Wild & Untamed: An Interview with the Warsaw Village Band
While the Warsaw Village Band works on their new album, we spoke to two of its members, Maciej Szajkowski and Sylwia Światkowska, about their twenty years on the stage, their reactions to Iggy Pop playing their songs on the radio and why it’s better to shoot yourself in the head than to work on music with any limitations.
Marek Kępa: We are meeting just after the first recording sessions at the Polish Radio Studio for your upcoming, eighth album. How much more work does it need, when do you expect it to be ready, and do you already have a title for it?
Sylwia Światkowska: There’s still a bit of work ahead of us, creating the album cover, the entire mixing process, mastering and post-production. To be honest, we've only recorded a foundation, and we'll need a while to finish it. We're hoping to be ready with the album in mid-October. It'll be titled Re: Akcja Mazowiecka (editor’s translation: Mazovian Re: Action).
Maciek Szajkowski: This album is special to us for a number of reasons. First of all, this year is our 20th anniversary. We usually avoid anniversaries but twenty years seems like a good reason to make such a record. Secondly, we decided that the album will be a kind of tip of the hat to guides through the roots culture and philosophy. Back when we were making our first album, what was most important was face-to-face contact, meeting people, discovering melodies, rhythms, instruments and history. Now we still find that that real-life contact, living words are incredibly important. That’s why we invited folk music masters, guides who naturally inherited this music and share it with joy and enthusiasm.
MK: These are musicians that you consider particularly important?
MS: The most important. The way I see it, traditional music is characterised by a couple of things like generational transmission and inheritance as well as context, like a utilitarian one. What I mean is that this music was used during various ceremonies, festivities and to experience and explain the world. It carries a powerful message full of generations of wisdom and experiences. These people are very open-minded. They realise that folk culture in the countryside has changed, that its natural landscape has changed very dramatically. The old field, forest and dance music has been ousted by disco-polo. They have been marginalised, stand somewhere in the shadows and want to do as much as possible to leave something behind.
MK: Which traditional Polish musicians influenced you the most and which ones did you take with you into the recording studio?
MS: In the band's beginnings, Kazimierz Zdrzalik and his wife Janina (a fiddler and singer) from Strykowice Górne in the Kozienice Forest were most significant. In the 1990s, I went to a folklore festival in Radom and had the privilege of meeting them there. Kazimierz invited me to Strykowice, told me a great deal about his life and music, he made a huge impression on me. With his unique style of playing, but also with this sort of alienation… He didn't care about winning prizes at the competitions he took part in, he didn't long for publicity. Instead, he tried to interest young people in his music and was looking for successors. And he found us fit for that role. He accepted us not only as his pupils – sometimes he'd even treat us as if we were his grandchildren.
Our first album is a story that we largely heard from them and interpreted. We learned from other masters as well. I've mentioned the Zdrzaliks because they were the most important, they gave us the impulse to play. They said: ‘we're happy you're playing and want to learn about history, but it'd be good if you'd start playing yourselves, we'd simply like to hear you play.' There was also Stanisław Stępniak, an accordion player from Radom, Marian Pełka from Kłudno with his Wieniawa band, Józef Lipiński, a great drummer and bluesman. In the 1990s, highlanders from Lipnica Wielka in the Orawa region taught us how to sing in a ‘white voice’ (editor’s note: a kind of strong, full-chested, folk singing) and invited us to the Shepherd’s Fest, an event dedicated solely to highlanders, so that was quite extraordinary, a great distinction. That’s why I have to mention Muzyka z Orawy (editor’s translation: Orawa Music), one doesn’t say the Orawa Band, one says Orawa Music.
