The trio Vadalma—cellist Misha Khalikulov, vocalist Zina Bozzay and violinist Matthew Szemela—presents a program of Hungarian folk songs Sunday night at The Back Room. Photo: Zina Bozzay.

For Zina Bozzay the request seemed pretty obvious. Studying composition at Oberlin Conservatory, she wanted to hear the source material that Béla Bartók used for his numerous works based on Hungarian folk songs.

“My professors didn’t understand the question,” says Bozzay, who sings traditional Hungarian laments and ballads with her trio Vadalma at the Back Room 7 p.m. Sunday. “We knew it was Bartók’s arrangement, but the distinction wasn’t clear. How much was the folk song and how much did he add? I started seeking out the originals so we could compare but I couldn’t find them in the conservatory library.”

The quest for century-old recordings eventually took her to Budapest and changed the course of her life. Over the past decade, Bozzay has immersed herself in traditional Hungarian culture, seeking out ancient music from far-flung Hungarian communities across the Carpathian basin. After scouring archives and villages where songs have been passed down over the centuries, Bozzay has become Bay Area’s primary conduit for Hungarian folk music as both a performer and a teacher.

In 2010, she launched the Hungarian Folk Singing Circle (Népdalkör), teaching Hungarian songs she’s collected from villages in Hungary’s Transdanubia, the Romanian region of Moldva, and Transylvania, which was part of Hungary until the end of World War I when the Treaty of Trianon recognized Romania’s dominion over the region.

“This summer I traveled to Moldva and met with the last living singers of several villages in their homes, to discuss their lives and how the folk singing tradition lived and died in their communities,” she says. “One of the things I do during a Vadalma concert is introduce the songs with a brief translation of the lyrics, what region they’re from, and a bit of cultural context.”

Eager to introduce people to this riveting music, Bozzay presents song sessions for the uninitiated, like Saturday afternoon’s workshop at Ashkenaz where she’ll provide participants with village source recordings, a Hungarian pronunciation guide, song word sheets, and translations.

“I started teaching the songs the same way I was learning them, from source recordings,” says Bozzay, whose name is pronounced ZEE-na BOH-zuh-ee. “There’s an unbroken oral tradition with songs passed down within villages. A Budapest recording doesn’t count. I don’t want to play the game of telephone, so I’m always going back to original sources.”

The distinction between the coffee house folk music of Budapest and recordings collected in villages is like the difference between Dave Van Ronk’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” and Blind Lemmon Jefferson’s. The point isn’t that one is better than the other, but that the former is an urban interpretation and the latter documents a direct transmission of an oral tradition.

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Bozzay’s primary vehicle as a performer is Vadalma (Wild Apple), a trio featuring Berkeley violinist Matthew Szemela and Uzbekistan-born San Francisco cellist Misha Khalikulov, who both also tour with Rupa and the April Fishes. While she’s a skilled pianist, Bozzay focuses on vocals in Vadalma. On some pieces she also plays percussive cello, known in Hungarian as an ütőgardon or gardon.

“I bought mine in Gyimes directly from the maker,” Bozzay says. “It’s a handmade instrument cut from a tree on the hillsides in that valley, and I carried it back across Transylvania and on a plane back here to California. It resembles a cello but it’s a percussive instrument: all strings are tuned to the same note, and they’re struck and snapped.”

While Bozzay is exacting about the particular rhythms, dialect, and cadences of the songs she’s collected, she’s not a purist. By design and necessity Vadalma interprets the Hungarian songs via the instruments at her disposal. Supremely resourceful musicians, Szemela and Khalikulov have learned traditional Hungarian string techniques for fiddle, three-string viola, and bass, while also emulating shepherd’s flutes, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, clarinet, ütőgardon, and lute-like koboz.

“They draw on techniques from classical, early music, avant-garde, and various popular music styles to create the timbres and textures we’re looking for,” she says.

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Bozzay met Szemela around 2013 when they were both involved with trumpeter Darren Johnston’s Trans-Global People’s Chorus. She mentioned her passion for Hungarian folk music, a tradition to which Szemela had long felt connected via an early violin mentor of Hungarian origins.

“He always insisted that I must be Hungarian,” says Szemela, who performs at Zellerbach with the Berkeley Symphony on Feb. 1 and April 19 (and in the Symphony’s Bach to Tower of Power chamber concert March 11 at Piedmont Center for the Arts).

“I was always intrigued with that tradition so it was exciting to start working with Zina. We got together and started delving into the more traditional aspects of the genre, but bringing our own flavor. There are so many different regions we’re working from. Some tunes are mostly our own creation, and on a few pieces we go a little bit out and add some improvisation, but it’s about learning how to improvise within a very specific framework.”

For Bozzay, the connection to Hungarian music is a birthright. Her father was a young child when his mother fled Hungary at the end of World War II and settled in San Francisco, where she was born (her mother is a San Francisco native of French Alsatian and Blackfoot descent). The family visited Hungary frequently when she was a child, but she credits the album Nectar by the revered Bay Area all-female vocal ensemble Kitka with sparking her interest in Hungarian folk music.

But her particular path deep into the rural roots wasn’t so much an exploration of her heritage as a reflection of her aesthetic vision. Once she started traveling to Hungary for several months every summer, “a lot of songs didn’t catch my ear,” she says. With grants supporting her research and piano lessons for regular students, she’s kept a regular presence in the region, researching Hungary’s vast archive of field recordings and making her own song-collecting sojourns.

“I was drawn to the older melodies, the ballads and laments with more ornaments,” she says. “The first song I fell in love with was an old grieving song from central Transylvania. It wasn’t that I got bit by the bug and then went to Hungary. I went to Hungary to find it. But there are so many songs that are so interesting. The more I’ve gotten to know the tradition, the more I’ve found, and this music isn’t represented in the States.”

Bozzay recently returned to the Bay Area after a seven-month residency in the region. She’s going back to Hungary in March to record with Vadalma and perform there for the first time with her trio. In the surest sign yet that her efforts have earned a good deal of respect in Hungary, Vadalma is performing at Budapest’s premiere folk music venue, Fonó Budai Zeneház (Fonó Music Hall) on March 22 with special guests Andrea Navratil and Gergely Agócs.

“It’s a real honor to be playing there, particularly with my mentors,” Bozzay says. “I spend every morning on Skype playing them my music, and now it’s coming full circle. We get to go back and present this music we’ve developed. We’re in a constant feedback loop to stay connected to the tradition and heritage. I’m not interested in making something that people there would be put off by. It’s important to me that we’re creating something that can be enjoyed in that world.”

Berkeley blues guitarist Pete Madsen and Portland, Oregon fingerstyle guitar expert Mary Flower perform Friday in West Berkeley at Timbre Folk and Baroque. It’s a lovely intimate space filled with luthier Mark Walston’s gorgeous creations.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....