectacle of her long silver hair, the elegant, charismatic vocalist was entirely in her element, gaining force and confidence as the evening progressed. Meanwhile, the band’s playing was a testament to the bond of their personal friendship. On the canvas of Franco’s impeccable drumming, the musicians were free to illustrate and explore their own relationship with the particularly specific source material.
The evening’s revelation was Bam Rodriguez, whom I’d thus far only heard in an electronic context and whose performance on double bass felt delightfully warm and intuitive.
While all of the musicians seem genuinely fascinated by and commited to the repertoire, the project is still very much Niki’s baby. It’s in her blood, as she told me later on when we caught up for a Skype interview to talk about the tour, the project, her last album, Magia, and her upcoming record with the Sad But True Sextet.
Please tell me a bit about this tour of Romania? How did it come about?
I applied for a grant in Hungary, to play in territories where Hungarian people are living, outside of Hungary. I got the grant and a friend of mine told me that I should contact the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest. I sent them an e-mail and they helped me put together the tour. They were amazing! They called us back to Târgu Mureș for the jazz festival in April and also to Sibiu, which is in May, so I don’t know how to put those two together.
We are planning to play in Hungary soon. But now I also have an invitation to Japan. I got an e-mail that a distributor in Japan wanted to buy my CDs. First I thought it’s a scam, but no, they bought the CDs. It’s available in Japan now. (laughs) I got invitations to Tokyo and Kyoto, so that’s number one on my list of places to go. But we would like to go back to Europe too, because we only went to Spain and Switzerland.
Why “Sad But True”?
Because when we started working with Adam, looking at the poems, we tried to find the ones that match the lyrics. The whole point is that I’m not talking in between the songs. A lot of singers are like, “This song is going to be about this or that.” I hate that! You kind of know it’s coming, like, “Okay, now she’s going to tell me that the next song is a love song or whatever.” Instead, we tried to find a matching poem for each of the songs.
We tried to get into the lyrics and see what they’re about. We realized that all these lyrics are sad. Our next reaction was, “Yeah, sad but true!” (laughs) So we thought, “What if we name the project Sad But True?” It started as a joke, but it does actually encapsulate these songs. Most of the lyrics to folk songs, in general, are not happy.
Most things coming from this part of Europe are not particularly happy, I’ll tell you that much.
(laughs) Exactly! But if you like look at it in depth, all of them are true. If you build up your life and think, “Let’s learn from the mistakes that people made,” everything is written there. Well, but no one learns. (laughs) You go through it, though.
That’s how it started. Now we’re thinking, “If we go to the next stage with this whole project, maybe we should change the name, because Sad But True is kind of scary.”
It is a bit confusing, I have to admit. When Ioana wanted to post a Facebook video from your show, she asked me, “What should I write? Should I write Nikolett Pankovits, Sad But True?” I said, “It sounds like you’re criticizing her singing.”
(laughs) Yeah, that’s something that we might have to change. I mean, it started as a joke, but maybe it takes a while for people to get it.
It’s not really self-explanatory.
Right. And there is a Metallica song of the same name. Many people told me, “We looked for you online but only Metallica came up.” I haven’t checked that either so… (laughs) I’ll probably have to change the name.
I remember you telling me that the goal for this project was to bridge the people who either love folk music or downright hate it, more exactly those who only listen to folk in its traditional form and those who reject traditional folk music from the outset. How did the actual project originate? Was it from getting the idea to work with Adam?
No, that was Juancho. He was the one. He likes folk music from everywhere in the world and he knows a lot about folk music. Of course he knew Bartók and Kodály and the usual famous Hungarian composers. I showed him this folk song and he came up with the idea to try something different. Because all of them are sad, you know? Minor scales. I think people have this connotation of, “Yeah, folk songs… whatever.” Because we grew up singing these songs. So you can’t really think outside the box, like, what can you do with them? That’s how he came up with the first Brazilian rhythm, baião, in one of the songs. And we just kept going.
I was studying at City College and I talked to my teacher. She asked me what I wanted to do. That’s one thing that you really learn in New York, that there are amazing jazz singers and they grew up listening to this. They went to listen to gospel, in church, you know? They have it in their blood, in that sense. So you start looking at what you have in your blood and what is natural.
So my teacher asked me, “What do you want to sing?” I said, “I love Hungarian songs, they’re beautiful. But only “Gloomy Sunday” got famous, because it got translated to English and Billie Holiday performed it.” So she said, “Okay, why don’t you just translate the songs?”
That’s when I went back to the ’30s. There was this famous Hungarian singer and I started translating her songs — folk songs and more like the swing era. Then Juancho did some arrangements. Most of these songs, again, were kind of sad and melancholic. So we put everything into a different mindset.
