This is my first entry in ArtsJournal, and in presenting Lautari’s ethnojazz take on Polish folk music –particularly mazurka, I hope to demonstrate something about world music, past, present and possible future. Lautari is a singularly appropriate example. The traditional music they are grounded in offers a reconnection to man’s relationship with the earth and community. By pushing its basic forms into the 21st century, Lautari call attention to the music’s enduring relevance.
A few years ago my coverage of a folk band from Poland — the Janusz Prusinowski Kompania — led me to an invite to cover the Mazurkas of the World festival in Warsaw. It was there that I got a better picture of the scope of the Polish folk revival and a better understanding of the various dance forms.
I confess that I was surprised by the intensity and beauty of the music, having been exposed only to polkas as a representation of Polish culture. What I was hearing was primal and intensely melodic, with plenty of room for improvisation. To quote my own words from back then: …”The folk heritage of Poland got buried during the Communist years; state sponsored folk troupes were kitsch at best, and distorted the original guts and glory into an over-produced, homogenized cliché. Poles turned away from this package, and with the passage of time many thought that this weird product actually WAS their music. But over 30 years ago, a man named Andrzej Bienkowski lugged a video camera out to the hinterlands of Poland and started to document the real stuff. It became a passion, and now his Warsaw flat is a salon for this new wave of musicians to embrace the singing, playing and dancing of their homeland. And just as the Hungarians discovered in the 70’s, it is a rich tradition indeed, full of complexity, drive and enduring melodies.”
The mazurka itself has some tricky rhythmic twists, despite its’ being a consistent 3 beat meter. In this very short clip from one of the festival workshops, the students are learning to play the basic 3/4 beat, and instructor Piotr Piszczatowski gives them a taste of the possibilities within it, which sound remarkably jazzy:
The trance-like state induced by dancing the mazurka lends itself well to modal improvisations, and the twists and turns of the melodies offer plenty of room for deconstruction. To get a feel for the Polish folk fiddling style (which Maciej Filipczuk, Lautari’s fiddler consistently references) here’s Janusz Prusinowski taking a break during a Telemann mazurka, with the Plague Times Orchestra. (back in the 1700’s Telemann actually wrote about his fascination with Polish folk music.) When Prusinowski starts to improvise there’s an immediate break with the rhythm; that flow that Piszczatowski demonstrated, as well as melodic patterns that step outside of the baroque piece’s key center.
I established friendships with musicians at the festival and so I was happy to hear that Lautari would be playing in my neck of the woods. Aside from knowing Michał Żak, a member of Lautari AND of the Kompania, I had heard great things about the band.
Lautari’s “playbook” is based on the field researches of the late 19th century Polish ethnographer, Oskar Kolberg, whose researches predated even the Bela Bartok and Janacek excursions, and who documented village music with arrangements for the piano. Lautari who have studied his scores, as well as learning the authentic playing styles from elder masters, bring this music not only to life, but interpret it within a contemporary setting. Fusing elements of jazz, avant-garde and free improv music into any folk form can be a recipe for disaster, but in this case the combination of a solid folk background with modern improvisational concepts works seamlessly.
The night I showed up to see Lautari at Subrosa, the band was lamenting the lack of a real piano. Jacek Hałas, who usually plays acoustic prepared piano was relegated to an electric keyboard. This limited the sounds Hałas would normally have summoned up, that give the band’s music more texture, but in some ways provided clarity for the uninitiated. On entering the club, I too found a hurdle to deal with: –I should have guessed it from the name, but the entire décor of the club from furniture to walls to lighting was based on the color red. So my only solution was to turn the footage to black and white. But these obstacles aside, the band played wonderfully and with humor, and here I present the first two songs of their set, a Polonaise and a Mazurka.
There are those in the world music community that have little love for fusions, particularly those that use folk music as a springboard. But being a musician myself (and one who has committed the same transgression myself) I recognize that artists are generally open to these kinds of inspiration and syntheses. In my own view, as long as the results stem from an honest search for personal expression, respect for the source, and of course, good musicianship, I call it “license to fuse.”
Maciej Filipczuk – fiddle
Jacek Hałas – prepared piano, accordion
Michał Żak – clarinet, flute, shawm
Wojciech Pulcyn – double bass
To find out more about the Mazurkas of the World Festival, the Polish folk revival, the Mazurka and Polonaise visit:
To find out more about The Janusz Prusinowski Kumpanya, visit: worldmusicandculture.com/the-janusz-prusinowski-trio-at-womex-2012/