Traditional trance music and dance – Mazurek, the ‘Wild Music from the Heart of Poland’

There’re certain modern connotations and a definition of what a ‘trance music’ is – but here I want to use that term in its traditional/native meaning, and to introduce the traditional type of music coming from the heart of Poland: the rural mazurkas. I’ve been thinking long how should I call this type of music in the English language (I might not know a better term for it because it isn’t my native language) but eventually I decided that ‘trance music’ fits the most after all. The music I want to show you was putting the dancers into an almost hypnotic state, it comprised of [relatively] fast beats, and was played for various types of rural festivities and social events set in the old Polish countryside. In a way, I think that some elements of the definition of ‘trance music’ still fits with this old music – anyways, let’s jump to the introduction.

[side note: the following is an improved, supplemented and corrected article I posted 4 years ago on my old blogspot and tumblr]

You might’ve heard about the music before. The songs are often called ‘mazurkas’ in English, however their original rural form is rather unknown in the West. What I want to show you below is the old-fashioned countryside mazurkas in their form the closest to the original that we know of nowadays.

The music and dances known in English under an umbrella term of ‘mazurkas’ comprise of more than one type here in the original Polish language (bolded below are their singular names):

  • a mazur or mazurek (the term ‘mazur’ is also used in names of different dance types using the similar roots, for instance a dance popularized by the Polish nobility known as ‘mazur szlachecki’ – the ‘nobility’s mazur’)
  • its faster version: obertas or oberek (named after the verb ‘obracać się’ which means to spin yourself around)
  • its slower version: kujawiak from the neighbouring region of Kujawy

Mazurkas were born in central Poland, and spread around from there. The oldest resources and mentions about them can be found in 15th-century documents. They greatly inspired the artists throughout the centuries, for example musicians like Frédéric (Fryderyk) Chopin who composed a great number of mazurkas for piano, based on the rural music he heard during his travels around the region of Mazowsze (Mazovia) around Warsaw.

In their original form we know about (mainly from 18th and 19th-century resources), mazurkas can be described as the remains of old-Polish (old-Slavic) traditional trance music from the centuries ago. Since the birth of ethnography as a systematic study, the traditional mazurkas were known as dances for the Polish wedding rites. They were also played and danced during other similar events and for certain community gatherings, later also for rural ‘potańcówki’ (dance parties). Some old sources claim that in the old days the ‘mazurek’ was sung and the ‘oberek’ danced only, but during the last two centuries (or more) they both lost that differentiation and nowadays what can be distinguished is mostly their tempo and elements of the rhythm.

This is not the typical, regular rhythm you’re probably used to. Music and dance teachers who introduce that music to their pupils often begin with an introduction called ‘finding the rhythm in the mazurek’. Untamed by the framework of the common musical tempo and polyphony, at the first moment the music might sound out of rhythm, out of tune – but then one realizes that the melody follows the free spirit of the nature, embraces the natural irregularity, and the drums hit according to the fast heart rate of the players and dancers. By the tradition, that music has no construction frame nor any defined end.

Then is the dance, entangled with the mazurkas music on a spiritual level. The dance is simple at the first sight: you just keep your partner close, leaning towards each other slightly, and you spin and spin together, you hit the ground with your feet until the dust rises, you move on and on with the music until your head feels like it’s dazed with alcohol. Although there are some sequences to be danced together by larger groups, it’s not necessary to pay attention to the other couples – you dance as you feel, into a direction that feels right at this moment. It’s an intuitive dance, but in fact it’s hard to maintain: has to be performed smoothly, evenly, with quick small steps. It was said that the best dancer was the one who can dance the oberek or mazurek without losing a glass put on the head.

That’s not a type of music that tames or limits you by the rhythm or the strict dance positions. Rather than that, it shows a primeval Slavic thought of freedom that has survived the centuries in Poland with its complicated history.

“Round and round, almost in place, stamping with feet close to the ground, spin and spin around”

‘Oberek’, painting by Józef Chełmoński, 1878
Etching reproduction of the painting by Józef Chełmoński above, created in c. 1883 [source]
Sketch by Józef Chełmoński (1849-1914 )
‘Oberek’ modern painting by artist Katarzyna Chodoń [source]
Modern folklore festival ‘Wszystkie Mazurki Świata

For an introduction, let me show you two videos by modern folk bands. I highly recommend both of them: they are among the valuable bands that aren’t letting the authentic form of the Polish traditional music to die out.

