Since settling in New York City in 2010, Hungarian-born jazz vocalist Nikolett Pankovits has been merging traditional Hungarian melodies with Latin American rhythms and her style of jazz. After her debut album Magia, she toured with a special performance, where her music about homesickness, love, and heartbreak was interlaced with Hungarian poems performed in English. Ahead of her concert in the Carnegie Hall in New York on May 20, Hungary Today had the opportunity to ask Pankovits about her musical style, ties to Hungary and whether she ever plans to leave her career in the United States behind and return.
You’ve been living in America for nine years now. Why did you pursue a career as a jazz musician there and not in Hungary? Did you see more potential in jazz and singing in the US?
I first went to the US in 1999, but only to visit. I went to Margit Földessy’s theatre school at the time; I was very fond of acting and wanted to be a musical actress. We played the An Imaginary Report on an American Rock Festival for five years, during which brought me back.
How did you end up there then?
After my first visit to New York, I had the desire to return and discover the city’s other side, the one that the tourists don’t see. I didn’t have enough money to pay for this adventure, so I had to sell my car to be able to move to New York. That was enough to live on for half a year or so. However, I quickly spent it all and had to start looking for work. I tried a lot of things. It was quite a change from working at media agencies and the Sport1 TV in Hungary. When I ran out of money, I went back to Budapest. The following year, I was invited to a wedding to New York where I met my current partner – since then my husband – with whom I had a long-distance relationship for a year. He’s a Colombian-Venezuelan guitarist and here in Hungary, for whatever reason, I think that Latin music is not that popular. I also wanted to learn jazz, so I made the decision to go back to the US.
As far as I can tell, it’s not just Latin music that isn’t popular, jazz isn’t either. Most people seem to still think of it as music to listen to while doing other things; for example, in the background at dinner.
Yes, indeed, jazz is still a niche market. In addition, at that time only a few singers a year were admitted to the jazz course in Hungary. In the US, however, the whole market is much bigger and it was definitely a more authentic place to learn jazz. I got into and graduated from jazz performance at the City College.
photo: Dénes Erdős/Hungary Today
How did your career start in the US?
I worked for an avant-garde jazz music publisher, where I got an inside look at the music business: how royalties and marketing work. I think it’s all very important, as nowadays an artist needs to know all of this. Many of them manage themselves and make their own websites. I worked multiple jobs, went to school and in my spare time, performed in smaller clubs and restaurants. At that time, I discovered that there are a whole lot of awesomely talented jazz singers – especially in the US, where the whole movement was born. I realized that to be successful, first you need to find yourself musically and understand your own voice. That’s not necessarily jazz; part of it can be, but the key is to find yourself in it. Finding my voice was a very long and difficult process, and I have to admit it has its ups and downs.
How would you describe your style?
I started to connect to my Hungarian roots in deeper levels after I moved to New York and listened to Hungarian music in a different way. I felt that even though Hungarian songs were beautiful, they did feel a little sad. My husband had the idea to spice them up by incorporating South American rhythms with the melodies. I think it helps popularize Hungarian music by making it easier to foreigners to connect to it. By hearing the melodies in a style they might be familiar with, they can get a little taste of Hungarian music.
Do foreign audiences get Hungarian music and the meaning behind it?
I think they get the music, definitely. In the last few years, I performed with Hungarian actor Ádám Boncz. He recites poems in English between the songs. It’s a bit harder to transfer the meaning of the poems because the English language doesn’t accurately reflect the beauty of Hungarian. There are very good translations, but they’re just not the same. However, these poems are great tools to use to communicate the meaning of the songs. I don’t have to tell the audience beforehand what the next song is about because Adam’s poems paint the atmosphere. The audience can feel what the song is about, whether it be love, a break-up or death…
photo: Dénes Erdős/Hungary Today
When you moved to the US, were you afraid of failing at the “American dream” or scared you would end up stuck in another job unrelated to singing?
