Mazurka World by Andrew Cronshaw

aug/sept 2011

The packed congregation emerges into the warm sun after a very entertaining, packed and informal afternoon mass that has featured three christenings, brass players in the organ gallery, a fine vocal group, dozens of little bells distributed for the congregation to tinkle, ending with children thronged down the front reaching for a clockwork white dove fluttering in circles above them.

Outside, on a platform under the trees, the Janusz Prusinowski Trio strikes up: fiddle or accordion, flute or shawm, chunk-droning three-string bass and thudding baraban drum-and-cymbal or stick-hit tambourine, joined by guest trumpeter, and the congregation, led enthusiastically by the black-coated figure of their remarkable musical priest Wojciech Drozdowicz, pairs up to dance the endlessly turning brisk 3/4 of mazurek.

Later they filter down into the crypt for a concert of mazurka-influenced jazz and some of Fryderyk Chopin’s piano mazurkas. Later still, the musicians having gathered for more music-making, vodka and food around his kitchen table, Wojciech makes a phone call, and we all decamp in cars to a family house in the leafy suburbs, where playing and dancing continues on the front terrace, possibly to the bemusement of the neighbours.

It’s the opening day of Warsaw’s “All The World’s Mazurkas” festival and, it being Easter Monday, the week-long event has begun not in the city centre venues where the rest of it will happen, but out here in a green-gardened monastery complex on the forested northern fringe of the city.

The Prusinowski Trio – fiddler, accordionist and singer Janusz, flute and shawm player Michal Zak and baraban drummer/tambourinist Piotr Piszczatowski, usually actually a quartet with Piotr Zgorzelski on basy – are prime movers at the heart of the festival and of its growing scene of mazurka-obsessed dancers.
Mazurek, more widely known abroad as mazurka, originated in this part of Poland – Mazovia – at least four or five centuries ago, and spread across Europe and beyond, metamorphosing as it went, including into Sweden’s polska. (Sweden ruled Poland for a time, moving the capital from Krakow to Warsaw, and Polish bands played at the Swedish court). It was carried into the classical sphere in the 19th century by Polish-born composer-pianist Chopin.

The music is in triple time, as is a waltz, but it’s far from the slow, smooth dum-ching-ching swing of waltz. Traditional Polish mazurka’s stresses are drum-emphasised, offset and pulled around, there’s a lot of continuous one-directional turning, occasionally stamping, and the wild, chance-taking rawness of the way the ageing but still powerful Mazovian village musicians play is far from the salon-dance image of some of mazurka’s foreign manifestations.

Now younger city musicians, of whom the Prusinowski Trio are the leading ensemble, are seizing on, accentuating and celebrating that wild energy, surrounded by young aficionados of the old dance who turn and turn into an almost ecstatic, edge-of-dizziness state.

As the festival progressed the daytimes were filled with teaching of mazurka playing and dancing, conferences and an “Old Tradition” competition for traditional ensembles. On the Saturday there was an outdoor display in the heart of the city by makers and repairers of folk instruments including fiddles, cimbaly (Polish hammered dulcimer), hurdy-gurdies, the range of Polish bagpipes, barrel organ, the recently revived Plock fiddle and its kindred suka, and a form of accordion unique to Poland called a harmonia, which at first glance is a finely-wrought piano-accordion but in fact is radically different in layout, with three rows of piano-like keys on the melody side, and it also comes in a version mounted on a steel tube up which air is pumped from foot-operated bellows.

The evenings brought concerts and dancing. On Tuesday a fun social dance and play session in a bookshop café, on Wednesday and Thursday events at the Mazovian Cultural Centre mixing traditional performers with mazurka-inspired others, including an impeccable, sonically fascinating set from the new-music quartet Kwadrofonik, who use a stage-full of timpani, marimbas and other percussion and two grand pianos in minutely co-ordinated works. Friday’s formal concert in Polish Radio’s concert hall focused on the music of Kurpie in north-east Mazovia featuring four feisty lady traditional singers, the male vocal group Monodia including Prusinowski Trio members and fronted by the very fine singer Adam Strug, and the Polish Radio Choir contributing tradition-inspired compositions by early 20th C Polish composer-collector Karol Szymanowski and the late, greater Henryk Górecki.

At the festival club, in the nightclub below the bar-restaurant in Skwer Herberta Hoovera in Warsaw’s wide, elegant central avenue, an ever-growing throng danced into the early hours to a mix of elderly village musicians and urban bands. Particularly notable among the latter were bassist Marcin Pospieszalski’s jazz-rock combo, fronted by electric fiddler Mateusz Smoczynsky, that reminded me of a sort of mazurka-tinged Second Vision, the always excellent Prusinowski Trio, Kapela Bródow, a group of bagpipers, and two very impressive young girls barely into their teens, one a singer, the other a fiddler.

It was the village musicians, though, who made it all fit together, with their richly characterful, weathered faces, a sharp light in their eyes and the life-possessed driving of their fiddles, harmonia, cimbaly (hammered dulcimer) and tambourines.

The energy reached an all-consuming peak with the extraordinarily intense, risk-taking playing of the three Tarnowski brothers. They were once a well-known trio in demand for village weddings and other celebrations, not just as musicians but also popular exponents of ‘wedding theatre’, traditional performance-art strangeness on the second day of a wedding. A few years ago they were encouraged out of retirement by Andrzej Bienkowski, a painter and professor of fine arts who has been central to the rediscovery of Mazovia’s traditional music with his filming and recording. In the notes to the Muzyka Odnaleziona (‘Music Rediscovered’) series of CD-books, he writes:

Poland, 1980, and communism is facing collapse. Petrol is being rationed, the shops are empty. I begin my journey through the countryside to record music.