First one is Janusz Prusinowski Kompania. Their music video shows the mazurek dance in a modern urban setting (the spinning dance begins around 1:00):

[ direct link: ‘Mazurek Ciarkowskiego’ (transl. Ciarkowski’s Mazurek) by Janusz Prusinowski Kompania ]

Second one I deeply recommend is the Warsaw Village Band (Polish: Kapela ze Wsi Warszawa). Below is their arrangement of a traditional oberek. I must say that I absolutely love this video. They used here the original videos from their travels, rehearsals and gigs. It shows just how much work does the band put into their research, travelling across the Polish countryside and meeting up with the authentic folk musicians and singers of the older generations:

[ direct link: ‘Oberek dur-moll’ by Warsaw Village Band / Kapela ze Wsi Warszawa ]

Below’s another interesting band recreating the authentic mazurkas, called Poszukiwacze Zaginionego Rulonu. The recording below is a live video from a club hosting an annual folklore festival. It’s very interesting to me how the spectators just start dancing naturally after the music starts playing:

[ direct link: ‘Mazurek’ by Poszukiwacze Zaginionego Rulonu, recorded during Tyndyrndy festival 2012 ]

For a short break, let me how you a bit of facts about the history of this music. Below are a few quoted paragraphs from an essay written by Maja Trochimczyk for Polish Music Center at the University of Southern California [here’s the link to the source]:

“The dance was known as early as the 16th century; early lute and organ tablatures feature many instances of the mazurka rhythm in pieces entitled Polish dance, or in Latin, Chorea polonica. During the 17th century the dance spread over Poland and began to appear also in neighboring countries; distinct versions of these dances could be found in the repertoire of the countryside (the folk mazur-type dances and the mazur of the nobility), and the towns (urban mazurka). […]

According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the mazurkas “that remained unaltered by influences of urban music seem to have no definite ending, as the repeats are made ad libitum, or their concluding bar finishes on the dominant on the third beat, without accent leaving the impression of disappearance into the air […] A certain pride of bearing and sometimes a wildness sharply differentiate its mood from that of the more sensuous waltz. The dance has the character of an improvisation, and is usually danced by four, eight or 12 couples, but sometimes by an indefinite number of dancers.”

The folk dance is improvisatory in character; it is danced by couples who rotate around the dance hall and present a variety of gestures.[…]

The most common ensemble performing in the Mazowsze region consists of a violin, a large drum […], and later, a Polish folk accordion (with three registers, harmonia trzyrzędowa), and clarinet.“ [source / read more here]

Below you can see the basic spinning positions of the mazur dance published in the book “Trzy układy sceniczne mazura” by L.Nartowska and illustrated by Krystyn Niedzielski:

Mazur dance – spinning positions. The scan found on the blog bibliog3.wordpress.com

As it comes to the dance itself, I think that the videos can speak more than words. There’s a great Polish youtube channel that teaches various Polish traditional rural dances. Here are examples of the flowing movements:

[ direct link – oberek dance lesson, example from Radom region ]

[ direct link: mazurek dance lesson – examples of swirling ]

Another lovely video shows an elderly couple during a folklore festival, showing the spinning movement of mazurek dance they remember from their youth:

[ direct link – Mazurek dance ]

Here’s nother video of different elderly couples dancing the old oberek (as they remember from their youth days) recorded in the year 2008. Pay attention to all the spinning and stamping:

[ direct link – to dance and play the oberek ]

The dance itself, as you might have noticed, is not very complicated. It’s a dance ‘for everyone’, to be ‘danced anywhere’. Based on the spinning and stamping elements, according to some ethnographers, it indeed might have been based on the ancient Slavic trance dances from that region, that have evolved over time and lost the ritual meaning in a natural way.


VARIOUS INFORMATIONS ABOUT MAZURKAS


The biggest problem in the past few decades was the music and the traditions dying out. That process had already begun under the foreign occupations of Poland in the 19th century (see: the Partitions of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) – but it sped up drastically during the harsh times of the post-war era of communist regime in Poland. On one hand the communist government was promoting the rural ‘working class’ and using its idealized imaginery in propaganda. The postwar development programs included modernization of the rural areas – but sometimes by force. The old ‘rusticity’ and diversity was ridiculed in favor of the united communistic entity and its industrial revolution. The authenticity of folklore with its ancient rites and customs started dying out during that time, and becoming merely an occasional stage decoration in the urbanized setting.