SŚ: Speaking of folk musicians that you’ll hear on our upcoming album, I hold the women singers in especially high regard, they are women of great wisdom who not only sing and make music but also bring art into everyday life. They make, for example, beautiful Christmas decorations, flowers from tissue paper and spiders which are straw decorations hung beneath the ceiling. They weave and tell tales of old times. Maria Bienias, Marianna Rokicka or the ladies from the Bandysionki band – the personalities of these women alone are already extraordinarily interesting. They're very open-minded and want to pass on their traditions so that it doesn't wither away. They teach people who want to learn how to sing – they really are these wonderful ‘transmitters'.
MK: Will there be any instrumentalists?
MS: Yes, Stefan Nowaczek, the last fiddler from the Maciejowice Vistula Shore. He comes from this clan of fabulous river fiddlers -along the Vistula you play a bit differently than in the woods or in the Radomszczyzna region. In the woods, you'll hear rubato rhythms more often, here you play more evenly, and the forms are maybe a bit more precise and very melodic. There'll also be Zdzisław Kwapiński's band, and here we have a connection with the Zdrzalik family. You could say that he's a successor of the family's – he's a multi-instrumentalist (a violinist, saxophone player and drummer) that played with Kazimierz on many occasions. He also ties into the birth of band. Also, you will hear vocal groups from the Kurpiowszczyzna region – the male Carniacy and the female Bandysionki ensembles.
MK: Your last two albums blend Polish traditional music with folk music from other countries, thanks to guest appearances by foreign artists. 2012's Nord was a meeting of musicians searching for elements that Slavs, Scandinavians and native Nordic peoples have in common. 2015's Sun Celebration is an amalgam of folk influences from Poland, India, Persia and Spanish Galicia. This time around you return to inspirations drawn from the music of Poland's Mazovia region, hence the title Mazovian Re: Action?
MS: This message has more than one meaning. In political science terminology ‘reaction’ is something utterly conservative, reactionary turning points usually call on old values that have undergone changes. For example, lately, Filip Łobodziński (editor's note: Polish journalist and musician) spoke about the art and philosophy of Bob Dylan, whose stance is none other than reactionary, meaning that it recalls certain fundamental issues that, due to modernism or civilisation's advancement, have become marginalised or rejected. We do the same, but very selectively. We talk about tradition in an original and subjective way, at the same time searching for things that are, to use a lofty expression, important to humanity and, for us, hold universal meaning.
That’s how we look upon returning to the heart of Poland, to these Mazovian plains that exhibit wild and untamed music and evoke the history of this region, which until the 16th century wasn't even part of the Kingdom of Poland but was an independent region inhabited by free peasants, outlaws, bandits, pagans and various crazy spirits and individuals. It's something unique on a nationwide scale. We want to tell the story of Mazovia, a region that doesn't match the pompous, academic vision of history and shows what we value the most in music, namely aspirations of liberty and anarchy.
MK: You’ve mentioned that this year marks the 20th anniversary of your band’s existence. Which moments in the band’s career do you consider especially worth remembering?
MS: Certainly a thing like that is even starting the band despite the music scene looking dramatically different back then. At the time, that was something very bold and crazy. We didn’t want to prove anything or enter any sort of race. Music and the Velka Pardubicka, (editor’s note: a well-known Czech steeplechase race) aren’t the same you know!
An important moment was making the first record which, I’d like to add, was created in six hours because studio time was expensive and that's how much our label – the one-man company Kamahuk – could afford. That's when we met its founder, Włodek Kleszcz, and the Polish Radio 2 team, who helped us a lot.
Also, the first trip abroad was of great importance to us because it showed us how much this music has to offer and how original it is. The Tanz&Folk festival in Rudolstadt in Germany – that was our first appearance abroad. We played for a couple of thousand people who completely lost themselves in the music together with us, and they were in a trance, there was euphoria, wildness, enthusiasm. Thanks to this we got rid of any complexes we may have had.
MK: Back in 1997 when you were starting the band, there wasn’t a great deal of interest in Polish traditional music. So what was it that made you delve into this music and start playing such niche instruments like the hurdy-gurdy or the Płock fiddle.
