Andrzej Bieńkowski – a painter, photographer and ethnographer – talks about village music, the exceptional figure of Oskar Kolberg, and the depth of the mechanisms of social exclusion of those who live in rural areas.
Agnieszka Grzybowska, Filip Lech: Your first book was titled ''Ostatni wiejscy muzykanci'' ("The Last Village Musicians"). Which of these last ones was the most important for you?
Andrzej Bieńkowski: I was lucky enough to have met three violin players whom I consider geniuses. Because just as there are brilliant painters, and composers, there are brilliant village violin players. They were Józef Kędzierski, Kazimierz Meto and Marian Bujak. It was a huge experience for me as a painter. By the way, I was too young to get to know Nikifor well enough. I only met him once, but I had the sense of meeting a brilliant artist. Friendship bonded me with those three violin players - I was aware of their extraordinary character.
These meetings had an impact on my whole life, because I became aware of the power of the so-called "naive art". For my own use, I created a little bon-mot : "a naive artist is the one unaware of his own greatness". Meetings with people like that are a lesson in humility for every artist.
In what circumstances did you meet them?
I met Józio Kędzierski by chance. I was roaming around, and looking for my place as a painter. I sketched a lot in the open air, which stirred the curiosity of shepherds. I sat in the meadows, the guys were bored and they would walk up to me, we smoked together. When they saw that I was scribbling some stuff, they would ask me if I was a land surveyor (if I was a surveyor, I would probably get a good beating, nobody likes it when someone paves up the roads anew for them). They told me that there was a certain village out there, and a musician who lives in it. Rdzuchów, a flat Mazovian village, just like in the landscapes of Chełmoński, where somewhere on the horizon you can see the line of huts, a little stretch of trees, and a nostalgic steppe-like emptiness. I bought cheap liquor and went to Mr. Józef. He said that he hadn't played since his wife's death a few years ago. So, I opened the bottle and then another one, and finally Kędzierski did want to play. I had never heard anything like that before, it was as if I discovered Atlantis.
How did it happen that the recordings became one of your main preoccupations?
First I recorded just because nobody was interested. They treated me like a rotten egg, my friends would say to me before paying me a visit "Andrzej, just don't put on this village crap'. (laughs)
Then, Program 2 of the Polish Radio addressed me with a request. They asked if I would like to create radio broadcasts. I refused, because it was the Martial Law period, and all of the artistic milieux boycotted all official cultural institutions – the radio, television, and galleries. Only after the boycott was called off did I call the radio up and we collaborated up until the moment when they did me wrong in a very ugly way. The making of these broadcasts helped me with the recordings. I repaid the musicians and I added the information "On such and such a date, your recordings will be aired".
How did you reach the artists and persuade them to play? After all, many of them had quit playing many years before.
These were breakneck situations, after all during this period, it often happened that even regular mail was not delivered. I would get in a car, and go from village to village and I would guess who could be a good source of information. What was the difference between my research and the one conducted by, say, the Polish Academy of Sciences? I was not so much after the recording of a melody, it was all about team work. And this was also where the problem began, because the musicians often lacked instruments, and we would have to find them.
What happened to the instruments?
The bass instruments were bought out by traders in antiques as well as ethnographical museums. Nobody cared for the fact that the village would grow silent; I think I spent five years looking for bass instruments. The small drums fell out of use when harmoniums appeared, and then there was the demand for baraban drums, which were louder.
After supplying the instruments, one needs the performers.
Yes, the next phase of work is trying to get the musicians to agree, a lot of them were in conflict. Sometimes I would have set a meeting a month before and I would find out that a sister-in-law had died, and the musician was in mourning for a year and I had to wait. I bought a house near Przysucha, Kędzierski and Gaca lived close by, and I spent my holidays there. I would paint in the mornings, and in the afternoons, I went to record sound and to film.