Did you notice a difference between how the music was received in Europe as opposed to the US?
In Europe, I think the people don’t express themselves that much when they’re sitting at a concert. There’s a different culture. They ‘re just sitting like this… (sits still and motionless, gazing forward) Yeah, they do clap, but the expressions on their faces and their body language are different.
At the concert in Sibiu, I noticed a woman dancing alone. She seemed to be enjoying herself immensely.
I mean, that woman was exceptional! I have to say that, at that concert, I saw several people in the back constantly moving around. They didn’t stand up, but I could see them dancing. Even the promoter’s kid, who was at the first table. Even he was dancing! I’m like, “If the kid is dancing, that’s awesome!” He told me afterwards that he doesn’t like every concert. There was something that really moved people that night.
Most of the time, people don’t react that way. I did actually see on this tour that, after a while, some people started moving. They needed time. So that started happening, which was great to see. At the end of the concerts, they wanted an encore. That always shows that they enjoyed it. After the concerts, they came up to me and I sold CDs. They really loved the show. They said we should be playing in theaters. I’m like, “Well, it’s our first time here, so that’s up to the promoters, but we would very much like that.”
I feel like the audience can really connect to the music because there is such a great variety in the repertoire that you can definitely find something that hits you, rhythmically, musically or melodically.
It felt like a very cohesive show. There was a great flow to it. You mentioned that Juancho and Josh did the arrangements…
Yeah, and me. The three of us did it, mainly. I mean, I was part of some of the arrangements, but I would just credit them, mostly.
Tell me a bit about your previous record.
I released Magia in 2016. We were playing with my septet. Back then, I had a violin player too — Zach Brock. I don’t know if you know him.
I’ve heard him. He’s on Josh Deutsch’s Pannonia record.
He’s awesome! Super cool.
Is the next record going to feature a violinist?
No, it’s going to be the group that you saw at the show.
That will push it even further away from the traditional Hungarian folk sound.
Indeed, but having Josh playing the melodies on trumpet moves the music and the ear out of the usual context.
How old was the project before you put out Magia?
Actually, we did the arrangements with the album in mind. We did play a few songs the years before, but not all the arrangements were ready, so it was mainly for the record. Half of the songs we were playing before. What I wanted to do for the record was to get all the songs to represent stages of a person’s life, starting with the songs you grew up with. The rest is just having a relationship, being in love, breraking up and dying. (laughs) I tried to find a song for every subject.
How did you pick the songs?
I would say by melody and lyrics. There is, for example, “La Dama de la Muerte”, which I sing in Spanish. That song I was singing with my dad since I was a kid. I thought it was actually in a Romani language. There is a part in it. Before I did the song, I wanted to check out the story behind it. It was collected by Kodály — a folk song. But it turned out that it was not a Romani language, but more like the Hungarians mimicking the Romani people. I do not subscribe to any kind of demeaning language, so I told Juancho that I love this song, but we have to do something about it. So Juancho wrote the lyrics. We kept the theme of death but we kind of made the approach from the Mexican perception of death. The whole song is about the Day of the Dead ceremony when family and friends get together and remember friends and family members who have died. Not a sad day but more of a celebration because their loved ones awake and celebrate with them.
How did Adam get involved?
He came to a concert where I was performing and we started talking. We were invited to play at the Day of Culture at the Hungarian House in New York. That’s when I asked Adam to join me, to recite poems. And it really worked. People loved it. So we thought, “Why don’t we just keep doing that?” Then we just took it to the next level and really spent time working it out.
Do you feel you achieved what you set out to do with this project?
I didn’t necessarily have a specific goal in mind for the music. I just wanted to play it. I think we found the communication that works between the musicians and the people. I’ve found a group of people who like doing what they’re doing. That’s part of the magic.
The Hungarian language is not one that most people would associate with jazz. What was your experience adapting these songs to your particular jazz-rooted style? Did you find it challenging?
No. Actually, that was kind of easy. What is happening is something else. Folk singers have a particular technique and I do my best to interpret them in my style without imitating that.
I know that you’re starting work on your next record with the Sad But True project. Any other things we can look forward to in the near future?
There are always side projects. Next week, there will be an Antigone in Ferguson, which is a gospel play. I’m singing there in a choir. And there are a few songs that we have in the repertoire that we didn’t perform in Romania, because they’re not necessarily relevant. For example, I have a song about gun violence, a topic which, fortunately, is not an issue in Europe at all. It’s a song by Ben Harper. It did happen that we played it at Lincoln Center and, after 30 seconds, two people just stood up and walked out, which shows that we have to keep making conversation about this issue to hopefully resolve it one day.
Cover photo credit: Timea Jaksa