Did Esperanto inspire the lyrics of one of David Bowie’s most famous songs? And what could he have gathered from the Polish dialect of Beskidy mountain herders on that Śląsk LP?
In April 1976, traveling from Zurich to Helsinki via Moscow, David Bowie’s train had an unexpected technical break in Warsaw. During this short time, Bowie most likely left the train and took a short walk around the city. Back then, the capital of Poland was under a communist regime, shut behind the Iron Curtain for three decades.
This much mythologised walk, which, as later reported, took place on a gloomy rainy day, likely ended in Bowie heading towards nearby Plac Komuny Paryskiej (today Wilson Square). There he bought a vinyl album by Śląsk, a Polish folk ensemble. Around a year later, a melodic line and some distorted words from one of that LP’s compositions appeared on Bowie’s break-through avant-garde Low, the album which initiated his so-called Berlin trilogy.
The song, a solemn, pensive and predominantly instrumental piece had a running-time of more than 6 minutes, and featured a haunting vocal part written in a strange, unknown language. If anyone had any doubts about the origins of the song, the title gave a clear source: Warszawa.
Inventing a language for Eastern Europe?
Warszawa was surely not intended as a hit, yet it has still become one of Bowie's most enduring and impactful songs. Written by Bowie and Brian Eno (who composed the instrumental part of the piece), it was an early instance of a Western artist looking beyond the Iron Curtain, a move that inspired many other artists to become interested in the Eastern Bloc. One of the most palpable traces of that influence was the original name of the post-punk band Joy Division: Warsaw.
Equally importantly, with Warszawa – indeed the whole B-side of Low – Bowie ventured into wholly different aesthetics. It was ambient music marked by mood, with words and vocal serving expressive purposes rather than pushing any semantically-graspable meaning. It's also Bowie at his most enigmatic, exploring the darker side of life and art.
Warszawa was not the first time Bowie, an ingenious songwriter and man of great literary erudition, had employed an invented, artificial language in the lyrics of his song. He did that across his entire career, even elsewhere on Low in the broken ‘private’ words of Subterraneans, all the way up to Blackstar. On that final album, the song Girl Loves Me creatively re-cycles Nadsat, the peculiar English-Russian slang invented by Anthony Burgess for his novel A Clockwork Orange.
But even in this light, the lyrics of Warszawa seem quite exceptional. Unlike the previously-mentioned examples, which were built from (pre)existing words and languages, the language of Warszawa seems a linguistic invention of much greater sovereignty. It’s as if all the words and sounds seem to be a game of the artist’s imagination.
Sula vie dilejo
Solo vie milejo
Cheli venco deho (x2)
Cheli venco raero
These lyrics, enigmatic and fascinating as they are, elicited much interest and confusion from many Bowie fans in posts and comments on the internet. In fact, questions about the true meaning of the lyrics or requests for translation are a common sight, as if that could be a path to understanding the song's enduring impact.
The Great Absorber, or Did Bowie know Esperanto?
The lyrics of Warszawa may at first offer little sense, but they are not nonsense. As Chris O’Leary, one of the most accomplished Bowie experts and the author of an informative blog on Bowie's songs, notes:
Bowie’s lines aren’t nonsense words he dashed out, they’re a series of phonetics, with a rich internal rhyme scheme and a common rhythmic base.
As he explains:
The lines are easy to sing, as the language seems to be a fusion of the most melodious Romance tongues—Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese—with a flavor of Slavic in it.
According to the writer, the linguistic material of Warszawa, ‘seems to be an attempt at making a universal language, a common collection of vowels and phrasings.’ He goes on to compare the language to ‘a newly-crafted dialect of Esperanto.’ O’Leary concludes:
It’s as though it was the lost language of a common Europe, some alternate blessed continent that escaped the wars. A tone poem from the world that wasn’t.
Esperanto seems like an apt metaphor for this lost language of a common Europe. An artificial language constructed in Warsaw by linguist and ophthalmologist Ludvik Leyzer Zamenhof some 130 years ago, Esperanto was intended as a universal tool of communication. In the mind of its creator, it was designed as a means to end all ethnic conflict among nations. History, as it turned out, would prove the idea quite naive and fantastical – Esperanto speakers were targeted in the Holocaust, rendering the language an irreversible blow.