„It’s strange, because there are a great many folk bands, but their services are no longer required in the villages or towns. Musicians stop playing and sell off their instruments; slowly but surely they are forgotten. The first difficulty we faced was finding them replacement instruments. I met musicians who hadn’t seen each other in years, having once played weddings together regularly; this was the last generation of village musicians. Then came the dawn of the pop era. We filmed and made unique music recordings in the musicians’ homes, which were natural, stress-free environments. We searched throughout Poland, Ukraine and Belarus and found 1500 musicians, as well as singers, and from this number we reconstructed eighty bands.”

Janusz Prusinowski tells me it was seeing one of Bienkowski’s films that was his Damascene moment.

We’d met as a group of musical friends. What he showed us was a revelation – for me it was like an experience that all is one, a unity of what I was looking for in rock’n’ro”ll – freedom of improvisation – on one hand, and on the other what I have from my home, what keeps me together with my family, the people I love.

„And that was mazurkas; improvised, free, very sophisticated in a rhythmical sense, and used for the dance, and expression of body. And body and soul seems to create a union. So first I was reminded of what I played in childhood, and started to learn new melodies. And we travelled to villages, we made friends with musicians. And we felt like continuers: I understand, I learn it, I can continue it. I wanted to have exactly this sound of violin, this sort of rhythmical pattern, this musical language.”

Janusz was born in a village, and his parents liked to dance and sing.

“Oberek, mazurek, kujawiak, that was just normal in our house. So when I began playing instruments, an accordion, at first I played melodies my parents sang. I learned by myself. My neighbour played a harmonia pedalova, so I learned some tunes from him. Later I got fascinated with blues, rock’n’roll, popular music. I learned guitar, and what was exciting in that playing for me was improvisation, creating new music. It was so easy – two chords, two riffs, and you get a new song, and each time it seems to be new, to be yours. So it was a way of expression. It was a time in life – 16, 17, 18 – when you need to express yourself… quite loudly! I hadn’t forgotten the accordion, though; sometimes my parents asked me to play this or that.
Then I met an acoustic group, not playing electric instruments, playing South American music. What was exciting was that their energy was not from volume, it was something else; I couldn’t name what it was. And I thought ‘Well, perhaps these amplifiers are not necessary. Let’s try to do something clearer’. And after experiments, experiments, I met people – I was a student in Warsaw –people who travelled to Polish villages and participated in traditional ceremonies, and who organised dance nights, just preparing some tunes and asking people to come, that were great experiences.”
These people were involved in the Polish theatre and performance-art movement.

The matter wasn’t music itself, it was these events as a sort of musical theatre, energetic theatre, meeting life as a theatre. How amazing things could happen through music, through dance, through going to culture as it is in a village. In Poland we still have many places where tradition is something people use every day.

This music appeared to be the least known in Poland – Polish traditional music. Everything else was better known than the tunes and dances played by people living just a hundred kilometres from Warsaw. So we started to play as they played; not changing, not trying to do a folk show, not mixing it with a groove and trying to sell it for good money. No, we were playing as it was, as we were able to, and also so that it could be used for the dance. Playing for the dance is much more pleasant than playing just for listening. You’ve seen the pleasure when people answer, when the energy comes back. It builds something… something normal!

We weren’t invited to any folk festival. Because folk music in Poland means everything else but Polish music; that’s why we don’t use the name folk.

By now playing fiddle, but still doubling on harmonia, with fellow-musicians Piotr Piszczatowski, Piotr Zgorzelski and others he organised ‘houses of dance’ in Warsaw at any venue that would have them, bringing in village bands to play.
“We invited many bands, about a hundred, over two years. Now you’ll not find about eighty per cent of them. That was really the last time to listen to them, to dance to them. They came to play for and teach the dance. It built connections; people could visit and learn from them, to continue. Many people who come to the festival started at that time, in the mid 1990s.”
Along came marriage and children, and the need to earn, so Janusz took a job as an English teacher. But after a near-miss in the car with his whole family he decided “We have the gift of our lives – let’s use it”. He gave up the teaching job, and he and his wife, who is a singer, finding no good music on CD for kids, made an album of traditional lullabies and songs for children, and to play on it brought in the two Piotrs. He heard Michal Zak playing flute on the radio.

I could hear he thinks what he plays, he understands. So I just called him. He said ‘OK, I’ll come’. And that was how we started the trio.

I observe that that makes a quartet, not a trio.
“Yes; we’ve always invited Piotr Zgorzelski to join us on basy. It’s a grouping that works, and that makes us happy when we’re together. And I’ve played with so many drummers, and very few of them have the something, the musicality that Piotr P has. The same with Piotr Z on basy; it seems to be about as simple as it gets, just playing open strings, but it’s very subtle, with lots happening inside the rhythm.”
Mazurek and oberek are interchangeable for dancing; both are in the same tempo of 3/4, sometimes with polska-like expansion or contraction of one of those three beats, but Janusz tells me that essentially the tunes of mazurek come from songs, and so can be sung along with, while those of oberek are purely instrumental. And what, apart from that they’re faster, distinguishes them from a waltz?

In mazurek and oberek the pleasure comes from turning. In waltz the movement is basically a left-right swing.

The turning can become almost like a Sufi turning ecstasy. And dancers don’t just dance one or two numbers then sit down for a break – they keep going.

“It’s just experiencing the pleasure of the music expressing through your own body. And it doesn’t matter what you look like; you can see at first look if a person dances for pleasure or to show off. Our civilisation just stopped using this way of communicating, direct communication without words. These dances are like old writing by feet. People were able to dance all night, not out of determination but because the tunes were so beautiful, and the girls were so beautiful. What more?“


Artykuł pochodzi z brytyjskiego ”fRoots Magazine” aug/sept 2011

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