That process was largely ignored until the 1980s when various revival movements begun. Musicians and ethnographers try to preserve all that’s left. One of such movements is a project called ‘Muzyka Odnaleziona‘ (transl. The Found Music) whose creators were among the people who tried to preserve the authentic folklore music since the early 1980s. As one of the project’s initiators says:

At the beginning, when I was travelling [to the countryside] at the end of the 1970s, I was visiting many villages because I’ve always loved to wander around. I loved to draw and I was always fascinated by the faces of the villagers […]. So the initiation [of the project] had artistic roots. At the same time, I started learning about their music. And I realized that no one wants to listen to the ‘village music’ anymore, that no one invites the musicians anywhere, that they are lonely, they feel abandoned, they – who used to be ‘kings’ of the weddings – suddenly are left alone with their music. It was very strange to me, because I had rather a vague idea of that music – and so it has begun, because it simply fascinated me.

[ translation of a transcription from the video ‘Ostatni wiejscy muzykanci’ (transl. The Last Rural Musicians) by Muzyka Odnaleziona project ]

His words describe the situation pretty well. Nowadays there are dozens of musicians and artists who keep preserving the music, organize festivals, record the authentic remnants or interpret the music in its authentic spirit on their own. But the rural mazurkas, the original ‘trance music’ aspect of them, is vastly unknown by the public in Poland and – sadly – unliked by many as not fitting the modern commercial music scene.

You can read a bit about that delicate topic and about the mazurkas in the article below. The article was written by Simon Broughton for the Songlines Magazine issue 97 from the year 2014, on the occasion of a Polish folklore festival ‘Wszystkie Mazurki Świata’ (transl. ‘All the Mazurkas of the World’). The screens below were published by the festival’s organizators:

The ‘Wszystkie Mazurki Świata’ festival is an international competition addressed to young musicians, vocalists and groups and an occasion for them to show their musical skills rooted in the authentic Polish folklore tradition. Why ‘mazurkas of the World’? The festival’s website describes very well the history and impact of the mazurkas music:

Traditional dance has been present in Polish history from the very beginning – many medieval chroniclers mentioned the Slavic “frolics” and “jumps”, later called “sways” and “dances”. […]

It can be assumed that most traditional dances, preserved until the present, originated no earlier than the 16th century. […] Most of dance genres we know now come from the 18th and 19th centuries. However, we know much more about the dancing culture of Polish nobility, eagerly chronicled by foreigners. By the 17th century, the nobility realized how different their dances are from the dances of other European nations. Travelling nobles willingly presented Polish dances abroad, relating to the ideas of glorifying Polishness, propagated by authors such as Stanisław Orzechowski, Szymon Starowolski or Wojciech Dębołęcki. This social climate was instrumental in the Saxon politics of the 18th century – the royals in Dresden welcomed a new, courtly version of polonaise and mazur, readily leading the dances (this will later be imitated by the Polish king, Stanislaw August Poniatowski). These dances, alongside French and English ones, as well as selected peasant dances from Polish provinces, were taught in gentlemen’s schools by the French dance masters. Because of the teachers, the dances such as “mazurkas and Polish kozak (sic!) became thus contrived, to exceed the beauty of English dances”, wrote the Polish author Hugo Kołłątaj. We can already see that a notion of mazurka covered many different concepts of that dance: the favorite of Saxon princes was different than the version taught in convent schools, which in turn was something else than the fiery dances of noblemen’s houses, and finally that variety differed greatly from what Mazovian peasants danced.

[read more in the source].

The festival’s approach to mazurkas is wonderfully described on their website:

I dance, therefore I hear

Music is the wind, and I am the leaf. I respond to its call with all my senses, I move along with it, discovering and accepting my own nature. I move my legs, stamp my feet, I whirl and float. I am not straining, I let myself go, I become the music. 

[source]

The nuances of mazurkas are hard to understand at first, also from a musician’s point of view. I mentioned above the influence that music had on the composer Frédéric Chopin. His piano mazurkas are extremely hard to understand by the foreign piano players at first, and the organizers of the International Chopin Piano Competition who had a habit of inviting the players from abroad to the Polish countryside and teaching them about the uneven rhythm of mazurkas. A little info about the Mazurkas was included in the “Chopin Express”, issue 13 (October 2010) by its editor Krzysztof Komarnicki :

A trap called Mazurka

Chopin’s Mazurkas are a mixture of simplicity and subtlety. They are drawn from a folk pattern but are full of nuances that must be executed properly, or else artistic disaster is just round the corner. What are the dangers, then?

