Trad is fab, but modern rules
Warsaw Village Band and its mission to save Polish folk music, one juiced up, tranced-out, reggae-inflected oldie at a time
Folk music has a long history of rebellion: Bob Dylan went electric; the Pogues went punk (or were punks who went folk, or whatever); Dar Williams went pop; and on it goes. So it stands to reason that, if youre Wojtek Krzak, the Warsaw Village Band should take Polish folk music in the direction of trance and reggae.
Outfitted with traditional instruments and 21st-century sensibilities, Krzak and his bandmates in the Warsaw Village Band attack timeworn Polish folk tunes with the verve of teenage punks, while exhibiting a deep respect for the tunes and traditions of their elders. Its highly unlikely that anyone who checks out the bands show at the Somerville Theatre Friday night will mistake this for their grandmas folk music.
Founded in 1997 by six 20-something musicians, the band aims to give folk back to the folks. Under Polands decades of Communist rule, government bands playing neo-traditional music replaced traditional Polish folk musicians. When the Communists were finally replaced by a Solidarity-led government in 1989 part of the historic collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, thanks in part to the pro-democracy movement that ignited a decade earlier in Poland musicians all over the country sought out the forgotten songs and instruments in the hope of saving them.
I was born in Mazovia, a small town, says Krzak, the bands fiddler. I started to think about my traditions. What did I know about traditional music? Celtic music was well known in Poland, but not traditional Polish music. I searched music shops and went home to the countryside to learn the violin.
Krzak spent seven years in Mazovia, studying alongside 80- and 90-year-old virtuoso fiddlers. It amazed me that they could be so into the music when they were so old, he says. The musicians who would become his bandmates made their own pilgrimages to the countryside to study old manuscripts and learn music from old-timers.
But a funny thing happened on the way to saving Polish folk music. The music may have been centuries old, but Krzak and his mates were thoroughly modern men and women, raised in a culturally dynamic part of Europe and tempered by momentous political events. Learning the traditions was fine, but, in true folk-music manner, it was time to give the old tunes a gentle evolutionary nudge. Or, in some cases, maybe not so gentle.
We wanted to play folk music that would appeal to young people, Krzak says simply in other words, fast and loud and bursting with exuberant energy.
The band outfitted in Indian kurtas, peasant skirts, suspenders, dreadlocks, and rock-star sunglasses plays an assortment of instruments both familiar and obscure, including fiddle, cello, trumpet, frame drum, hammered dulcimer, plosk fiddle, and suka, a 16th-century fiddle played with the fingernails. While the driving beat of hand-struck Polish drums pushes the songs forward, the chorus of strings weaves together lilting, hypnotic melodies. Above it all, the bands three female members sing out in white voice, a style originally employed by peasant women yelping across the Polish plains.
With a collection of new songs based on old melodies, the band released its first album, Hop Sasa, in 1998 and captured the top prize in Polands New Traditions radio competition. In 2002 the band released its second effort, the enthusiastically received Peoples Spring, which earned them wider recognition, including a BBC World Music Newcomer Award. The band went on to play folk festivals and concerts worldwide.
Success in Poland, however, came more slowly. Its funny our music was heard abroad first, and then in Poland, says Krzak, but the band soon capitalized on a strange similarity between modern music and Polish folk. Some songs in Polands traditional repertoire last for 30 minutes or more, and are performed in a dance-trance style the liner notes to Peoples Spring describe the music as bio-techno that appealed young Poles, many of whom frequented all-night raves. The band had found yet another way to connect the old and the new.
Im like an anthropologist, keeping tradition alive, says Krzak. But we also have to develop it somehow and make tradition more attractive to the young. Four or five years ago, no one was interested in this kind of music. Now folk is getting more popular in Poland.
Meanwhile, Warsaw Village Band continues to celebrate the old by bringing it up to date. The bands latest album, Uprooting, pairs traditional musicians with two dub-sound and scratch DJs, layering the already rhythm-intense songs with dance club beats and hints of reggae and, in a sly, sonically pleasing way, inviting listeners to ponder their own cultural provenance.
Uprooting is a departure because it includes musical influences from around the world, says Krzak. The title is revealing. Our generation, not only in Poland but around the world, is forgetting its past. I hope that after one of our shows, someone will wonder about their own roots. It will open their eyes.