MS: To make a long story short, we were fascinated with a culture we saw was still in existence but was changing, fading away. Also by the incredible potential of this music. I was enchanted by the energy, the crazy dances, the wild melodies played on acoustic instruments. Since I was originally involved with the punk rock scene, I compared it finding many analogies to punk rock and electronic music.
You have to remember that in Poland the notion of ‘rurality’ was, and to a certain extent still is, considered something branded, something inferior… The other thing is that we decided to play acoustic music when the times favoured electric guitar music. Back then there was this boom for post-punk music, grunge and we were going in opposition to all that.
MK: So you went to Germany knowing you’re playing rural, acoustic music – the exact opposite of what was trending in Poland at the time – and it turns out that people just love it. You come back, so to say, pumped…
MS: We were definitely pumped, and two years later we recorded People’s Spring, an album which, in a certain sense, started the band as we know it today. People’s Spring, 2001, a brave, progressive take on folk music, including innovative, original interpretations. On that record, you can hear elements of dub, natural loops, repeatability counterpoints, crazy playing, wild voices, ‘charges of strings and galloping of drums’ as Włodek Kleszcz put it. This album, released by the Gdynia label Orange World, two years later appeared in the West thanks to the prestigious label JARO. From that moment we began to journey into the world…
MK: Speaking of dub music, you call yourselves a ‘roots’ band and go on ethnographic trips in search of traditional Polish melodies, yet aside from blending influences from different countries, you often use modern elements like scratching or techno rhythms. How do your roots inclinations correlate with your progressiveness?
MS: In a way that’s natural, because music knows no boundaries. If in the phase of creating something and composing you assume any limitations you might as well just go and shoot yourself in the head or start shovelling rubble instead of making music. Music is simply so untamed, universal, open and magnificent that everything that occurs within it is inspiring and has always been like that to us. We never isolated ourselves in any mental or ideological cages.
We sought for inspiration in everything we considered interesting, and we tried to invite people we found fascinating to work with us. It's perfectly understandable we use elements of modern music, it's like Zdrzalik said, this way we give new life to traditional music. We’re creating our own original continuation. Just like country musicians who over the ages made use of the technological advancements and benefits of the times in which they lived.
MK: Among the traditional instruments you use, one can find the Płock fiddle, I believe you play it Sylwia. Did learning the technique of playing this ancient, reconstructed and very rare instrument pose a challenge for you?
SŚ: Yes. This is a reconstruction, and nobody really knows how you played the instrument, whether you used only open strings (editor's note: a Polish folk technique of accompaniment) or whether you played melodies on it. When I was learning how to play, I turned to the experiences of Marysia Pomianowska, Polish instrumentalist and teacher, because she was the first one to reconstruct the Płock fiddle and she started playing it like one would play the Biłogoraj suka or a number of Asian instruments – using the fingernail technique. It just so happened that back then Marysia was in Japan so I couldn’t learn from her directly, but maybe that was good because I got to create a style of my own. Sure, it took some time to learn the fingernail technique.
MK: Since you founded the band you’ve enjoyed a lot of international success. You’ve played hundreds of concerts across the world, the album Uprooting won the BBC World Music Award for Best Newcomer in 2004. But for a long time you were, and to a certain degree still are, better recognised outside of Poland than in it. How does this affect you?
MS: We don’t really get hung up on it or anything. You see, we never cared that much for publicity, making a so called career, those weren't the things that drove us to make music. I really mean what I'm saying because we knew that playing this kind of music we won't be competing with pop and rock stars. Instead, we wanted to tell a certain story, to interest people in it and we largely succeeded at that. This is evidenced by the fact that we met so many wonderful people on the way, and I don't only mean the listeners but also the people who invited us to collaborate with them or who we asked to work with us.
