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Folk is longitudinal

"To recreate the past things in our imagination and to complement the picture of the reality with them - it is a beautiful objective. Let us try."

Józef Czechowicz (1)         

Dealing with folk, one can come into a conclusion that it is not any concrete kind of music or even a fixed philosophy of transforming folklore but a kind of a way. For each person it may start and end in a different place but it always means to discover new areas. To be more precise, it is not so much a distance as a 'vector', a direction of a quest and development aimed at tradition, folklore. If we decide to change it into movement we will enter a way of folk.

The folk intention
Certainly, the concept of 'a way' is quite universal because acquainting oneself or going in for every kind of art requires undertaking some journey through the subsequent circles of initiation. However, by its very nature, folk is longitudinal because it constitutes a meta-art, it points to something beyond itself. Despite this special encouragement to the journey it is neither impulsive nor compulsory. A distance which folk shows between us and the world of folk culture may be an ordinary measure of a distance from an object around which we pass indifferently. The trick is that the distance should be 'towards' not 'from'. When we stand on a field and see a house on the horizon, the very fact does not determine anything yet. All depends on our intention - whether we would like to reach the house. And folk is such an intention. Now, a disarming but valuable question arises, "Why? Why should we head anywhere?". The answer is not easy, therefore it is best to behave like a Zen master and reply with the proverbial Mona Lisa's smile, "Because you ask, you definitely would not understand the answer".

The uncomfortable dimension
Unfortunately, folk appears to the outsiders as a purely aesthetic creation (exclusively through its music manifestation) and it can be worried that most of the audience want to perceive it only as such. That is why its 'longitudinal' dimension remains hidden. Well, man is a creature of habit. We are surrounded by aesthetism which discourages us from the reception of culture on its deeper levels where our values and attitudes towards the world are formed, and these are the places where the 'folk intention' is born. It is not easy to talk about it when we understand folk as a simple sum of music phenomena referring to the folk culture and discernible so to speak 'beyond' us. In this, existing 'beyond us', purely aesthetic space there is a play of surface artistic provocations and dissents, a competition of seasonal ideals which can be viewed and selected like in a shop. The only criterion is a momentary 'liking'. In this respect, the folk message is, unfortunately, not very 'likeable'. Contemporary consumers, accustomed to easy conquests, may be disappointed with folk because it does not submit itself as effortlessly as the cultural 'fast food' does, but it requires a longer rumination.

Folk universalism
If we imagine folk as a way, we will first notice that everyone has their own one - to discover, to go through it. Automatically, there will occur a relativity of the criteria of the discernible folk phenomena and a natural need of self-reflection: 'To what extent I myself am engaged in this way?". Our ability to observe shaped while assessing others undergoes confusion since, suddenly, folk events such as concerts, albums, or festivals cease to be the exclusively authorial 'crude paintings', closed works of art, but they become first and foremost freeze-frame shots of the authors themselves in their relation to the folk culture. We can only see a static order, a frozen movement. To be able to define it we are forced to assess our own relation to the folk culture an our folk competence resulting from it. As can be easily guessed, everyone should make such an examination of conscience by themselves. Another fact should be noted, which will allow for generalizing our further discussion, namely, if folk is a way, everyone may go through it by their own means of transport and as they are able to. The result is that folk means not only the music but also other, very diverse areas of interest such as, for example, the plastic and visual arts, tourism, theatre, and journalism. Folk constitutes a reflection above all, and reflections may be searched and expressed in a multitude of ways.