When cell phones appeared, truly delightful things occurred at times. The phone rings, and the musician on the other side says "Mr. Andrzej, I just remembered an oberek, do you know it?" I asked him to play it. A week later I come to record. Recently, Ms. Kucharczyk called from Gałki, and she says:
''You called me a long time ago, and I just remembered such a wonderful melody!''.
And she sings something very rare: a ballad about the exporting of boys for forced labour in Germany during World War II.
You repeat that you are interested in village music, and not folk, and traditional music. What is distinct about this perspective?
The term ''folk music'' ["muzyka ludowa" in the original Polish] is connected to the anachronic idea of a "folk" ["lud" in the original], a term that recurrs throughout the work of Oskar Kolberg. The "folk", "lud", are slaves, and this is something that we keep on forgetting. The "folk" that Kolberg was researching had the same rights as African Americans in Alabama – Polish peasants formally had no right to vote, no right to property, land, nor movement rights, up until 1864, and technically until the end of the 19th century. I can see the social marks of slavery in the villages up until this day.
For me, village music is the kind of music that was an aesthetic norm in the villages. The musicians had a unique way of adapting also the kind of music that came from the cities – the bucolics of Karpiński, foxtrots, rumbas, waltzes, as well as trendy hits. They gave this music a special, rural rite. Sometimes even a savvy ear can fail to recognise the sources of these melodies. One day, Mr Jacek Lewandowski, one of my favourite musicians, played a foxtrot for me and I was amazed, I asked "What is this beautiful polka!", and he responded "But it's a foxtrot". I was tricked by the even rhythm.
You gave a voice to people who were no longer slaves in the Polish People's Republic, but who could not evolve in their own ways. Does your work have a political and social dimension?
I would rather use the term "social". I think I always had this social sensitivity, probably after my own father. In the beginning it's all nice: summer holidays, a village woman brings you milk, someone else will bake bread. In order to become aware of social exclusion, you have to spend some time in a village. I began to go with the peasants to the town halls and administrative offices, and also to visit doctors, because they did not have any means of transportation. I was surprised with the social inequality – upon entering the offices, they crumple up their own hats in front of some kind of Missus from the municipality, just like feudal peasants in front of a lord. Just because this office worker is supposed to provide them with a piece of paper saying that they gave in 15 litres of milk, and this peasant has to obtain this little stamp in order to be able to buy fertilizers.
The process of exclusion is always deep. It's not like we now have free elections, democracy and self-governance and so the stigma is gone. This is why I observed the career of Andrzej Lepper with such attention, I had the feeling that he was a contemporary figure of someone from the Rabacja [Galician Slaughter, a 19th century two months' long uprising of Galician peasants against serfdom], a Jakub Szela [The Rabacja leader] of today. As for me, even if I made part of some of these villages, I was always someone from the outside. Even in the place where I have now lived for 40 years, I find out about everything last – I will always remain a stranger.
What did the violin players think about themselves, and what did the community think of them?
Once, after a successful recording session with Józef Kędzierski, I told him that I never heard music like that in my life. And he says:
''The Kędzierskis are a musical family, my grandfathers played, and so did my fathers, but do you know what? I wasted my talent, I should have gone to music school"
I thought to myself: ''My God, Mr. Józef! You would be an anonymous violin player in a philharmonic, or in some kind of low-ranking restaurant, but here you are great". Of course, I did not say that to him.
Or, Kazimierz Meto, my second master of masters, I adored him. He was slightly disabled. In some, this stirred a sense of caring and a tenderness, while others laughed at him, and threw stones at him, just like children threw stones at Nikifor. He was born strange, and lived in an enclosed world, he became a bachelor. I don't know if you are aware of what it's like to be a bachelor in the country...
It's probably better than being an unmarried woman.
I think the oppression is similar. I went there and Kazio starts playing, and his hands are as huge as loaves of bread, and I just cannot understand how he is able to produce sounds on a violin. Wonderful singers arrive, very warm women, and every 30 seconds or so they say to him "Get married, Kazio, get married". And it's like that throughout his entire life. I aired his music in some auditions, and I invited him to Kazimierz, where he received an award. Journalists started to arrive, and first of all, they showed him on television. The village slowly began to be proud of him. This process took about 15 years.
