8 Most Unusual Polish Folk Instruments
Bitch, devil’s fiddle, some traditional Polish folk instruments may have brow-raising names, but all of them have a unique and fascinating sound which lends Polish folk its inimitable cachet.
One of the oldest Polish instruments, this wooden horn is what Abu ‘Ubaydallah al-Bakri, the 11th century Arabic historian who wrote about ancient Slavs and Poland, had in mind when he noted the following: ‘They have a wind instrument that’s more than two cubits long’. Ligawka used to be employed by herdsmen to call cattle. Additionally it was, and in certain areas still is, traditionally used outdoors to announce the coming of Advent.
In Old Poland the haunting sound of this string instrument frequently accompanied the voices of vagabond singers performing for handouts. These artists, who would often play themselves, were proud of their occupation even though they were from the lowest of social classes. Many saw them as wise individuals who knew legends, prayers and magical procedures. The contemporary Polish folk group Warsaw Village Band has made some great music using this instrument, the strings of which one plays by rotating a built-in wheel with a crank.
If you’d like to start playing an instrument but have much of an ear for music you might want to consider picking the cart rattle. All you need to do to play it is roll it. And, believe it or not, this instrument is actually a small cart, so rolling it is rather easy. When the cart’s wheels are turning a cog fixed to them catches on special planks causing them to rattle: as simple as that. There’s not much more to this instrument so you can quickly reach virtuoso. The cart rattle was typically used by carollers or as a substitute for church bells during Holy Week.
Contrary to what the name might suggest this is a percussion instrument, a kind of fiddle you hit with a notched rod to create a rhythm. You can also knock on the floor with it for the same purpose. It comes from the Kaszuby region were it was traditionally used as a ritual instrument for scaring off devils, evil forces etc. Nowadays it is commonly seen in Kashubian folk groups. The mask in the upper part of the fiddle is typically represents a devil or a fantastic being.
When played by unskilled hands, the suka ‒ bitch, in Polish ‒ gives unpleasant, animal howls. The string instrument requires a fine technique; unlike typical strings, you don’t alter the tones of its strings by pressing them with your fingers. Instead you change their pitch by touching them with your fingernails. So many must have tried this unsuccessfully that the instrument got a bad name, literally. When played correctly however, it sounds great. You can see for yourself in contemporary Polish folk recordings.
It takes two to play a burczybas. One holds it while the other makes the sound. It is a drum, which you don’t hit but… pull by its tail. There’s a strip of horse hair attached to the drum’s bottom which one pulls to make this instrument speak. The device in question comes from the Kaszuby region where it was typically used by carollers and on New Year’s Eve as a means of providing accompaniment for singers. Some contemporary Kashubian folk bands feature a burczybas.
This instrument was devised in Warsaw by Piotr Stamirowski’s accordion company. The air that generates the sound in this music device is pumped by two bellows-pedals that are foot-operated. They are connected to the so-called body (the part that has keys and buttons) by a pipe. Because of its construction the pedal accordion is played in a seated position. It was once a highly popular instrument in the Mazowsze region and can still be encountered today in folk groups, e.g Kapela Kurpiowska z Kadzidła.
This whistle, sometimes called a vessel flute, is similar in shape to an ocarina. It is a small earthenware vessel flute which you fill with water before playing. Amazingly, it makes the exact sound of a singing bird. Whistles are often bird-shaped, and double as toys for children.
Author: Marek Kępa, Autumn 2015