We are all folklorists
The intention of undertaking the folk journey is not connected with any particular place, it can be started from any point. But do we have any guides or maps that would help us to approach the matter in a systematic way? Indeed, if one wanted to proceed according to a map, the best starting point would be to distinguish between the notions of folklore and folklorism. These words are instantly associated with an ugly adjective 'folklore' but they are simple and hit the nail on the head. They outline the area of the folk quest in a very precise manner and also make all travellers' status equal, particularly in the field of art. The meanings of the two notions were described at length by the participants of a discussion about folklorism, which took place on 13th December 1983 at the Lublin Community Centre. In its record we can read that folklore signifies "a knowledge and a creative, artistic ability of a given community" (2) which in their contents and forms constitute a reflection of the social background, conditions of life, and the very life of the community. Folklorism, though, relies on "purposeful application of the selected contents and forms of folklore in the situations taken from the real life" (3). Therefore, folklore is created intrinsically, "unconsciously", by one community, whereas folklorism creates itself by the conscious use of that folklore by another community. Folklore is an 'ante-reflective' work, it spontaneously comes into being (4), whereas folklorism makes a foreign culture subject to the reflection, it distinguishes between various elements, selects ones and rejects others. Thus, we are dealing with a kind of 'culture's uncertainty principle' (5), according to which the observer cannot simultaneously belong to the folklore and to the culture which isolates and subjects to reflection the area of folklore. Folklore is connected with a given context (geographical, economic, historical, social, and cultural) and it transforms itself (or disappears completely) simultaneously with the context. All attempts of taking it over, reconstructing, interpreting, or transforming by the people 'from the outside' are the s of folklorism.

The art of the way
Not every folklorism is folk in the strict meaning of this word. Thoughtless or propaganda folklorism does not deserve such a name. Nevertheless, each folklorism is in a sense included in folk because it is encompassed by the folk reflection. Folk universalism which makes everything conditional on the presence of 'the thinking subject' characterized by the intention 'towards' the folk culture comes true in this understanding. Despite the fact that folklorism not always may be the folk, the other way round is always possible. Each folk is a folklorism and the equality of all the people travelling the way is expressed by this fact. Unfortunately, as it results from the 'culture's uncertainty principle' that equality refers to not a very pleasant fact, namely, that the folk journey does not have any approachable destination in a 'topographic sense', it is actually a goal in itself. This time it is pointless to wade in any philosophical puns. The meaning of the word 'way' is simply ambiguous. It does not refer to a 'route' which ends with some 'finish' but to a journey in the sense of 'sightseeing'. Folk is, actually, not so much a way as the very journey. Everything that will happen to us is its aim as well as everything that will change in us owing to it, to be more precise.

Folk as the art of cake baking
Combining folk and folklore perceived in this way is useful because, on the one hand it teaches us humbleness, on the other hand it boosts our confidence, and it does not refer to any chosen group of people but to everybody. In the category of 'music' folklorism will include 'folk dance' ensembles as well as those, reconstructing folk music, acoustic folk groups, or the recently popular pop-rock groups. At this level all of them are equal, may this settle the disputes concerning the question of whose adventure with folk is more 'authentic'. Indeed, nobody asks which animal is 'more' mammal: a cow or a whale (6). Folklorism makes equally helpless both those who see the only access to the folk culture in the personal, deep, and reserved only to narrow circles meetings with yet alive folk artists and those who propagate the need of the freedom of transforming folklore in the name of the freedom of expression or of preserving its 'spiritual' character. The approving influence of folk (as a journey) remains in the fact that it bestows a deeper meaning on folklorism, which comes down to a very personal dimension. Folk opens its gate to everyone, gives an opportunity to find in it a personal fun of doing something conscious and truthful, although not necessarily serious or on a large scale. The scientific division into folk and folklorism is an outcome of the attempts to handle the situation of a present-day observer of the folk culture who falls victim to 'the paradox of a cake', namely, they can neither eat it nor keep it at the same time. The only non-scientific method of evading this paradox is the ability to bake one's own cakes. And this constitutes folk, indeed.

An oven or a cake shop?
The expression 'baking one's own cakes' means a national-scale, lasting already for several years period of the development (particularly among young people) of a spontaneous interest in folklore and search of the living forms of its presence in our lives, methods of its reception by today's sensitivity. No fancy experiments are meant here, but rather having adventures with folklore, creating situations for our own use, which would in some way confront us with the history, tradition, and folk otherness. In this sense one can describe as folk the activity of around 70 - 80 bands and soloists, a dozen or so festivals, some theatres, and a lot more initiatives such as workshops, conferences, debates, radio and TV broadcasts, expeditions, publications, and so on. All of those enterprises are different. They lead a constant and an exceptionally intensive dialogue with one another as well as with the other areas of culture, trying to answer the questions: "Whether and how the folk culture will be inherited by the future generations? How our descendants will understand the word 'tradition'? Will they be able to refer it to themselves?" The cake dilemma - to eat it or to keep it?- is purely theoretical now. There are only some crumbs left after the cake of the folk culture and the documentation of its appearance, smell, and taste. It is a pity but is folklore not more about baking than about eating? Let us think - the folk tradition was not about inheriting cakes but rather about the very culinary art. Now we have a multitude of cakes, some of them have even some blue jelly on them. But if we perceive folk inspirations as our visits to a cake shop we are terribly mistaken.