What can one do in contact with poverty, so that one does not end up unwittingly treating another human in a patronising way – even against one's will? What to do, so that the other person doesn't feel…
What to do so that the other person doesn't feel that somebody is feeling repulsion? In the 1980s, the crunch of civilisation in villages was something that put people off and brought them down… There were no cleaning agents, not to mention awareness. I think that the way in which you treat others is something that you carry inside of you and it's not so easy to learn. It's not like I was blandishing people in the village. But first of all, I accepted them.
I personally had a few painful experiences. You don't have any idea how many people in the village were outraged at my book. It was a shock for me, we knew each other for so many years, and I had a sense of partnership with these musicians. Nothing like it! My first book came out and Jacek Gaca calls me up, this nice, calm guy:
''How dare you write about me, that it's so poor at my place?! Everyone in the village is going to laugh at me now"
This is the biggest price that I paid for these texts. And they did not even read this, many of them were illiterate, usually some "friendly" people told them (like family that lived in the cities).
You are a painter who is preoccupied with music and its artists, and you use words and photographs to describe their world. What are these photographs for you? Some of them were created before the war, others were taken by you personally.
The old photos which I collected with my wife Małgorzata would often land in ovens because they were old and dirty. These were not photographs taken by small town photographic enterprises, nor were they the images captured by ethnographers. They were taken by village photographers when snapshot cameras first appeared. They depict a world which they considered important, they are different. I am extremely excited by this. The deadly threat for old village photography was coloured photography and photo albums. Yes, these horrible, coloured amateur photos, were arranged neatly in album, and the old black and white ones were thrown out.
What kind of photographs would the musicians want to see themselves in?
The kind of photos that you have nowadays from the first communion celebrations. Dressed in a suit, shaved, posing in the same way as politicians do nowadays, very hieratically.
In your photographs, the whole world could see them through a lens, it's almost like entering a house with a camera.
I remember when I bought a camera, I was very happy when I could show the village one of the first recordings on a black and white TV set. The musicians sat so proud, the whole village came, and then the tragedy began.
''Oh no, how old I am. Oh no, with no teeth''.
They never watched themselves, and they thought that they would look similar to the news announcers from the box. The whole village roared with laughter, and we never showed films in that place again. I realised that the musicians only usually saw themselves in tiny mirror once a week, when they shaved before going to church.
How were the musical talents of the villages born? What was distinct about the most talented ones?
On the one hand I have examples such as the Gaca: the parents see their children's talent and would count it as a means of overcoming poverty. And they were right. A musician could make 4 złoty , which was the equivalent of 4 days' work. A grass cutter would make about 1 złoty a day. A bottle of vodka costed 2 złoty, a cow costed about 60. Weddings went on for three days, and the temptation to make money was so big, that the musicians went from one wedding to another, this is a killing pace. The musicians would often teach their craft to their children, as in the end, no one likes competition.
They would also learn from other musicians, but I never met anyone who would be happy with the teaching of a great master. Because, a young guy has to also work as a shepherd for such a teacher, and still pay for his schooling. And the old guy, if he was in a good mood, would show him a few tricks in the evening. And when the master saw that he was dealing with a talented guy, he panicked and did everything not to teach him.
How did the village recognise a good musician?
They would know he's a good one when he would be able to play any melody that someone would sing to him. This was especially true at the oczepiny [a special rite during weddings which symbolised the passing of a maiden into a wife], when the best man or bridesmaid indicated a tune and the musician had to play it. If someone didn't know how to play it, he would be sent off and was considered no good. That's what it's all about. Then it's also important to know how to play in a way that won't kill people. It's important during these long trance-like seances of dance. This is exactly what Jan Gaca was famous for. It was different with Tadeusz Jedynak, dancers got tired quickly whenever he was the one playing.
Click here to read more about the Tadeusz Jedynak Benefis, as well as watch Culture.pl's video account of the event
And what about the beliefs that a talent was the devil's work?
