People’s Spring – Warsaw Village Band
World Village 468028
"Wow," said my friend, himself a world music clarinetist, as we listened to
the opening of People’s Spring, the Warsaw Village Band's debut
collection of "'Hardcore Folk' from Poland" and watched the lights of
Manhattan's skyline twinkle on across the river amidst a chemical-endowed
sunset, "I can't believe they opened with a doyna." Now, I have no
idea what a doyna is but, based on the way my friend smiled and
nodded when the ponderously meandering plucked string and spare percussion
opening of "To You Kasiunia" finally sprung to life in a hail of folded-over
reverb-laden trumpets and violins and voices, I can make a guess. "They love
their reverb," my friend marveled.
And why not? For once it serves its purpose, drenching the music in the
effect not to make it sound cool so much as weird. For a group that
wishes to preserve the spirit, if not entirely the sound, of their country's
native music, it's a useful tactic. "Kasiunia" eventually sputters to a
close with trumpets running up and down scales deep inside the echo cloud.
For all this, though – at least to American ears – the Warsaw Village Band
ain't exactly The White Stripes of Polish roots music, though perhaps they
are to Polish ears. As their press release carries on about (but,
unfortunately, not the liner notes to the album itself), the Warsaw Village
Band attempts to reclaim its heritage from its appropriation by Communist
"fakelore" over the bulk of the 20th century.
Like Jack White, they revel in both the accidental modernity of their
country's ancient songs ("Who Is Getting Married" is a "feminist
composition, an example of contemporary ideas on emancipation, which
apparently existed in the former Polish countryside") and their inherent
power of strangeness ("Mayd34; is a "dark and psychedelic erotic folk song")
to draw them into an associative present: the past is weird and cool, these
songs from the past demonstrate something about the present, thus, the
present is also weird and cool. News-like liner note descriptions ("A girl
loses cows while in a pasture. A lucky finder demands sexual reward," per
"Clear Water") ring of the short summaries alchemist crank Harry Smith gave
to the numbers on his Anthology of American Folk Music
("Manufacturers proud dream destroyed at shipwreck. Segregated poor die
first," per "When That Great Ship Went Down," about the Titanic).
But the real strangeness isn't in the songs, at least for American chumps
like me. The music itself – found on a label called "World Village" (a
fairly normal product of the '90s cultural revolution) – sounds pretty much
exactly as one would expect music from Poland to sound. It sounds, frankly,
exotic. It sounds like Gypsy music (though my friend, who plays actual Gypsy
music in addition to Polish music, would probably kill me for saying so).
The point is: I couldn't, off-hand, differentiate between these different
types of music, and I certainly can't differentiate within this type of
music (such as to identify the beginning of the album as a doyna),
but I can listen to it and watch as the light creeps through the
still-barren trees outside my window. That's good and weird, but to know
that it – and, presumably, a lot of the other ubiquitous "world" music
("Earth music," as another friend calls it) that dots the soundscape – is
even, um, gooder and weirder.
The lyrics here are in a foreign language, obviously, which comes off as
another blurred layer of music. Invested with mysterious meaning, they
become a little more ominous. What if everything that seemed familiar but
un-decoded had such creepiness behind it? It's not scary so much as
idiosyncratic. And, as chaotic as it gets in places, it's not resonant
nearly as often as its cold and dreary, like the first signs of life
cracking through the cement in an abandoned Communist Bloc-era factory town.