[9 March 2004]
There is nothing like big drums, wild strings, a shameless brass section, vibrant vocals and youthful energy! The Warsaw Village Band has it all. These highly skilled young people are out to redefine Polish folk music into something they call “hard-core folk”. And indeed, they play their acoustic traditional instruments with the same wild energy as some of the best punk bands. Even though many of their songs start out slow, they hold absolutely nothing back and proceed fearlessly into the heart of each one. Let the listener beware, although they do play polkas and other dance rhythms, these are not oomp pah pah polkas and waltzes. Instead, we here spirited music played in a way that it was meant to be played—with not only great talent but with absolute gusto.
The young women vocalists remind me of the women in Värttinä—they not only have gorgeous expressive voices that they use to full advantage; but they blend them together with audacity and strength. They use a method of singing called bialy glos or “white voices” that is a melodic shouting style adapted from shepherds who wanted to communicate at long distances. They are not at all afraid to take on controversial political and social subject matter and to breakdown traditional barriers, as in the traditional tune “Who Is Getting Married”, where a young girls declares she will not marry for she wants to dance, play music and never be dependent on anyone. While the liner notes gives a brief synopsis of the lyrics, none are translated in to English for those of us who unfortunately do not know Polish. Of course, one can still enjoy the music without knowing anything about the stories that are being sung; no problem, the music transcends this disadvantage.
People’s Spring is the Warsaw Village Band’s first release outside of their native Poland. The group was formed in 1997 and has emerged as one of Poland’s best musical exports. (My other favorite band from Poland is the extraordinary trio Kroke). The band consists of six multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist musicians: Katarzyna Szurman on old Polish fiddle, vocals, jingles; Maja Mayall Kleszcz on bass and vocals; Sylwia Mazura Swiatkowska on violin, traditional fiddle, and vocals; Wojciech Szpak Mc Krzak on violin, jews harp, vocals, and Krzaqattack; Piotr Prof. Glina Glinski on baraban drum (the big bass drum so prominent in their sound); and Maciej Herszt Szajkowski on frame drums, dihol, and voice. There are many special guest musicians too and instruments of note are the Polish dulcimer (which opens this recording with its haunting sound), trumpet, double bass, and hurdy-gurdy.
Not content with just resting on their laurels, the band makes various excursions into the Polish countryside and villages researching for fresh material. They are attempting to keep the old traditions alive and vibrant by documenting village musicians by recording them. They have also revived the use of many musical instruments that were dying out and they include a ancient Polish fiddle known as the “suka” that had only been known through historical drawings before. A look at their own website makes it obvious that they not only express great joy in making music but that they have a great sense of humor as well.
Being the iconoclasts that they are, they also add elements of electronics in a few pieces and include “remixes” of their songs. One of the most interesting is the blend of Polish music with that of the music from the Indian sub-continent in a sort of “trance dance” version of “Matecka—At My Mother’s.”
I think the Warsaw Village Band’s amazing popularity is not only their obvious talent, but also the fact that they manage to make this ancient music sound modern and fresh. They have done what Värttinä in Finland, Marta Sebestyén and Muzsikás in Hungary, I Muvrini in Corsica, and groups like the Bothy Band in Ireland have done with the music of their countries. They have creatively revived the tradition and carried it on to the world stages and mass audiences. Hopefully, this young band too will inspire an interest in this music and help other aspiring Polish musicians to come forward and be noticed. Besides the aforementioned band Kroke, it hasn’t been all that easy to obtain Polish music outside of Poland. The Warsaw Village band won a BBC3’s award for best band in the newcomer category in 2004.
People’s Spring is a formidable and impressive release from this group of young musicians from Poland. Even though they have managed to create one of the most inventive albums to come out of Eastern Europe in a long time, they will hopefully continue to mature musically and keep surprising us with their fresh look at “old” music!