For Anna Szałapak, Piwnica pod Baranami / The Cellar under the Rams isn't the exclusive content of her career. The famed cabaret in Kraków is certainly a significant part - but only a part. Her steady solo work takes place increasingly outside the Piwnica scen.
Singer, one of the most recognizable artists of Piwnica pod Baranami / The Cellar under the Rams.
Not one missed note - all finely, thoroughly mastered, without a single superfluous gesture. A hat, a shawl, a lit candle and the simple gesture of raising her hands - that's all Szałapak needs to get into the mood.
"I try to have every song accurately thought out and prepared," the performer says in an interview when she was still working steadily on Piwnica programmes:
Improvisation meant that I was never actually sure whether all the instruments will play - will all the musicians attend, or at which point of the programme will I perform: at midnight or maybe just before dawn? I don't know how Piotr [th Piwnica MC] will introduce me and if he'll announce me at all? The cabaret is always full of surprises.
Szałapak still stays away from huge stages and the pop charts. She really never broke out of low-key, basement-style mini performances - a focused, acurrately dramatized vocal workshop.
I've been involved with the cabaret song since 1979. In Piwnica, we would sing for example fragments of a conversation with sculptor Marian Konieczny - 'I have many picked-out places where I close my eyes and I see a statue', or words from press notes: 'Forget about the Proto-popped', or an interview with Gierkowa [wife of the communist-era leader]. The strict cabaret song intermingles with literary, poetic or lyrical songs - styles I am also familiar with.
Since the 1960s, Ewa Demarczyk's songs have been significant, even though she has long ceased to sing in public. Her songwriter, Zygmunt Konieczny, continued writing stylish songs for the Piwnica cabaret and found Szałapak to be his new ideal performer.
Of course a certain link through the same composer exists, but I in no way presume any comparisons. In literary song, Ewa Demarczyk has always been the one and only greatest. [...] I'm from a completely different era of the Cellar.
Where did Szałapak's musical passion come from? She has been singing, as she says, from the day she was born, then started at Piwnica with English songs and her own guitar accompaniment. The cabaret was a workshop for her - every Saturday they had to come up with something and perform. All this under the supervision of Piotr Skrzynecki and the master of masters, Zygmunt Konieczny, who watched over the musical part of the program. Under the guidance of these two pillars of style and taste, she trained in what she always liked to do.
Her repertoire was initially dominated by Black Dress, a song about a Polish girl deeply devastated, vainly seeking for her beloved, who went into the forest. Something out of the romantic-era painter Artur Grottger's uprising series. As for cabaret, with the principle of enchanting listeners with volatile, topical humor, it was a pretty depressing topic.
Black Dress was an important element of the programme - the singer says:
This song synthetically recognizes the history of the Polish nation's martyrdom. In a simple, somewhat naive sense. It pertained to a certain era, during a bleak communistic period, and the cabaret was there to reflect the reality.
The first visible sign of reaching a state of normalcy - when the cabaret ceased to be a grandstand and a safety valve and began to try to being fun and amusing - was when Szałapak changed the color of her dress.
My white dress was connected to the two songs of Zygmunt Konieczny to Agnieszka Osiecka's words: White Notebooks and Grajmy Panu / Let's Play for the Lord. These started a different, luminous repertoire.
Meeting Agnieszka Osiecka was an essential point in her career. The new songs along with Calm Your Heart, were created for the musical Sztukmistrz z Lublina / The Conjuror of Lublin. With this material, Szałapak travelled to the U.S. with her own recital - the second time she performed outside Poland, having participated on Piwnica tours.
Zbigniew Preisner wrote some beautiful settings to the poems of Stanisław Baliński and Stanisław Skoneczny, and made great music to Czesław Miłosz's To the Politician. Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz - a composer with a very artistic, painterly imagination - asked me to sing poems by Lorca, Mandelstam or texts by Michał Zabłock and Włodzimierz Dulemby. Zygmunt Konieczny not only hears, but also sees his songs in the form of images.
For years, rumours abound that the Piwnica cabaret scene is getting worse. The singer strongly disagrees:
For the cabaret, as well as for art, there is no bad time, although - as Xawery Dunikowski used to say- one must be able to 'sniff out the time'. No cabaret is composed exclusively of moments of triumph. [...] The Piwnica programme is never fixed, there is always a wide range of improvisation.
Szałapak's voice more and more often appears in the radio and various soundtracks. The Piwnica composers also work on film soundtracks, with Konieczny preparing a magnificent piece to Tuwim's poems, quoted in the movie Escape from the Liberty Cinema.
For me, the vocal part in this recording was a difficult yet interesting artistic adventure. I hope someday to perform the whole 'Scherzo' - as the composer wrote it, in full instumental composition.
Rather than living a comfortable life as a remarkable star of the stage, she has never ceased to work as an ethnographer. "I don't know how one becomes a star", she admits:
As an ethnographer, I direct the Department of Tradition in the Historical Museum of Kraków in the Krzysztofory Palace. I'm a native Krakóvian and this job is very important for me. The traditions of our city need tremendous care. [...] I enjoy coming back to the traditions and history of the city, which is closely connected with Konieczny's and Pawluśkiewicz's artistic creativity.
She travels abroad with exhibitions of Kraków's famed Szopka, or nativity cribs. And sometimes even gives a mini concert in additon. Regardless of the place, her repertoire is best perceived by the well-educated. Suffice to say that the magazine Tygodnik Powszechny's editor-in-chief Jerzy Turowicz has always been a great admirer of her talent.
Anna Szałapak's every gesture seems precisely planned and brought to perfection. Both her songs and outfits tend toward refined elegance, and at present, in private or on stage, she always wears bright outfits in pastel shades - no black dresses for this storied performer.
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk (excerpted from a larger piece), September 2010.