Interview with Marcin Skrzypek of the Saint Nicholas Orchestra

Marcin Skrzypek - Photo by Angel Romero
In 2009, Angel Romero had the opportunity to talk with Marcin Skrzypek, one of the members of the seminal Polish folk band Saint Nicholas Orchestra (Orkiestra św. Mikołaja), during their stay in Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo) to participate at the Rainforest World Music Frestival. Marcin plays dulcimer, mandolin, guitars, koboz, and vocals. Saint Nicholas Orchestra was founded when traditional Polish music was despised and neglected. Then, through the songs of Lemko Ruthenians once living in the eastern Polish Carpathians, the members of the band discovered that music from old villages can appeal to modern listeners.

When was the saint Nicholas orchestra created?

It was created in 1988 so it was about 21 years ago.

Were you students at the time?

Yes, the beginning of the orchestra may not be quite understandable for people from other countries, because of the uniqueness of the Polish context. We had then a very strong tourist movement. After the 2nd World War, minorities from the east and southeast mountains were removed to other parts of Poland and Ukraine and these mountains were abandoned and they became sort of a wild east for the Polish people. That’s why they were very attractive for tourists, but they were not tourists in the western way of thinking. They were rather walkers, you know, like wanderers. Not like here in the jungle in Borneo, but in a similar way, with a tent.

People were looking for wilderness. They were looking for freedom, for silence, for nature and they sang songs. And these songs I would compare to the blues, but in fact they were poetry. Poetic songs about the mountains, about landscapes, about walking through the mountains and also about the culture that thrived in these mountains. One of such songs was a prayer to Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas is a patron saint of Orthodox churches and these minorities that lived in these mountains was Orthodox. When they were removed, the villages, orchards, roads, and also these churches left. And people who went there afterwards looked for these traces of the culture. They also looked at these abandoned churches. so and this the lines of this prayer go as follows: “Saint Nicholas, tell us how it was when songs were sung and when the horses were grazing.” So there was an expression of the curiosity, the need to know how it was in the past, but of course, we couldn’t know it and it was not even politically wise to talk about these expulsions of these minorities.

Were they expelled by the Soviets?

No, by the Polish government, but it was all the same. People had to switch their imagination. They began to imagine how it was and the whole land of these mountains were partly created by imagination. All these songs, the tourist movement. It referred partly to physical landscapes, and physical history and partly to an imagined world. At first, the people who created the Saint Nicholas Orchestra wanted to be just a tourist band, singing such songs, going from festival to festival singing and playing at bonfires and so on.

Bogdan Bracha - Photo by Suchen SK, Sarawak Tourism Board
It was this poetry, this atmosphere that was very important. And it also had various social significance. Walking the mountains, singing songs, telling stories stories was a part of making friends, communicating. This context was a context in itself. Very similar to the traditional folk context. They wanted to make such tourist music but they also sang Lemko songs. The Lemko [Lemko Ruthenians] were this minority. Because their songs were in a strange language, because nobody knew about them, it was mysterious and these songs were very nice. With time, it turned out that the people that were at the beginning of the Orchestra could not make their own music, could not compose their own music but, they were attracted by these Lemko songs, and they began developing this direction. At one of such festivals they were called by a musician from another group. It’s Saint Nicholas orchestra because they sang this song and so this music was associated with this song and that’s how the name of the group, the identity of the group came was established.

This song you can find it in our web site I think, translated into English, this song I think tells a lot of about our music that we have to create in our imagination just as the icon of saint Nicholas, the song goes like this you the person speaking in his song cannot communicate with saint Nicholas, because he’s painting in an icon so he tries to paint his own painting to make dialog with saint Nicholas so I think it’s a matter for creating one’s own world, imagined world, some tale, some legend about the past, about the culture which is not ours. we have to make up some interface ad this interface it imagination, art, but it must be a unified world it cannot be just a collage of various, it must be complex and through this interface you can communicate with people form the past with saint Nicholas and I think is still valid for the orchestra today, that we just, we don’t make jigs, we don’t make CDs. We cannot say that we take two guitarists, one percussionist and we make new music. If somebody joins Saint Nicholas orchestra has to make up some world and we communicate between ourselves through these imaginary interfaces and so we are not musicians, we are rather dreamers or something like that.

It seems like you’ve collected music from different parts of Poland

Anna Bielak - Photo by Suchen SK, Sarawak Tourism Board
Yes. I mean, it was different in different times. In the first stage of existence, we were inspired by new kinds of music. While we were learning new music, we were getting to know music from new regions. We got fascinated with it and tried to play it. and this is state of playing quite multicultural music. we tried to play, we played with combining music from different parts of the world, even. and tried to look for similarities. it sounds similar. this is from south America, this is from Slovakia, but it sounds similar. maybe we’ll combine it. but now we are worked out these fascinations. We are experienced in a better way and now we just take for example one . there are a few regions in Poland that have particular interest in music. It’s the region of Lublin, the east side of Poland and also there is such isolated region kurupia in the forests. They also have unique music so these are these regions we take music from. but sometimes we like words that don’t have any melody associated with it and to make these words these texts work we have to find some melody and we take it for example from Hungary or from even from near East recently.