I had a few jobs while I was at school so before and after classes I was working to pay for my tuition. I have never believed in the American dream, so I didn’t move to New York to pursue it. I think if you have talent and are conscious, persistent, diligent, ready to learn and have some luck, you can make your dreams a reality anywhere. You don’t need to go to the US to be successful, but it’s definitely an advantage that people are very open there.
However, as far as I can see, New York is full of really talented artists and musicians.
Absolutely, the competition is very tough, and as I said earlier, it’s not only talent that counts. I’ve talked to a lot of musicians about that. For example, if someone takes a musician on tour, the least that musician can do is learn the songs, get ready, be on time everywhere and give everything 100 percent. You have to provide your employer with the whole package. If any part is missing, they won’t call you again. They’ll find another talented musician at any time, who, unlike you, has it all. So, you should always be at the top of your game. Doing everything at maximum effort at all times can be quite stressful.
What contrast do you see between the artistic life and possibilities here and there?
It’s striking to see the humility of the musicians. As there is much more competition in the US, there are plenty of talented people; you simply can’t have an attitude. You have to respect others and know your place. That’s why the collaborations and the energy between the musicians are completely different; everyone wants to learn from one another. There are exceptions, of course, but most people are very open. They are interested in and learn music from other cultures. People are not categorized. But this is not only a characteristic of music. It can also be seen in the average way of thinking, in everyday life. When I come home, I do feel the difference. For example, my group of friends is very diverse. Some of my friends are African American, Jewish and one of my best friends is homosexual. I think that this subject is still a very sensitive one in Hungary and I hope this will improve over time.
Dénes Erdős/Hungary Today
What is the Hungarian artist community in New York like? Is there competition among you or do you support each other?
There’s competition, of course. But still, they are very helpful because everyone knows what it takes to get opportunities to tour and play. Everyone is in the same boat in this respect.
How does your bond to Hungary appear in your life outside music? I know you participate in the life of the Hungarian community, both as a volunteer at the Hungarian House and as a member of the Friends of Hungary Foundation.
Getting to know Ildikó Nagy, director of the Hungarian House in New York changed my life in many ways. She is doing a fantastic job. The costs of organizing an event are very high, so I do whatever I can to help her whenever I’m available. Whether she asks me to sing, fix the website or collect tickets at a program, I’ll do it. Her folk music knowledge is simply amazing as well; her and Boglárka Raksányi folk singer taught me a lot about folk music and helped me incorporate Hungarian motifs into my own style. Ildikó showed me authentic folk songs and introduced me to the gardon. Unfortunately, many people still block folk music out because they think it’s old-fashioned. But, fortunately, even in Hungary, musicians are melding it with other style of music, make new, fresh arrangements so it’s more accessible to people. We are also trying to do this. Folk motifs appear elsewhere in our performances. At our concert in May, for example, our stage costumes will be Meyke dresses with authentic Torocko-motifs.
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Would you tell me more about this big project in May? It’s a big deal that you will perform in Carnegie Hall in New York with a larger group of Hungarian musicians and promote Hungarian music.
We’ll have a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York on May 20th. It’s based on our previous concert series with Ádám Boncz, Sad but True. It was built around the material of my first album, released in 2016, where Ádám Boncz recited Hungarian poems in between the songs to give them context. We’ve been performing it for two years; we traveled to Spain and Switzerland last year and we performed in the Lincoln Center at the High Note Hungary Festival. I had a vision to make a bigger performance based on it with more Hungarian singers. Also, I have long wanted to introduce the five regions and different dialects of Hungarian folk music and explore their uniqueness.
photo: Dénes Erdős/Hungary Today
Are they singing in harmony? What kind of instruments do they use? What is the composition of the band and what tunes and motifs do they have?