While Esperanto is still perhaps the most popular constructed language in the world, today the name stands for any artificial language serving as a communication tool – and that's how it was used by O'Leary.
But is it only a metaphor? And could it be that Bowie could have actually thought of Esperanto, or even used it, when writing the lyrics for Warszawa?
I asked this question in an e-mail to O’Leary. He replied:
Bowie was such an absorber of information that it's possible his subconscious united his Warsaw walk with something he'd read about Zamenhof's life. I'm sure that's far from the first time he came up with an idea out of merging a few different threads of thought.
Then he added:
But when I wrote that I just meant it metaphorically! It would be funny if it turned out to be true.
I decided to explore this possibility and see how Bowie’s famed antenna and his ability to absorb information might have operated.
Bowie & Zamenhof in Warsaw
In fact, the idea that Bowie could have thought of Esperanto or might have had it in the back of his mind when writing Warszawa is anything but improbable.
Warsaw was the city where Esperanto was born. The first Esperanto handbook was published there in 1887, and its creator, Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, spent the large part of his adult life in Warsaw and is buried in its huge central Jewish cemetery.
In fact, stepping out of the Zurich-Moscow express on that April morning in 1976, Bowie was only minutes from where Zamenhof had lived for decades, in the heart of the capital’s former Jewish district.
Could Esperanto offer a key to Bowie’s subconscious? Could it say something about the language employed in Warszawa, as well as shed light on the meaning of the song? The best option for exploring these connections seemed to be what Esperanto and today’s Esperantists have to say about the song’s invented language.
Reading Warszawa in Esperanto
I contact Łukasz and Natalia Żebrowski, a couple of Varsovian Esperantists. We meet in a small flat at 37 Anders Street in the Muranów district, where the Polish Esperanto Association is located, just a five-minute walk from Dworzec Gdański, the railway station where our tale of Bowie’s visit began.
Łukasz and Natalia had met at an Esperanto congress almost a decade ago and were now married with a baby daughter, Anastazja, who’s also in attendance. Throughout the meeting, Łukasz occassionally addresses the girl in Esperanto, and she seems responsive. I understand akvo (water).
Except for the four of us, the place is empty. Glass-front cabinets line one wall of the room, filled with Esperanto books, some of which must be as old as the language itself, while a plaster bust of Zamenhof overlooks this makeshift library and gathering point for the Esperantists of Warsaw. It all looks very old, as if it was a kind of alternative dead-end alley of time, even though, as I’m told, the society has only been there for a little over a decade.
Before we begin, I take a look out the window. If not for the Intraco skyscraper in front of us, I would be able to see the modernist station of Dworzec Gdański. If not for the skyscraper (completed in 1975), Bowie getting out of his carriage would have been able to see this 'Esperanto' building on Andersa, with the capital’s signature tower, the Palace of Culture and Science, in the background.
Rare victory, lonely road
I place a sheet with the lyrics of Warszawa in front of Łukasz and Natalia and ask for their first impressions.
‘Well, it’s definitely not Esperanto,’ is their immediate first answer.
Though some words do appear familiar, Łukasz explains, like solo and venco.
‘If you take it as venko, it would mean “victory”. Raero looks a bit like the Esperanto adjective, rara.’
I console myself: A rare victory?
After a pause, he notes that the last words in the first stanza (dilejo, milejo) share what looks like the Esperanto suffix -ejo. It is used to form nouns, standing for names of places, Łukasz explains before immediately adding that there are no words like milejo or dilejo in Esperanto. Again, my mind races: Milo as ‘a thousand’, the place of a thousand?
I suggest to them that, considering the way Bowie sings these words, making them sound more like the Spanish -ejo, that is ‘eho’, any Esperanto inspiration would be visual only.
It’s a similar case with Cheli (which Bowie sings as ‘selee’). For Łukasz, reading the written text, it’s reminiscent of the Esperanto word for ‘sky’: ĉielo.
‘Vie is kind of like the Esperanto vi, which means “you”,’ he adds. It’s also the way Bowie sings it (vee).
Natalia mentions that, while listening to the segment, she saw ‘a lonely road’ in her mind. In Esperanto: a sola vojo.
I note that for me Malio sounds malignantly, evocative of something bad, unpleasant or evil (I probably remember the Latin malum). Natalia explains that in Esperanto mal- is a popular affix used to form words with opposite meanings (the so-called mal-vortoj), like bona and malbona mean ‘good’ and ‘bad’, while bela and malbela are respectively ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’. Also, Malio is the Esperanto name of the African country Mali, notes Łukasz.
