Warsaw Village Band – Pagan Punk

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #126 (April 2017) p32. Download a pdf here.

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Warsaw Village Band’s latest album is a musical experiment in search of connections between cultures while paying homage to the sun. Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to the band’s frontman and percussionist Maciej Szajkowski about the strong pagan themes that run through it

Ritual fires, spirits, sun rites, witches and goddesses: not, perhaps, topics you would expect a bunch of Polish ex-punk rockers to sing about. But these are exactly the themes that run thick through Warsaw Village Band’s new album Sun Celebration. In a double disc that explores the motif of duality – yin and yang, male and female, sun and moon, ancient and contemporary – the Polish band tell universal stories of humanity: stories of love and relationships and of transition. Their songs mine the deep wells of folk music, tapping into an ancient source in order to find those places where we as humans meet before those delineations that we so expertly construct between cultures, histories, races and nations, and thus provide the means for humanity to reconnect with each other. Through experimental soundscapes and a tapestry of guests, Warsaw Village Band show us that we have so much more in common than at first glance. In a world that seems more focused on singling out all our differences than ever, this album is a welcome relief.

This humanitarian spirit has always been present in their music, even before they found their way to the folk scene. “When we started our adventure, we played punk rock,” percussionist Maciej Szajkowski tells me. While the Villagers’ line-up has evolved since they first formed in 1997, Szajkowski has been there from the beginning and remains the driving force. He cheerfully reminisces about his punk rock days while we chat backstage at EtnoKraków after their performance.

“I am just fond of this sort of punk attitude,” he continues. “DIY, be free, be independent, and fight for good times, for your friends.” Aesthetically, punk and folk may seem like opposite sides of the spectrum, but their underlying ethos springs from the same well. “Folk music was a continuation of a punk revolution. I think it’s a different part of the same movement – the Beat generation and the hippie communes and then the punk rock, and then folk and world music. Decade after decade, the same attitude to unite people, to be open for others and positive.” He pauses for dramatic effect, “that is what is most beautiful among the folk movement. It doesn’t matter if it’s folk music or punk rock, because this scene and this movement, it connects people.”

But there came a point when he became tired of the punk scene, “so I searched for an acoustic space to catch some fresh air.” After taking a genealogy test conducted by the Archaeological Museum in Warsaw, Szajkowski discovered his rebel roots run deep. “I am part of the peasant movement, the rebel peasants.” More than just reconnecting with his family history, Szajkowski found he had an appetite to learn more about his rural roots and its music. “What is important in Polish music is that you must want to know it, to discover it. It’s a sort of desire. To listen to it, to know something about it, to feel that and even to smell it… sometimes it smells very bad, like a shit, but it’s a part of our life,” he laughs.

This led to him visiting Poland’s rural villages and learning music from the older generation of musicians. Poland’s folk music climate has changed drastically in the last few decades, with the younger generation rediscovering the traditional music and revitalising it. But before Warsaw Village Band, traditional music was largely ignored by everyone but the old masters. “Old musicians told me ‘there is nobody interested in this sort of music, even our grandsons and our daughters, because they prefer to run to the city and play disco and party’,” Szajkowski explains. “Now it’s changed so much. We have seen a great development of a folk and root movement. It is sort of a revolution, a roots revolution, and me and the Villagers were a part of that movement.” 

As their folk music was still being unearthed back home, international audiences were understandably perplexed by this unfamiliar music when they started performing abroad in the late 90s. “People asked us ‘What sort of music it is? Is it Celtic? Scottish? French? German?’ Almost nobody knew about Polish music and Slavic culture.” When asked what they hope to teach the world about Slavic culture, Szajkowski is quick to clarify: “We don’t want to teach anyone because we don’t want to be teachers,” before playfully adding “we are creatures.” He allows me to settle for ‘ambassadors.’ “We are trying to explain to the rest of the world our history, our language, our ancient history, and our great traditions that are the part of ancient pagan worlds destroyed by the Roman Catholic Church.”

As ambassadors, they have toured extensively over the course of the last two decades – “it should be in the Guinness Book of World Records, we played on three continents in 48 hours.” It sounds exhausting, but the Villagers clearly wouldn’t have it any other way. “Concerts make us alive, because [it allows us to] meet with people from different cultures and countries. We are very thankful to be living in a global, connected world. We can ask about the secrets in their culture, about the words, the lyrics, what are they singing about.”

This desire to unlock the secrets of the world’s cultures and music stems from “the end of the Communism nightmare” in 1989 when Poland became a democracy and the world, which had previously been closed to them, opened up and offered exciting adventures beyond their borders. The Villagers’ lust for collaborative, inclusive music is representative of their generation as the first to be able to take advantage of this.