You cannot properly play a dance you have never danced. You need to know where a leap and when a landing is, and you must remember that a dancer can’t stop in mid air. “Mazurka” actually describes the group of dances consisting of Mazur, Kujawiak and Oberek. Each species has different steps, tempos and accents. You need to know and recognise each one, as Chopin often makes use of all of them within a single movement.

Mazurkas are notated in 3/4 time, like waltzes, but you play them in a different way – the trick is to put the accents in the right places. Rhythm is another trap: Chopin notates similar rhythms with or without rests, and you play those differently: the dancers have their feet on ground where there are no rests, and they jump if the rests are present.

Polish folk music knows no polyphony. Chopin was well aware of that, but sometimes there are several melodies sounding at the same time, as if his mind was teeming with musical thoughts. It is not counterpoint in the sense of Bach. [source]


MORE EXAMPLES OF AUTHENTIC RURAL MAZURKAS


Here in the last section I want to collect a few videos for you – in case you want to explore the rhythms of mazurkas deeper. There are tons of recordings on youtube, however I know that it might be hard for you to browse through them all to find those that show the authentic, non-commercialized and non-simplified versions of this very old music. Below are only a few examples I personally love, and I recommend you to explore the music further.

[direct link – Mazurek by  Kapela Maliszów recorded in 2014 – one of the modern bands playing an authentic form of the rural Polish music – I highly recomment this video! ]

[ direct link – oberek from the region of Greater Poland performed by band Muzykanci – one of the modern bands playing an authentic form of the rural Polish music ]

[ direct link – Mazurek from Radom region, played by rural musicians Józef Zaraś (born 1929) and Stanisław Budzisz (born 1917), recorded in 1978 – recording of authentic rural musicians ]

[ direct link – Sad Mazurek from Rzeszów region, the uploader recorded it on a cassette from a radio – recording of authentic rural musicians ]

[ direct link – Poszukiwacze Zaginionego Rulonu at Nowa Tradycja Festival 2012 – one of the modern bands playing an authentic form of the rural Polish music ]

[ direct link – Wild Mazurek by Kapela Maliszów at Globaltica Festival 2016 – one of the modern bands playing an authentic form of the rural Polish music ]

[ direct link – Oberek by rural band of Kazimierz Ostrowski from Gniewęcino village  – recording of authentic rural musicians]

[ direct link – compilation of rural violinist from central Poland – recording of authentic rural musicians ]

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For further reading:

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6 thoughts on “Traditional trance music and dance – Mazurek, the ‘Wild Music from the Heart of Poland’

  1. Your posts are much appreciated, and this was very interesting. The search for “authentic” can be complex, with a lot of layers, and your post highlights a fascinating perspective. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True, it’s indeed very hard to define the “authentic”. In the context of mazurki, those who started the revival had been searching (and still are searching) for the people from the countryside who were never professionally schooled but were rather self-taught, and who (ideally) use old types of self-made instruments. It’s the most authentic it can get to listen to those who come from an old line of musicians and singers repeating what they’ve heard in their youth, the passed-down rhythms. Thank you for stopping by!

      Like

  2. a very interesting post! i think it is absolutely accurate to to say that the mazurek/mazurka is a trance dance…and yes, related to the ancient slavic trance-inducing dances used for healing and other rituals. i suspect that both descended from a common, truly ancient tradition of trance dances which people all over the world have used since time immemorial to create and reinforce a sense of community, of timelessness, of unity with each other and with nature… it seems to be part of our human heritage to use rhythmic movement—dance—to respond to emotion and to transcend ourselves, bonding with each other in the process. these beautiful old dances/music are a valuable, joyful heritage. i am so pleased to see them preserved, enjoyed by the younger generations, and featured here in your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree so much with you. Beautiful words to express it all. To a skilled eye and soul there are many pararells between the mazurkas and the various native trance/ritual dances and music from around the world. From what we know, the mazurkas hold a close link to the after-wedding celebrations of wesele – the time of joy. In this way, according to the passed-down traditions, they may be a remnant of the old-Slavic fertility and passage rituals in the first place. The swirling motions are a key and connect the dancers on the spiritual level. With no real ‘construction’ of mazurkas dancers can move according to their own body and soul, and just follow the rhythm which can change constantly. All of this reminds me of natural cycles where you can’t see the structure behind the process at a first glance but it becomes obvious when you observe, give it your soul and just follow without overanalyzing. Let everything go and start ‘feeling’, not ‘hearing’ the music and rhythm. All’s intuitive, and the emotions follow instinctively, letting the dancers feel free of physical bonds – a beautiful process for an ecstatic passage ceremony.

      Liked by 1 person

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