But if mal- was to be construed as an Esperanto affix, then together with -io (and io in Esperanto means ‘something’), Łukasz concludes ‘we would arrive at a sense of “opposite to something”, whatever that means.’
The one line that is as far from Esperanto as possible is helibo seyoman. For Łukasz, these words don’t ring any bell. The letter Y is absent from the Esperanto alphabet altogether.
When I ask whether they think that the author of these lyrics could have had some idea of Esperanto, they say that it’s not impossible, but it’s difficult to say something more explicit. Łukasz hypothesises:
It’s possible that Bowie could have seen some Esperanto, the sound of the lyrics is kind of Esperanto-esque.
But then he stipulates that no overall Esperanto meaning is to be made out of the whole thing.
‘A rare victory’, ‘lonely you’ or ‘a lonesome road’, is all we are left with.
But even if Esperanto is not particularly helpful in clearing up the meaning of Warszawa, it still would seem that Romance languages remain the best option in trying to decipher the sub-conscious message of Warszawa. At least for the most part of it.
And what about Helibo seyoman and Chelo?
Helo, or what Bowie heard
It seems that exactly where Esperanto and Romance languages stop making sense is where Polish steps in. As mentioned above, the vocal part of Warszawa was inspired by a song by the Polish folk ensemble Śląsk from an LP Bowie had likely bought during his short stay in Warsaw.
The song is called Helokanie, and is a choral arrangement of a chant sung by herders from the Beskid Mountains (though not the Silesian part of the range from where the folk ensemble derived their name). The piece is a quasi work-song, the lyrics mimicking what a girl herding her stock on a mountainous meadow might say as she addresses another herder girl too far away to hear her.
Helo, Helo, Helenko,
Jakoz ci się pasie?
Mnie się dobrze pasie
Tobie nie wiem jako, boś jest za daleko.
[Helena, Helena, little Helen
How’s your herding going?
My herding is going well,
I don’t know how yours is going, you are too far away.]
The initial Helo, reminiscences of which can be found in Bowie’s song lyrics (Helibo seyoman, and Cheli), is simply a diminutive of the name Helena (the tail of the lyric is the vocative formed from the name’s diminutive). This renders the English title of the song, Hallooing, rather inaccurate or misleading.
The song is sung in a Polish dialect spoken by Beskid highlanders, though the composition is also a very self-conscious creation on the part of Stanisław Hadyna – the longtime director of Śląsk and the ingenious composer of many of their songs. In his memoirs, Hadyna explained that he’d overheard these lyrics on a walk in the mountains.
Hadyna, on another occasion while speaking about his childhood in the Beskid region, recalled sitting around a fire under the starry night sky. In the dark distance, he heard a young girl shout Heloooo across the forests and mountains, followed by the echo returning her words.
For him, Helokanie was ‘a song that had space, a sense of distance. A view from the mountaintop. The echo serving to measure its depths.’
Bowie obviously didn’t know all this. For him, the strange language he heard on that Polish LP, bought during a one-time trip beyond the Iron Curtain, may just have seemed a bunch of incomprehensible words. But as such, it opened new realms of imagination for him, transmitting meanings as only music can.
But what Bowie could have actually heard on that Śląsk LP is partially revealed in the 1997 interview he gave for Polish magazine Machina. Speaking to Filip Łobodziński, he recalled buying a couple of vinyls which later became an inspiration during work on Low:
I attempted to capture and render musically the anxiety which I had heard in these Polish folk songs. [...] As I don’t speak Polish, I tried to sing in what one could call a ‘phonetic music’. I know that my music doesn’t portray Warsaw the city, but for me it was a kind of a symbol, a catchphrase which carried content that was very important for me. [- author's translation]
The emotional content which Bowie believed he had heard on that Śląsk LP may be quite different from what the average Polish listener (or actually any listener) would glean from Helokanie. And yet Warszawa with its 'phonetic music' remains just as much a great example of how art, and music in particular, can inspire and transport meanings beyond borders – be they those of languages, countries, or even regimes.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, December 2016, ed. Adam Zulawski; with thanks to Lea Berriault and Alan Lockwood.