We started to work on this last year and we have selected the ones that represent the best that certain region and we felt connected to it. We tried to choose songs that haven’t been arranged by other musicians yet. There will be eight singers (Laura Angyal, Réka Bányai, Kinga Cserjési, Katalin Harsáczki, lldikó Nagy, Nikolett Pankovits, Artemisz Polonyi, Boglárka Goldea-Raksányi), including classical, folk and jazz singers. It was quite a serious task to organize it and finetune the different styles and singers, but we enjoyed the process immensely and everyone in the team is very dedicated and professional. My band will join us to play jazz and world music arrangements of folk songs and I invited a folk trio and a folk dancer to showcase the traditional way of playing and dancing of Hungarian folk music. They will dance a ‘legényes’ from Kalotaszeg, so we will have the whole package. The audience can get to know Hungarian folk culture in every respect spiced with a little bit of jazz and latin rhythms.
Inspired by her acclaimed 2016 debut album Magia, Hungarian-born New York jazz vocalist Nikolett Pankovits re-imagines the haunting melodies of Hungarian folk music by bringing together ensembles from jazz and world music, interspersed with poems in English by actor Adam Boncz. Featuring a jazz sextet, Hungarian folk trio, a vocal octet, the project builds upon the field research of composers such as Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, melding disparate musical worlds and confounding stylistic expectations.
How interesting is this to the American audience? Or do you expect more Hungarians?
We expect both. Our last concert was in the Lincoln Center and there were many foreigners. Several came up to me after the concert to say how much they like Hungarian music. There are hundreds of concerts in New York every evening and we have to compete with all of them, but I think that anyone who is interested in Hungary, heard about it or been there before will be more open and likely to come. And since we have a bit of Latin music to spice it up, maybe it can also be a motivator.
Are you nervous?
Of course! This will be a big one, but the team is very supportive and cohesive. Dorottya Máthé, Ildikó Nagy and Ádám Boncz help a lot with the organization and background work. It is a huge production: we are talking about eighteen musicians, marketing, rehearsals, music arrangements and the list goes on so that requires a lot of work.
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Do you have additional plans for after the concert?
We are going on tour to Transylvania and Romania with the ‘Sad But True’ project few days after the Carnegie concert. I am bringing my band from New York so I am very excited to play with them in those beautiful cities.
What do you miss most from Hungary?
Friends, family… and the streets. I love Budapest, and I love driving here. This is my real home. Nothing can ever change that. There are memories everywhere I look. In America, the distances are too great. For example, in New York, you spend half of your life traveling on the subway underground. I love sitting in the car in Budapest or walking the streets. You can be almost anywhere in 10-15 minutes. Here at home I can sit back, relax and have a coffee with someone. There’s no stress about needing to be somewhere else and having to rush to make it. Everything has its own beauty. The cultural life in New York is fantastic: concerts, opera, exhibitions, nothing can beat that. But the city is a bit too intense for me after a while.
photo: Dénes Erdős/Hungary Today
So would you come home if the opportunity presented itself?
Yes, the plan has long been to have a two-city life. When I finished school, we were planning to come home to Hungary. However, in New York, artists have the opportunity to apply for municipal housing under very good conditions. If you can prove that 70 percent of your income comes from art, you get a newly built apartment. There are several buildings like that with a 15-20 year waiting list, but it’s not centralized, so you have to apply for every building separately. We applied for an apartment in a completely new building four years ago by Hudson Yards, Manhattan. We didn’t think we’d get it. It was a long shot, but in a completely surreal, dreamlike way, we got a one plus two half rooms apartment, where the rent is calculated based on our income. We could barely believe it since some of our musician friends had been on the waiting lists of other buildings for years. There are plenty of opportunities like this in New York; you just have to search for them. Otherwise, the city is uninhabitable. It’s hard to pay thousands of dollars for an apartment from concerts that pay $100. So this opportunity is the reason we still spend more time over there. However, I feel that good opportunities won’t override the energy of the city for me. We could live in the best apartment, but if we don’t have good vibes in a city, it just won’t feel right. New York spins at such a level that you either adapt its rhythm and spin with it or it will spit you out.
Interview and translation by Fanni Kaszás
Photos by Dénes Erdős