Music Lost & Refound: An Interview with Andrzej Bieńkowski
default, Music Lost & Refound:
An Interview with Andrzej Bieńkowski, Małgorzata Bieńkowska & Andrzej Bieńkowski with musicians, photo: Muzyka Odnaleziona archive, center, #000000, andrzej_bienkowski_with_popular_musicians_archive_muzyka_odnaleziona.jpg
Polish folk music has managed to survive and even grow from strength to strength thanks to certain key people. One of those people is undoubtedly Andrzej Bieńkowski and his Muzyka Odnaleziona project. Music agent Araceli Tzigane, along with translator Ewa Gomółka, went to talk to him about his legacy.
Have you ever listened to music so captivating, so crazy and so different from anything else that you wondered ‘For God’s sake, what do these people have inside them to make that music?’ Sometimes, I even want to sneak into their minds to understand the source of that beauty…
That rapturous curiosity appeared in me thanks to Polish traditional music, namely after hearing the work of the Janusz Prusinowski Kompania, one of the artists in my agency Mapamundi Música’s catalogue. I felt their music was from another planet. It was so perplexing and, at the same time, it was as if it was being lead along by some kind of magic that made all the chaos work in an hypnotic way. You can find a lot of information on Prusinowski, like interviews and materials from a simple search on the Internet. But what made him and his colleagues start to delve into the traditions of rural Poland, at a time when after the fall of the Iron Curtain most young musicians were turning their attention to the West, is not so widely known.
In 1993, a group of young musicians, the band Bractwo Ubogich (meaning Brotherhood of the Poor), was readying themselves to play. It was at the Węgajty Theatre in the north of Poland, two hours from Gdańsk to the east. Their standard set list for the show was composed mainly of popular songs from the 1920s and some pieces from the ethnic minorities of the south, like the Lemko and the Boiko. The theatre was a relevant cultural epicentre at the time. And that evening there was another activity planned: a showing of a video made by Andrzej Bieńkowski, the protagonist of our story.
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Andrzej Bieńkowski, photo: Małgorzata Bieńkowska
The members of Bractwo Ubogich were searching for their musical roots in a country that was like a blank sheet in this respect, what with the appropriation, theft and superseding of popular art by the fallen regime.
Andrzej, a painter and a teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, was widely disdained at the time by his colleagues because of his obsession with rural musicians from around Radom: he would constantly play their music at his house and they were practically the only motif in Andrzej’s paintings over the last few years. He had opted out of a promising career as a painter, even though he was demanded and valued in Switzerland and Italy, so that he did not to have to leave his rural Poland. For years, he recorded without respite those old forsaken musicians from the Radom region, one of the poorest and most isolated in Poland.
After setting up a workshop in a village in the Mazovian countryside, selecting a cheap but roomy place where he could develop his work, he started to discover the music of his new neighbours. Their music was wild, unknown, almost creaking with age and, at the same time, it had an untameable beauty: the music of the real mazurka. A kind music that would have fallen into oblivion. He started to record as much as he could, buying tapes with the money he got from selling his paintings. At the time, his monthly salary as a teacher at the university would only allow him to buy two tapes…
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The discovery of Bieńkowski’s work in that event in 1993 at Teatr Węgajty was the answer to what Prusinowski and his band partners were searching for: from that moment, he was the door to so many rural masters. He shared with the young musicians all his knowledge, contacts and materials, for them to learn in order to keep that music alive. Bractwo Ubogich was also the answer to what Bieńkowski was in hopeless need of: a group of young musicians fascinated by that music, who could learn and keep it alive after the passing on of the rural masters.
During the many years after, Prusinowski and his team have taken the tradition of mazurka all over the world, have won many awards and led a festival in Warsaw that, in its two annual editions, gathers thousands of people of all ages, playing music and dancing together. Folk bands grow like mushrooms and the demand for learning the mazurka dance is not confined within the borders of Poland. And Bieńkowski, together with his sidekick Małgosia, his wife and partner, runs the foundation Muzyka Odnaleziona. They release albums and books, provide lectures and they share a delightful archive of video, music and texts via the Muzyka Odnaleziona website.
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What follows is an interview with Andrzej Bieńkowski conducted and translated to English by Ewa Gomółka, in which he explains some deeper points related to his work over the decades.
Ewa Gomółka: When did you buy this house in the countryside?
Andrzej Bieńkowski: I bought it in 1980, but I’d been living there since 1971 renting it out.
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EG: And you set up your workshop there?
AB: Yes, yes. I set up my workshop there because I’m a painter and I wanted to have a space to work. In 1980, when I started to record intensively, it was an ideal starting point because I was close to them and it was very important. Also, it was very important that before starting to come and record the musicians, I went through the school of living in the countryside with peasants.
It was extremely important to know how to talk with these people. This was the thing that other investigators didn’t understand, they didn’t understand this different world. It was important because Poland at that time was socially split into two parts. There was the intellectual and artistic elite, on an excellent European level, and there was the peasantry who had just come out of serfdom, out of slavery.