We never dreamt we’d record music for the cult video game Myst 4 which is what happened when we met the renowned Hollywood composer Jack Wall. Or for the Japanese manga film Moondrive. We never dreamt we'd perform on Broadway, but we met Andy Teirstein, a great musician and director who invited us to take part in A Blessing on the Moon, a play written especially for us, based on a book by Joseph Skibell. These were some amazing things that happened to us, and we're grateful for them.
Regarding being internationally recognised, for ages there’s been this silly rule in Poland which is a bit of curse to local artists, that if you do something different, unusual, something that evades pigeonholing, then that thing is often misunderstood. And only when it becomes internationally recognised, here I could mention Witold Gombrowicz, Fryderyk Chopin and many other artists we by no means mean to compare ourselves to, only then do Poles start taking an interest in it. But this isn't distinctive only of Poland; it happens in other countries as well.
MK: Having achieved international success did you notice an increase in your popularity in Poland?
MS: We did, definitely. There really was a strong correlation, and now we play big festivals and concerts, the audiences have grown as well.
MK: This year you’ve played concerts in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, France, Germany and Poland. Do you ever get tired of your growing popularity, how do you cope with it?
SŚ: I don’t find it tiring in the least. I love it when we go abroad and have a chance to see the world. What’s interesting is that we carry some sort of music with us, a manifestation of something very ancient but expressed in our own, modern language and we can share this, for example, with somebody who’s never even heard about Poland.
Being able to see the world is of great value to me, I never get tired of it. We do, of course, have families, and it isn't easy to leave your kids for three weeks to go to some faraway place…
MK: What about having to give interviews all the time, isn’t that bothersome?
SŚ: I think that’s a question for Maciek, he gives far more interviews than I do!
MS: It isn’t bothersome because you get to meet interesting people and we often learn a lot ourselves during these interviews. In different countries, journalists ask different questions. The Japanese were curious about this music’s history and its ties to Chopin. They couldn’t believe that Chopin drew inspiration from these forms. That was a culture shock for them.
SŚ: In France, people often ask about the white voice technique and where it comes from. They’d like to know why we sing like this in Poland. Over there it seems very unusual to sing so loudly and strongly.
MK: Not long ago, Iggy Pop played your song LuLuLabby in his musical broadcast on BBC Radio, describing it as ‘the freshest and best thing that’s hit my ears in a long while’. Any comments?
MS: He has actually played us twice, just recently once again. It’s insanely wonderful, and something especially meaningful to me because Iggy is one of the heroes in my fairy tale about discovering music, he's the godfather of punk rock, without a doubt a cult figure that revolutionised music more than once. One has to remember his film collaborations with Jim Jarmusch and the ethnic fusions he made with Goran Bregović - he's quite a character. And that’s even without mentioning what he did with the Stooges!
SŚ: His first productions are generally very trance-like… I think that he found a certain trance quality in LuLuLabby, which is something he can relate to.
MK: This year you’re scheduled to play at the Jazz Jamboree festival in Warsaw together with Bill Laswell, a bass player and producer known for, among other things, skilfully remixing Miles Davis. What can one expect from this performance?
SŚ: We don’t know where our thoughts and wildness will lead us yet. One doesn’t know what he’ll do either, will he be playing the bass or some other instrument. We really don’t know anything yet.
MS: At the moment we’re still preparing for an earlier concert that’ll take place during the Cross Culture Festival, also in Warsaw. There will be many guest appearances by folk bards, people involved in the creation of the upcoming album. Each guest’s performance will be preceded by screenings of short films about them.
MK: Have you already wondered, hypothetically of course, how the 40th anniversary of the band will look?
MS: ‘40 years have passed as if in a day’ (editor’s note: the lyrics of a famous Polish song)… We'll play that tune!
SŚ: By then we’ll be completely bald or grey-haired… We'll create a commune, or maybe everybody will go their separate ways, and we'll play with each other via the internet.
MS: We’ll be using teleportation devices, and we'll still be fooling around with fiddles and drums making our grandkids happy.
Author: Marek Kępa, August 2017