A persuaded fashion
If someone tries to persuade us that we are dealing with a fashion for folk inspirations, we should politely but firmly deny it. Everything that is linked with this fashion concerns merely a few Polish bands which are not at all representative of this genre. Not downgrading their art, it must be admitted that they owe their popularity to their medial attractiveness, the 'big beat', and the general conceptual inertia of the entertainment market, which made publishing houses take up a new kind of product. This is a fashion taking place between a confectionery lobby and the lovers of sweets. Not many people notice that a self-made yeast cake is much more delicious than a walnut layer cake from a shop. In a cake shop nobody would even look at the former. But on its festive days it tastes better than the latter, even with sad layer. And, supposedly, the secret lies somewhere here, at the intersection of the cake metaphor and the relics of our native traditions. Of course, the already mentioned bands (and also a certain group of people who popularize culture in the media, e.g. Marek Sierocki, the artistic director of a concert titled "Muzyka Świata" (The World's Music) in Sopot, or Nina Terentiew, the director of the second channel of the Polish Television) contribute to the circulation of folk microelements in the organism of Polish culture, but their activity is marginal if one knows and understands how the whole folk movement functions. Unfortunately, 'a fashion' is a well-turned word which suggests itself in these circumstances. One is easy to be deceived by it. Everybody plays the wise guys about this subject, praises, criticizes, wonders where this 'fashion' came from but they seem not to notice that they only float on the surface of this phenomenon, not going further than the common notional stereotypes. Taking into account the Polish complex about familiarity, it can be even expected that if folk comes out of the shadow in this form, in the long run it will evoke more aversion than liking. This state of things is, of course, acceptable since many branches of culture exist only for limited audiences. It is not said anywhere that folk culture inspirations must achieve great popularity. And perhaps this fact should be emphasized instead of calling, with a commercial effusiveness, a fashion something that merely outlines its presence.