The beliefs were common, and the fear of them, too. The musicians knew how to make use of that. Wojciech Pełka, a fantastic violin player from Kłudno, was one such man. When he played, it was like the dance of the whirling dervishes, a true euphoria! He would take people into such a trance, that they would not give him peace or let him rest. His hands would swell, and the tips of his finger began to bleed. During a wedding, a very thin line divides a request from a punch in the face, so he could not stop. He then opened up a door of the stove and he said:
''So, I will fucking burn this violin. But when I burn it, you will be damned to dance for 20 hours with no break"
Only then, frightened by the possible curse, did they let him rest.
Was there a certain point in time when music began to vanish from the lives of the village dwellers?
These processes take a very long time, and they continue up to this day. I really don't think it's about the war, because then one could also throw wedding parties – you just had to pay a tax. What was more significant was the appearance of a harmonium, and of the equal temperament system of tuning, which is not so capable of rendering singing. The harmonium is loud, and the singers had to begin to shout over each other. But nowadays, even at modern-style weddings, you can hear the echoes of tradition. The figure of an MC, who calls upon not very refined ways of having fun, filled with erotic subtext – that is an echo of the wedding theatres.
Something important is happening now. I believe – I don't think I will live to see it – that there will be a conscious return to tradition, the way that it has happened in the Netherlands and in Scandinavia. Nowadays, the culture of the village is kept alive thanks to the city - rural festivals and parties are a success because city folk come to see them.
We are celebrating the Year of Kolberg, which was officially announced by the Polish government. How does one bring the two realities together – the village culture, which is always a grass-roots initiative and something independent by nature, and the official celebrations, which are established 'at the top', in the city?
First of all, it's a good thing that Kolberg is spoken about. Even in the 1980s, many ethnographers didn't consider him a scientist, and the value of his work was diminished. But Kolberg, and Chopin – whom he adored – are both gentlemen who played a major part in shaping the myth of Polish culture. Without them we would not be who we are. This is really the "national core", the hard drive of national memory. Those who do not understand that what Kolberg had done was something more than what Malinowski accomplished in Melanesia, fail to understand the social and cultural complication of things, this division into lords and simpletons. The real drama of a lack of the middle class, which we never had.
Kolberg not only recorded Polish melodies, he was also preoccupied with ethnic minorities.
He devoted a lot of attention to Ukrainian, Jewish, Slovak, Lithanian, Belarussian, Hungarian and German cultures. This is a transcultural way of thinking. To me, he is a pioneer of a united Europe.
The musicians whom you describe have been brought up in a reality filled with the cultures of other nations, which were often actually more numerous than Polish peasants. This must have been reflected in the music, and now it's in fact all that is left. You can feel the lack of Jewish people the most, of whom remains only the ruins of synagogues and cemeteries that grow into the landscape.
The question of Jews is exceptionally painful, but it's also the case with Roztocze and the Eastern wall, the Łemko, Bojko and Ukrainian minorities. They did everything they could over there in order to break away from the Polish-Ukrainian past. And it is not just the communists' business. It's also true for the researchers, scholars, the directors of cultural centres, and members of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
May this story be a warning to all: 1980, the carnival period of Solidarity, a festival in the town of Kazimierz, with activists who have Solidarity pins decorating their suits. An ensemble of women came, and they sang in the chałacki language [a North-Ukrainian dialect]. I was astonished, I never heard anything like that before! I wanted to record them, and they said the director forbade them, but in the end they agreed. We went somewhere really far, on a little patio, and suddenly a lady from the festival's jury appears. She stands between them and says:
''This is Poland! Here, we sing in Polish''.
The ladies were afraid, and so was I. I wished to throw this lady down some stairs, but those women would not forgive me. For us, it's easy to say that the bad communists cast out the Jews in 1968, and the Ukrainians during the Wisła action. But it was us, the Poles who did that. This knowledge is important for our awareness. Let's not let ourselves get astray by politically charged history.
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 19/05/2014