Officially, it had been abolished in the second half of the 19th century, but the people’s mentality and the relationship between the city and the rural areas was exactly the same. It was a great thing because at the time these musicians were just savages forgotten by the world. Now, we have all these folklore festivals, and people visiting rural musicians. There was no such a thing before. Poland has changed a lot.
‘These musicians were just savages forgotten by the world’
EG: Those first contacts with village musicians, was that yours or their initiative?
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AB: Mine. There was this black period in Polish history – martial law. We can compare it to Franco’s victory in Spain. We can say that Jaruzelski was Franco’s equivalent, Solidarność was like the republic. Of course it was not as brutal, so it’s a bit of exaggeration, and the times were different – we are talking about things that happened much later.
Why was this period so dark? On the one hand, the rural tastes were over, those ones which used to decide which musicians to invite to play at weddings, which type of music was in the area of interest from a ritual or ceremonial point of view. So, on one hand the violin was out of fashion, it was considered embarrassing to invite a violinist to a wedding party. On the other hand, the movement of interest from the city hadn’t started yet.
Those rural musicians were in the prime of life, 40-50 years old, feeling aware of their great potential but they couldn’t understand why nobody wanted them, why nobody understood them. Just a little while earlier, everybody loved them, but then they were despised.
So when I arrived, the musicians walked straight into my hands, they were delighted that a man from the city (it was important in terms of the complexes that arose in villages) had appeared and wanted to record them playing, that he wanted to listen to them.
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EG: Did you continue recording during martial law?
AB: Yes, of course!
EG: Did you have any problems with the police?
AB: I had problems with the militia. There was a hysteria of spying. Incessantly. I was arrested for making photos and videos many times. There was even a situation during the Ogólnopolski Festiwal Kapel Ludowych w Kazimierzu (International Festival of Folklore Bands in Kazimierz). One of the instructors from Radom went to the militia station and came to me with an officer to arrest me. He said I was recording in order to defame the country. So I was taken to the station, the officers started to investigate and they figured it out.
At the time I was working at the Academy of Fine Arts, I was an attendant there and I said I was doing this for the academy, for artistic purposes. Back then I was one of only a few who had a video camera in Poland. So I kept having problems because of this. While I was walking through a village, people would shout at me: ‘Hey, you! Anyone permit you take photos?!’ So I kept having problems all the time, that was the atmosphere created by martial law and it was transferred to the relationships between people, into regular tensions. I have to say it was awful.
EG: Did you have any problems with crossing borders with the tapes?
AB: No, I didn’t. I used to go abroad in the times of freedom. Some unpleasant situations happened to me in Belarus, similar to those during martial law in Poland. One day I was recording a video of some small towns and some activists came over and asked me to show my documents, asked what I was doing there. So this was that communist paranoia still present there. But it never happened to me in Ukraine.
EG: Going back to those first contacts with the musicians. Did you use any tricks to convince them to open up to a man from the city?
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AB: ‘Tricks’ is not a good term for this, I would call it ‘field study techniques’. After ten years of living in the countryside, I knew people’s mentality, I knew what could make them open up or close. I knew what not to say and how to react to what they said. So the most important thing, and it was a bit of a problem for me due to my expressive personality, was to refrain from making comments when someone said something I didn’t like.
It was extremely important because if someone tells you something horrible and you react, that person will withdraw into themselves, and you’ll be perceived as a hostile person, a stranger. You have to listen, listen and remain calm. You can’t treat it like a conversation over a beer or wine with your friends. When a friend says something I don’t agree with, I shout at him because he’s talking rubbish. You just can’t do this, it’s a basic rule.
The countryside is very proud and oversensitive, it has a massive ego and has its issues. People react very badly to the lack of acceptance, especially when it’s someone from the city. But this is a rule in the countryside, the way conflicts are born because of criticism.
EG: I was told that you used to spend your entire monthly salary from the academy buying two tapes.
AB: Yes, at that time I had a contract with an art gallery in Italy, some art exhibitions organised there and I kept selling my paintings there so I did have some money from that. But it’s true, at the academy I was earning as much as two VHS tapes, like 12 dollars. So if it wasn’t for this contract in Torino and selling my paintings in Italy, I wouldn’t have been able to finance my field work.
‘At the academy I was earning as much as two VHS tapes, like 12 dollars.‘
EG: Your wife is very important to Muzyka Odnaleziona. How did it happen that she joined the project?
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AB: I don’t understand why she joined the project! She is much younger than me. We met in 1985 and she was a very beautiful young woman who had just graduated from university. She didn’t know anything about all this and it was amazing that she agreed to go with me into an environment she didn’t know existed. After all, those pampered university students from the city knew absolutely nothing about this music.
When we went to a village together for the first time, the musicians got drunk and started to act rude. And you can’t react too strongly but at the same time you do have to react. This is that fine line. So I don’t understand how it happened that she slowly, slowly (but actually very fast), after some months took over the task of recording the audio and we were simply working together – I was doing the video recordings and she was responsible for the audio. Sometimes we swapped and she was doing the video recording and I was taking photos. So this is how she joined the project.