Folk and the journalists
The result of thinking in the categories of folk universalism is not only to expand the notion of folk into various artistic and non-artistic initiatives but also to make them equal in terms of their rights and duties. The status of journalists undergoes particular changes here; they used to say their comments from the comfortable press galleries as 'the arbiters of good taste' but now they are subject to a similar assessment themselves. They must leave the pedestals of their authority and become travelers as others, but, on the other hand their explicit presence in the media puts them in the role of guides-carers who should possess more experience and knowledge than others. Two or three years ago one might have been under the illusion that the moment in which folk would take the plunge would be similar to taking over in a relay - the media would take over the achievements of the folk community and would carry the torch of enlightenment further. However, it turns out not to be true. The journalists, as usual, write elegantly, firmly, and authoritatively, but their utterances clearly betray helplessness and lack of knowledge. Some time ago the journalists announced the 'opening' of a neo-folk fashion but now they do not know exactly what to do with it. To make matters worse, they are starting to be bored with it. A simple question once posed on the International Festival of Folk Music "Mikolajki Folkowe", namely, "What to do with folklore?" remains still valid; to this day there is no satisfactory answer. Important subjects do not exist in the media. Nobody focuses the attention of the audience for example on the fact that our ethno-folk groups perform mostly their own lyrics or adaptations, mainly humorous ones, and do not even touch the problem of the ritual character of the folk music. "Try the folk way!", they think. It has been confirmed that in the field of folk there are no revealed truths, thus everyone should go their own way of the developing the sensitivity and knowledge. Actually, the journalists are even in a more difficult situation because they deal mostly with writing and reading. They are expected to express the already established opinions on every subject. But how to write about cake baking if one has never done it before? For the time being, folk in Poland is considered equivalent to the wave of interest in ethnic music, which was started by a Serb and a Polish star of the American soul music. The disputes on this subject usually go around rather well-worn subjects such as the crisis in the pop music, the number of released records, the highlanders, the drinking character of songs, the disco polo music, ludic character, and so on. There exists a fear that if the new threads which could deepen the public discourse do not appear, the journalists will announce 'the end' of the folk fashion and will throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The journalists and the journey
To sum up, it is worthy to quote some utterances on the folk culture inspirations, taken from the leading press titles. In the debate lasting for some years now in the Polish weekly "Polityka" (Politics) there appeared first an opinion that "the term 'folklore' is needed only to reconstruct history, not to describe the reality" (7); a year later a concerned question was asked, "Why the Polish youth listens to Irish folk tunes more eagerly () than to the themes from the Polish Podhale area?", only to complain later: "It is not the first time when the Polish culture officially tries to refresh its offer and turns to the folklore. It does it without a moderation, though."(9) To end the discussion the whole issue of "Czas kultury" (Culture Time) (issue no.4/2000, dedicated to folk) was criticized in the "Niskie loty" (Second Rate) column for treating the subject too broadly (10). After the last but one festival in Sopot a folk specialist for a daily newspaper "Gazeta Wyborcza" wrote: "Today's folk consists of bands performing a ludic ('in the party mood') and eclectic music (who are not able to decide whether a given music motif comes from the Żywiecczyzna region, Ukraine, Serbia, or maybe Vietnam)" (11). These are not even inaccuracies but aspersions. Recently, one philosophy professor said in a discussion about creating a positive model of the mass culture: "We resigned from folk in order to adopt the high culture as our own. Through many centuries the low culture was local and bound to what happens in a given place. It has not come to anybody's mind that folklore would become a standard and a touchstone of all values. Now a folklore without folklore is being promoted. It means that the prestige of a model to be followed is bestowed on folklore, that is on the low values, bad taste, and down-to-earth, hedonistic, and materialistic approach to life (12). It is difficult not to get lost in this notional chaos and it is not even worth wasting the time for polemics because, actually, each sentence of this utterance should be disclaimed. Who if not a philosophy professor ambitious enough to publicly take the floor about current issues should know that the terms such as the 'low' or 'high' culture are not to be used to judge it because even kitsch has already become a rehabilitated phenomenon. Supposedly, there is something in the utterance but it is clearly visible that there is a painful discrepancy between the height of the authority and the lowness of his peculiar, high-brow, 'burgher' type of arrogance. The discussion was aptly criticized a few issues later by Mariusz Szczygieł, the same man who used to host a chat-show "Na każdy temat" (On Every Subject) on Polsat TV and who deliberately abandoned it. His self-critical, unmasking, but also short and logical article is just shocking. In the conclusion the author writes: "I would advise to forget about the intellectual who understands the masses, for whom professor Jacek Hołówka is waiting. In a few years the intellectual will not be eager to understand anybody. Neither the unemployed nor the listeners of the disco polo music. His characteristic features will be indifference and arrogance. The only important thing for him will be his narrow specialization (it is an escape from the general humanistic knowledge) and his own account (13). There are also opinions which prove the intensifying of reflections as well as the appearance of certain redefinitions. The example of these could be the previously criticized Mirosław Pęczak's essay titled "Only The Familiar. The People Likes Folk Pieces" (14). The text is fairly complex and to present its thesis could both twist and misinterpret it. Generally speaking, the author does not approve of the unhealthy need of the familiarity among the Poles. One of its symptoms is the liking of feasts and locality but its reverse would be the aversion for the foreign; all the same, the author points out to the fact that the media and various groups of interest (politics, entertainment) skillfully though carelessly add fuel to the mass tastes and take advantage of them for own purposes. On the other hand, Pęczak focuses our attention on forgetting the roots, the feeling of being lost, the sense of losing the cultural identity. There appear some positive references to, e.g., "the raw, original highlander phrase", or to Józef Broda who "in between his shows was inviting everyone to Koniaków. He was doing it in a likeable and relaxed manner". The essayist has not been able to combine the facts into one thread yet, he is distracted by the variety of examples. He still tries to emphasise the negative stereotypes of the locality (understood as parochialism) and the feasting (vain fun); however, he has already tried to point to the real problems, has been looking for their reasons, and has instinctively felt where the solution could be. Surely, we could find more of such examples. It cannot be denied that the aforementioned quotations have been chosen in a tendentious way (for , they do not mention that Robert Leszczyński likes the lively, acoustic group called Drewutnia very much, yet he criticizes the plastic, bland music of the Spanish Hevia). It must be admitted that in the opinion-forming circles there has already germinated a thought that the amateur 'excessive idealization of folklore' might be a part of some broader and important phenomenon in which the whole social classes participate. There has also appeared a concern about the future and questions about the value of the past; slogans are being rejected as notionally limited, the role of the context is being discovered as a factor shaping the perception of reality. In his essay, Pęczak writes: "I recall the past events [that is the meeting with Józef Broda thirty years ago - the author's note] to bring to other people's and my own attention that the artistic familiarity as well as the local flavour may be variously perceived depending on the time and place". That is already something. We would need a contemporary Socrates now, a midwife of the inner knowledge who would visit production departments of the media, ask their journalists some simple questions, and, by confronting those who answer with their own opinions, help the conclusions, which are slowly emerging, come to their minds. Fashion constitutes a branch of the culture in which time goes faster and there occurs material fatigue. Nevertheless, the stake in this play on the medial stock market is neither the future of the show-business nor the metamorphoses of the mass tastes, but rather something a lot more subtle and important - to strengthen our sensitivity to folklore as an of the tradition meaning something that connects us to the past, something that we will be increasingly missing. When we make folklore out of date we dispose ourselves of a potential source of identity. We are a part of the global culture and we would not like to isolate ourselves in the uniting Europe; however, only the communities with the strong sense of self-confidence, free of xenophobia resulting from the weakness of the culture's 'self' are able to meet with others. Only such people have something to offer. If we fail to put the image of our folk culture straight, fail to revive and domesticate it, we will lose the opportunity to anchor and will rely on the drift with the currents of the world's mass culture.