It’s been almost 20 years of hunting for the secrets within music from other cultures and it has led them to find common ground in the music from unlikely places. One such musical partnership has been with Mercedes Peón. The Villagers saw the Galician singer and multi-instrumentalist performing at Warsaw’s Cross-Culture Festival a few years ago. For anyone who has seen Peón live knows just how powerful her performances can be; she draws you into her Galician fusion with a voice that seems bound to the Earth, while her experimental electronics blast you into the future. She is rooted in the ancient and yet deeply contemporary – the very epitome of timeless. Szajkowski knew immediately he had found that hallowed connection through music. “She was like a guru, a shaman,” he remembers. “There was no noise from the audience, everybody listened very carefully in a hypnotic trance. She made a big impression on me, just one very small lady, that has so much power.”

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Enthralled, the Villagers approached her to collaborate, and it was a musical match made in heaven. Peón was particularly taken with triple rhythms found at the heart of both Galician and Polish music. “You’ve got it also in West Africa, in India, you’ve got it everywhere,” Szajkowski explains. “Mercedes said the rhythm of our blood system and heart, which is pumping the blood everywhere, is a rhythm based on three. That rhythm is rooted in us, and if we could imagine a global music of the earth, it would be in three.”

At EtnoKraków, Warsaw Village Band and Peón previewed some of the tracks that would become Sun Celebration, on which Peón features generously. Her soaring voice and futuristic Galician soundscapes are fleshed out by Warsaw Village Band’s reinvented Polish folk. So few artists are able to translate the energy from stage to studio, but Sun Celebration doesn’t lack an ounce of the power I saw in Kraków. Szajkowski writes about the album, ‘we have been walking on this musical path for 18 years, and with each journey we notice more and more how strongly people are connected all over the world.’ It seems fitting then that as well as Peón, the Villagers are joined by several other far-flung guests. “It’s not so easy to collaborate,” Szajkowski says about finding someone that clicks in the right way. “It’s the same feeling when you meet a guy, and you like him. You feel this connection, some very familiar vibration.”

Among the musicians that the Villagers were able to find this connection with are singer Sanjay Khan and tabla player Amrat Hussain of the Dhoad Gypsies from Rajasthan, as well as sarangi player Liaquat Ali Khan, who make appearances on a handful of tracks on the album. Iranian Kayhan Kalhor also adds his haunting kamancheh to a pair of tracks. “We invited Kayhan because his music is a great source of inspiration, and very strong spiritually. It is just like meditation.” This may be why Kalhor appears on the second disc, which is dedicated to the moon and is more contemplative, like the night. On ‘Bridal Wreath Song’ his instrument gently sighs, while his exquisite, meandering melodies morph into a rhythmic, yet thoughtful dance on the closer ‘Towards the Sun’.

Contrastingly, the album’s first disc, titled The Sun, exhibits a driving power, channelling the energy of that life-giving celestial body. Fire, new love and sexuality feature in the lyrics of The Sun, and the music is often swirling and immediate – a storm of strings and percussion. This is most evident in ‘Isue/Sun Celebration’ whose churning lines conjure images of pagans dancing around a ritual fire while the sun begins to sink in the sky. You can feel the moment the last rays of the sun flash across the sky and the night comes quietly, heralded by the hollow tones of the sarangi, invoking the meditative quiet of the newly arrived dusk for ‘Lull-Lullaby’, the opener of The Moon.

“When you listen
to folk music,
you feel part
of the universe”

Despite the contrast between the two discs, there is a common thread felt throughout the album – a strong sense of femininity. That the Villagers’ front trio of women – Magdalena Sobczak (voice, dulcimer), Sylwia Świątkowska (vocals, violin, Polish fiddle, suka, viola) and Ewa Wałecka (voice, violin, hurdy-gurdy) – are joined on the majority of tracks by Peón, who exudes feminine power, highlights this.

Szajkowski tells me this was a nod to recognise pre-Christian cultures, the root religions that connected us as humans before the rise of god-fearing religions. These pagan, goddess-centred cultures possessed an ancient knowledge and connection to nature that he admires and recognises as present in the folk tradition. “This paganism is a very strong part of the folk music, because of trance, wildness, the strange lyrics about fire, the earth, the moon, the sun, witches, and the eternal. All these energies, you can feel it in the music. This is what I love; when you listen to folk music, you can feel that, you feel part of the universe. It’s a very beautiful experience.”

And that is the very feeling that Warsaw Village Band have been searching for: spiritual development, positive vibration and above all, connection. “Music, in my opinion,” Szajkowski muses, “should be a vehicle to bring your heart, your soul and your mind to some different state or dimension. Music has a message, something about the human beings and about the spirits, and we’ve been looking for that from the beginning.”

“I really want Sun Celebration to be a natural musical experiment with different people representing different worlds playing together and trying to establish musical communication, without the words, just based on sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the heart, sounds of the soul.” 

 

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