Do you play any instruments that are typically Polish?

Yes. Dulcimer is typically Polish although in Poland not everybody knows it; fiddle, frame drum with jingles is Polish. The bass although not classical bass, but the double bass, and flutes, shepherd’s flutes so I think that will be it. And we play other instruments that come from other cultures like kemenche or nyckelharpa.

The other thing is that I heard you say in the press conference that the folk music situation in Poland wasn’t very good at the time that you started. Were you pioneers and is the folk scene bigger now? I’m not familiar with too many groups, but I’ve heard Warsaw Village Band.

Yes. At the time when the orchestra began to function there were two kinds of folk music in Poland, Celtic music, which is now still very vivid, and music from South America, Andean music. Now only one group plays it, one active group. Twenty years ago it was very popular. And we were the first to play Slavonic music, from the Slavs, beginning with Ukrainian, Slovakian, Lamkost music which is in between Slovakia and Ukraine, let’s say, and then we were almost the first to begin a project devoted only to Polish music. We began to prepare a program devoted only to Polish music. and since then the folks scene is flourishing. Now there are many groups although the situation is dynamic, depending on what is the economic situation.

Agnieszka Kolczewska - Photo by Suchen SK, Sarawak Tourism Board
If there are many events, there are more groups. If the fashion ends, the groups disappear. But there is always this core of folk music that is still always on the move. There is such a festival called New Traditions organized by Polish Radio, similar to New Traditions by BBC and they organize a competition for young groups and another competition organized by us. There are many groups like Warsaw Village Band, I think, from my perspective. I think they were recognized in the world almost at the moment of disintegration. I’m not a specialist of this group but some people left this group and suddenly the were recognized globally.

So there is not a system behind, dynamics of development of this movement of recognizing particular groups by the west or by world music circulation. Groups from the west of Poland play frequently in Germany because the costs of transportation are low. Some managers from Germany travel to these cities in the west of Poland and see these groups and with us it is more difficult. We played in 14 countries outside Poland, but we are not managed by any manager outside of Poland. We have our own local manager, my wife, who was also a member of the group some time ago and maybe this performance at this festival will change something. Randy [the Rainforest World Music Festival artistic director] was quite satisfied with what what we did and told us that we could play all over the world. We witnessed such situations quite often. Very often we hoped for being recognized and nothing happened, but maybe this will be some turning point. I don’t know. Very recently there were some events but for some reason it’s not enough. Maybe there should be some coincidence to bring us or some other groups from Poland to the folk and world music venues.

Did you ever apply for showcases at events like Womex?

No, we played at Sfinks festival. We played at large open events, connected with places. Some festivals, but not strictly world music places. For example, we played at a large festival in Nuremberg, but it was a city festival with many ethnic groups but it was rather for people from the city, not a global festival. Sfinks was in Belgium and it was global festival, but also some way connected with Womex, but maybe we were not grown up yet.

What is the recording situation? Are you recording new albums?

We published 11 albums.

Are they independent or with a record company?

Maria Natanson - Photo by Suchen SK, Sarawak Tourism Board
It changes. We began with in the era of tapes so the first album was a tape and it was published by such new niche publisher that then was beginning part of a larger international holding but it turned out that they gave us nothing. The techniques of producing CDs were democratized. Anyone can publish a CD now so and the publishers took some of the income, giving nothing in fact because there is no distribution. There is no promotion in Poland. We sell CDs after concerts mainly and we also sell it by internet through two major distributors of such music. Distributors are not interested in promoting such music so now if we want to publish a CD, we do it ourselves. 

Our latest recording was recorded thanks to a large company distributing press books and so on. They launched a subcompany publishing niche music. I think this project didn’t work but we managed to be financed by this project so they covered costs of recording and publishing and they also distributed this CD although without particular success because they covered a different part of market and we published two CD, one sampler of a collection of old music we recorded and new music. It was published with a booklet telling history of our group and with many quite interesting photographs so this was our last release.

What year was that?

It was 2007 so it was 3 years ago but the same year we released an album of traditional Lamko music and we had republished the first cassette so in 2007 we had 4 new albums.

And are you working a new one for this year?

Now we are slowly working on a new repertoire but quite slowly because it always take time in our group to make something new, but yes we are preparing something new. Maybe connected with the East, Middle East or Near East.

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