Marcin Skrzypek
A musician of St. Nicolas Orchestra
translated by Anna Gajda


1) "Red Horse", Józef Czechowicz, Wydawnictwo Lubelskie 1990, "The Words About Lublin - An Old Town"
2) "Folk Art", 4/6, 1987.
3) Józef Burszta (ibid, p.75).
4) Jerzy Bartmiński (ibid, p.85).
5) Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in physics says that it is impossible to precisely and simultaneously define certain pairs of values, e.g., location and speed of an electron.
6) Supposedly a cow?
7) "Goodbye, Konopielka", Piotr Sarzyński's article, "Polityka", 23/1996.
8) "Foreign Climates", Piotr Witwicki's article, "Polityka", 37/1997.
9) "Pity For A Highlander", Mirosław Pęczak and Mariusz Czubaj's Article, "Polityka", 38/2000.
10) Mirosław Pęczak, "Polityka", 42/2000.
11) Robert Leszczyński, "Gazeta Wyborcza" from 21.08.2000.
12) "Second Invasion Of Stupidity", a discussion with Prof. Jacek Hołówka, "Polityka", 30/2001.
13) "Broken Mirror", Mariusz Szczygieł's polemic, "Polityka", 33/2001.
14) "Polityka", 9/2001.


Warsaw Village Band
The Saint Nicholas Orchestra
Trebunie Tutki Group
Jorgi Quartet
Broda Group
Ensemble Polonais

prof.Jan Adamowski
Maria Baliszewska
prof. Jerzy Bartmiński
Małgorzata Jędruch
Tomasz Janas
Wojciech Ossowski

Folk Groups and Singers Festival in Kazimierz
Folk Music Festival of The Polish Radio "Nowa Tradycja"
International Folk Music Festival "Mikołajki Folkowe"
Folk Meeting "Z wiejskiego podwórza"

"The first and second existence of folklore" - prof. Anna Czekanowska
"Folk is longitudinal" - Marcin Skrzypek
"Music revival" - Magdalena Sobczak
"Names of folk" - Ewa Wróbel

more soon...


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