When our daughter was born, she had to stop going to the countryside for a moment, I kept going alone. And then our daughter started going with us, our little Ola. And when she was a teenager she didn’t want to go with us so she usually stayed with her friends at home.
So that’s how it started and I think that now Małgośka is far more important to this project than I am. She’s the one who does all the dirty work, not me.
‘The elite of the painters, great painters and my friends, they thought that all the things I was doing deserved to be ridiculed. And I accepted it with humility.‘
EG: How did the life of Muzyka Odnaleziona change after the collapse of communism?
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AB: It didn’t really matter. What mattered was the creation of Dom Tańca [‘House of Dance’, created in 1994 to channel the learnings and needs of the aforementioned young musicians, led by themselves – ed.]. The collapse of communism was not important because communism in Poland was already decomposing. There was no censorship and other things like this.
For many years I hosted a radio show, it started under communism, near the end of it, and continued in free Poland. Now I have a radio show too, for the last 6 years. So it’s been 12 years of hosting a radio show. So the collapse of the communism didn’t matter, believe me. The creation of Dom Tańca was important, it was something incredible for me, I was acting totally unsupported. Even those radio shows, just recording, broadcasting and that was all.
My community’s reaction to what I was doing was really bad. I mean the elite of the painters, great painters and my friends, they thought that all the things I was doing deserved to be ridiculed. And I accepted it with humility. And they continue with this, you know they are really great painters, their works are exhibited in museums, they are my friends, professors, and now, like me, retired. So on one side there is our friendship and on the other there is ‘This is crazy! Why do you keep doing this? You’re wasting your time!’ So that’s how it is.
EG: From the moment you started recording to the moment you met a group of young musicians with Janusz Prusinowski as band leader (Bractwo Ubogich), 20 years had passed…
AB: Less than 20 years. It was a dozen or so years. I don’t remember when Bractwo was created. You know, there’s a difference between when were they created and when we met, but it was several years.
EG: And for all those years had you thought that what you’d been doing was not interesting for other people?
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AB: Yes, it was like that. But I had this feeling that I was a guardian of the memory by recording things. And I didn’t expect this explosion of interest so fast, but it did explode, like a broken dam, it just exploded and I was astonished. I’d never felt it was pointless, I believed that it would interest someone someday. How? I didn’t know. But I was definitely sure it was worth doing. If I hadn’t felt like this, I wouldn’t have made the effort. Because I kept going to the musicians, recording, editing the recordings, painting and running painting workshops at the academy, so I was working my ass off. Plus I’ve written four books (the fourth is about to be finished).
EG: When did you meet the musicians from Bractwo Ubogich?
AB: I was invited to give a lecture on my recordings by the Węgajty Theatre led by Jacek Sobaszek. It’s very interesting because you’ll never guess how these young fellows became interested in traditional music – it came from Grotowski’s theatre. Jerzy Grotowski – the one who used to make those strange eccentric shows. So later on, his acolytes broke up and created other alternative theatres, incredibly important in Poland. And those theatres created Bractwo Ubogich, Muzyka Kresów and so on. So it was the heritage of Grotowski: Węgajty, Gardzienice, Janek Bernad Theatre… And they were mentally prepared for it but didn’t know how to approach it, and that’s when I appeared. And we didn’t have to start from scratch.
So it was very interesting and unexpected because much of Bractwo Ubogich had been engaged in those theatres before and they had some kind of preparation. It was not yet the in crudo formula I used to present, but they were prepared for it. The difference between this popular pseudo-folklore and what I presented was so shocking that some people just had to leave. The truth was difficult and still is.
‘The most important heritage of Muzyka Odnaleziona are the concerts’
EG: Over the last few years, Muzyka Odnaleziona has been widely recognised in media… Do you consider it a success, especially after all the years of work and being in the shadow?
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AB: Yes, absolutely. I didn’t expect any of this and I don’t expect more. Do you know what gives me satisfaction? Concerts like the one we’re having today [a concert at the November 2019 edition of the festival Wszystkie Mazurki Świata in Warsaw – ed.]. That I can call young people and tell them ‘There will be a concert dedicated to, for example, Józef Ciastek. Would you like to play something from his repertoire?’ And they agree and come to my house and I show them some videos of the musicians playing and then they play it. This is the most wonderful thing and I consider it my biggest success. It’s nice that the radio tolerates me, I keep hosting the shows, I’m happy that my next book is about to be published, but the most important heritage of Muzyka Odnaleziona are the concerts like the one today.
That’s what’s real satisfying. Because thanks to this, we won’t forget musicians like Ciastek or Szymczak, this tradition will stay alive. Young people are our only chance. Unless they undertake things, after a few years this will be nothing but an ethnographic curiosity. But it’s not – this music is alive, this is a living tradition, an aesthetic experience. And that’s my goal, because this music is just beautiful. Listening to those mazurs gives me goose bumps.
Interview conducted November 2019 by Ewa Gomółka with Araceli Tzigane.
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