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Written in fRoots issue 309, 2009

Old Music

Ferment, no number (2007)
New Music
Ferment, no number (2007)


Sluchaj Uchem, no number (2008)

Muzyka Psychodelicznej Switezianki

Karrot Kommando KK28 (2008)

Songs of Glory – Piesni Chwaly

Kiton Art K0360-RPK (2008)

In pointing out that there’s more to the Polish folk music revival than the deservedly celebrated Warsaw Village Band, I’ve more than once mentioned the St. Nicholas Orchestra (Orkiestra sw. Mikolaja) from Lublin, and reviewed several of its albums.
     The band formed in 1988, and since then has worked at spreading the traditional music virus with an annual festival (Mikolajki Folkowe), a magazine (Gadki z Chatki) and eleven albums in which strong, energetic female and male vocals are surrounded by muscular acoustic instrumentation that borrows from beyond the Polish traditional, as do the arrangements, but draws it together to produce a distinctively Polish gutsy, edgy sound in a wide range of music learned from village traditions across Poland and its borders including Lemko, Boyko, Hutsul, Ukrainian and Carpathian Romanian, that’s as hefty and grainy as that of the WVB.
     The St Nicks’ most recent releases are Lem-agination, which hasn’t been sent for review, and New Music, which has, partnered by the simultaneous release of a compilation from seven of their albums from 1994 to 2004, Old Music. The pair come attached to an issue of Ferment, an LP-sized periodical of which each issue is devoted to a particular band or musician (earlier issues have covered Polish bands Osjan and Transkapela and Cuba’s Septeto Nacional). It tells the SNO story in photos and words – mostly Polish, but with a useful bio section in English. The entire package is available from their website and from Ferment for less than the price of any of their single albums, and I recommend it highly as an introduction.
www.mikolaje.lublin.pl, www.ferment.pl, www.myspace.com/mikolaje

     Mazurki brings us the wonderfully wiggly cross-rhythms – a triple beat but with stresses that can cross it in fours, fives or sevens - of the village mazureks (mazurkas) from Mazovia, Poland’s flat central region, played, with great skill and tremendous lift, by fiddler and occasional cymbalist Janusz Prusinowski, with baraban drum, tambourine and droning 3-string bass from Piotr Piszcatowski, joined by Michal Zak’s wild shawm and flute. Suddenly the similarly wiggly, asymmetric three-beat polskas of Sweden, which are indeed descended from the mazurka, have a direct connection.
     It’s a magnificent album. These guys play with high skill and all the fire and rhythmic energy of the village musicians they’ve learned from. Prusinowski describes his damascene moment. “In an Andrzej Bienkowski film I heard the Józef Kedzierski band. It was a revelation: the authenticity, intensity and ease that I had been looking for throughout the world existed right here, beside me, in my own language”.
     What’s probably that same film, of Kedzierski in 1986, can be seen on YouTube via ethnographer, photographer and painter Bienkowski’s website, www.andrzejbienkowski.blox.pl.
     In his note to the Prusinowski album, Bienkowski writes, “No other dance aroused such euphoria in dancers and got musicians into such a trance”. Like Swedish polska there too, then. And, like polskas, mazureks are played differently in each village. But mazureks have short songs that go with them, and Bienkowski reckons that the variation of these songs because of local dialect and personal expression is reflected in the variations in mazurek melodies. The rhythm, though, is all-important, and in sung mazureks it’s connected with rhythmic rural work as much as with dance. On the CD too there’s singing, from Prusinowski and two female traditional singers, Maria Pezik and Maria Siwiec.
     Far, as Bienkowski points out, from the elegant, waltz-like mazurkas known to the world through Chopin and others, this is music to ignite a new mazurka craze, as polska in Sweden became an obsessive heart to the traditional music revival. It could certainly send a thrill through the ranks of Swedish fiddlers, and lead to Mazovia mazureks creeping into the spelmansstämma buskspel sessions.
     (And, food for the body as well as the mind, there’s unusual added value in the CD pack: multilingual recipe cards for the cream-toffee-topped Easter cake also known as mazurek).
     For Zywiolak Swedish connections work the other way. It’s a new band heavily and declaredly influenced by the polska-driven wild heftiness of Hedningarna, Garmarna, Hoven Droven and others to make something of that ilk for Polish music. The four tracks, plus a shortened radio mix of one of them, on its 23-minute debut CD show some success in that direction: sassy duetting female vocals spit, shriek and whisper in Hedningarna style, male ones growl with rather forced menace perilously close to comic-book heavy-metal fantasy, over churning hurdy-gurdy and other edgy string-abrasions over big drum-pulses and pumping bass, in material that’s partly traditional, partly written by leaders Robert Jaworski and Robert Wasilewski.
     While alongside it has grown the much less tradition-rooted, symbolism-toying and occasionally Aryanist-flirting Viking/Gothic metal scene in the Nordic countries and neighbours, there’s plenty of intelligent life still to be created in the genre that Hedningarna pretty much began. This hasn’t been done with Polish music before and is likely to excite audiences in places where folk music doesn’t normally go. The essence of the Swedish drone-rock phenomenon, though, wasn’t just the great noises but that the musicians are deeply versed and skilled in traditional music; I hope Zywiolak bears this in mind, and doesn’t drift off into the computer-game avatar world of Viking-Gothicism.
www.zywiolak.pl, www.myspace.com/zywiolak, www.karrot.pl

     Back at the beginning of the 1990s Polish Radio producer Wlodzimierz Kleszcz, who later produced the first Warsaw Village Band recordings, put together Tatra Mountain Górale (highlander) traditional fiddling and singing family group Trebunie-Tutki with Jamaican reggae band the Twinkle Brothers, who had first played in Poland in the late 80s, and the result was the album Higher Heights – Twinkle Inna Polish Stylee. It propelled them to national fame in Poland, created a brief bemused and amused stir on the western world-music scene, and was followed in 1996 by further reggae-Goralska fusions in Trebunie-Tutki’s collaborations with dub-mixer Adrian Sherwood. Now, a dozen years later, Norman Grant and his fellow Twinkles get together again with the Trebunia-Tutka family for Songs Of Glory / Piesni Chwaly.
     Despite one’s doubts about the potential for a revival of what appeared such a novelty project, again it’s a fun, ramshackle collision that somehow manages to overlay the two disparate traditions; in fact this time they’re more equally combined than last. Not just musically - the reggae backbeat and harmonic feel of suspension joining with the characteristic 2/4 rhythms and natural-scale derived sharpened fourth of the Goralska music of Podhale (‘the foot of the mountains’), the southern pocket of Poland around Zakopane on the border with Slovakia - but in the content of the songs, which alternate between, or sometimes fuse, Jamaican and Rastafarian images and the snow and bandit-hero tales of the Polish highlander culture. They’re written and sung in English by Grant, and written in Polish by Krzysztof Trebunia-Tutka and sung in the traditional straining-high voice of their part of the jagged Carpathians by himself, his father Wladyslaw, brother Jan and the more rounded tones of sister Anna.
The English lyrics, particularly in the opening track The Day I Build My House, which gets a dub-version reprise later, are hardly great poetry, Grant’s production isn’t slick, and musically it’s far from a seamless blend, but therein, and in its good-natured spirit, lies much of the appeal which makes it through to this second coming.

© 2009 Andrew Cronshaw

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