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Warsaw Village Band

How can revved-up Polish folk music play a role in reviving the rich history of Warsaw?

April 3, 2004

How can revved-up Polish folk music play a role in reviving the rich history of Warsaw?

By its name alone, the Warsaw Village Band tries to perplex the listener with an oxymoron. Warsaw is a big Eastern European city. It is anything but a "village."

On the cover of their new release, People's Spring, the contrast is made even clearer — the band is shown in a field just outside the big city, merrily playing their instruments.

The cover photo is a reminder of how stark the division between city and countryside is in nations such as Poland.

Often, Eastern European cities are not surrounded by a ring of suburbs that ease one out of the urban environment and into the rural scene. At a certain place, the city simply stops — and the fields gain dominion.

Yet, the name and the photo provide important clues to this fabulous young band's intentions.

They are trying to bring the intimacy and melody of Poland's rural music to the big city — and also to bridge a very stark divide between the metropolis and the country.

The Warsaw Village Band was created in 1997. Though all of the members were young, they gravitated to older forms of music played on traditional instruments.

The harmonies that they use are taken from the exuberant field yells employed by Polish shepherds. One member plays a "suka" — a 16th century Polish fiddle that is played with the fingernails.

On People's Spring, the band plays 13 songs that dip into various genres of Polish folk music. Some ("To You, Kasiunia") are wedding songs. Others are traditional polka tunes with which many listeners are familiar. Others are dark ballads and folk songs written in Polish dialects.

Like many contemporary folk revivalists — Bob Dylan with U.S. folk and blues, the Pogues with Irish music, or Fairport Convention with English folk songs — Warsaw Village Band often chooses traditional songs that reflect both the darker or more playful side of the past. On "I Am a Lover" and "Maydow," the tragedy and lust of romance are exposed.

In other moments, the Warsaw Village Band finds comic contemporary possibilities in older tunes. The liner notes to People's Spring describe "Who Is Getting Married" as "a feminist composition, an example of contemporary ideas on emancipation, which apparently existed in the former Polish countryside."

The song's female protagonist sings a tale of not wanting to be married, because "she prefers to play music, dance and be free." In most cases, the band's musical approach to these traditional songs is to accelerate their tempos.

Warsaw Village Band also uses aggressive arrangements that accentuate the driving rhythms of the drums. They call this approach "hardcore folk," but the aesthetic choices that they make do not obscure the original melodies and lyrics of the originals.

As they seek to bridge the divide between urban and rural, the band also seeks to bridge the gap between young and old. In a way, they are musical ethnographers, revisiting the roots of Polish culture and seeking to save it.

On its website, the band says that "our passion is traveling to small villages and visiting old musicians who tell us about their tradition, customs and ancient habits that are passing away. They hand down to us the part of this tradition in form of music."

If the only thing that Warsaw Village Band accomplished was to preserve the folk music culture of their country, they would be rendering Poland a valuable service.

But their innovative approach to these songs, plus their youthful energy and talent, is reviving a long-dormant strand of Polish culture — and bringing it to the attention of the world.

In that sense, perhaps, the "village" in the band's name is the global village. And Warsaw, for once, is the center of the folk music world.