Authentic Troupes and Inauthentic Tropes: Performance Practice in Górale Music

by Timothy J. Cooley


In this paper I reveal a sometimes contentious debate between present-day Górale musicians, and past and present ethnographers of music, about what Górale music was in the past and should be today. The debate concerns a controversial performance style and brings to the foreground ideological differences between some musical ethnographers and Górale musicians. These ideological differences result in ethnographers and Górale musicians using the same music to tell different stories about Górale identity. To understand present-day Górale music and culture, we need to consider how Górale identity and other culturally defined concepts are negotiated, even contested, among Górale themselves and individuals outside the Górale community, including scholars like myself, who presume to interpret Górale culture. Who are Górale and where are they from? Górale means mountaineer and is used as an ethnic, even racial name for the descendants of the old families in a place called Podhale. [1]Podhale is an approximately 20 x 20 kilometer region of southern Poland in the shadows of the Tatra mountains, the tallest peaks of the Carpathian range which forms a graceful crescent from the Balkans, up along the southwest edge of Ukraine, and making a natural border between Poland and Slovakia before turning southward and ending in Bratislava. As their name suggests, Górale identity is linked to the Tatra Mountains, the tallest, most rugged peaks in Central Europe.

Ethnographers tell two contrasting stories about Górale: one stresses purity, independence and distinctiveness associated with the myth of mountain isolation; another recognizes ancient connections with Górale to culture groups along the Carpathians and extending down into the Balkans. The ethnographic trope of ancient connections suggests that Podhale was settled in several waves of migrations by Balkan Walachians, Rusyns, Hungarians, Saxons and Slovakians along the Carpathian crescent and into Podhale from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. These multi-ethnic migrants met Poles who earlier began to settle the harsh northern side of the Tatras in the twelfth century ( Chybiński 1961: 113; Kotoński 1956:14; Wrazeń 1988: 46-47). Culturally and ethnically diverse, the settlers of Podhale united in their common resistance to serfdom in the seventeenth century, eventually forming a new and relatively homogeneous ethnic group ( Dahlig 1991: 83-84).

While recognizing a historically multicultural context in Podhale, most ethnographers relegate this to a bygone era and stress the contrasting ethnographic trope of isolation and cultural purity. For example, the early post-war Polish musical folklorist (primarily a composer) Włodzimierz Kotoński attributes the distinct music of Górale to the mountains that separate them from cities (1956:18). Similarly, early anthropologist Sula Benet describes Górale as living in complete independence and having little contact with the valleys and cities ( Benet 1979[1951]: 130). More recently, senior Polish ethnomusicologist Professor Anna Czekanowska suggested that Górale owe their strong sense of ethnocentricity to the isolation of the people living in the highest mountain areas (Czekanowska 1990: 84). Present-day ethnomusicologist Krzysztof Cwiżewicz writes of Górale’s purity of customs and historic resistance to feudalism ( Cwiżewicz 1995).

Isolation and untainted culture are two of the most persistent myths about Podhale and Górale myths that captured my imagination when I first began to study Górale immigrants in Chicago in 1989. The simplicity of this image was shaken, however, when I first traveled to Podhale in 1992. Tourism encouraged by romantic ethnographic and popular representations of Podhale have conspired to transform the region into the largest tourist resort destination in Poland. If ever truly isolated, Podhale is no longer, and the very ethnographers who praised Podhale’s isolation and cultural purity are implicated in the dissolution of this very isolation. [2]

But surely the music-culture of Górale stands untainted by social and economic forces transforming Podhale a music so vital that it retains its spontaneity and freshness even when played by immigrants far from the Tatras in the urban prairie of Chicago. Of course this is not true, as was brought home to me during a 1992 interview with a senior Górale musician in his aging log home nestled near the base of the Tatras. He openly critiqued past and present-day musical folklorists and ethnomusicologists, commenting on the quality of their transcriptions and preferences of style. This was no isolated incident; other active Górale musicians exhibit similar knowledge of the ethnographic record about their culture. [3] I soon realized that to understand Górale music-culture today, I must consider the influence of my intellectual ancestors past ethnographers.

Here I focus my consideration of the web of influences between ethnographers, past and present, and Górale musicians on a subtle and controversial style of ensemble violin playing. In my experience, this double-lead violin style, that I will illustrate below, is emblematic of ideological differences between Górale musicians and those who would represent them. I illustrate this point with specific events that I documented at two different folkloric music festivals in Podhale; the first in 1992 and the second in 1995. I center this study in and around folkloric festivals because I believe such festivals became important events in the Polish cultural landscape, especially after the Second World War during the communist era. Now after the 1989 fall of communism in Poland, festivals remain important, though changing, cultural events. I interpret festivals as symbolically charged calendrical ceremonies of industrial and post-industrial eras, replacing the agricultural calendrical ceremonies from a previous feudal era (see also Dąbrowska 1995:66). The names or former names of the two festivals considered here reflect their calendrical significance: the International Festival of Mountain Folklore (Międzynarodowy Festiwal Folkloru Ziem Górskich), originally called Tatra Autumn (Jesień Tatrzańska) when it began in 1962, and Poronin Summer (Poroniańskie Lato) ( Reinfuss 1971).

I will begin with a scene I documented in 1992 at the International Festival of Mountain Folklore in a town called Zakopane, the cultural center of Podhale. Hereafter I will refer to this festival as the Zakopane Festival. The Zakopane Festival features a contest, like most modern-day festivals, and for this reason one particular type of authoritative influence of ethnography is tangibly experienced by Górale musicians. Contest folklore festivals in Poland feature a panel of jurors who evaluate stage performances using criteria heavily invested with notions of authenticity. For example, at the Zakopane Festival each troupe is judged in one of four categories arranged in an implied hierarchy:

(1) authentic troupes (zespoły autentyczne);
(2) troupes using artistic elaboration (zespoły artystycznie opracowane),
(3) stylized troupes (zespoły stylizowane); and
(4) reconstructive troupes (zespoły rekonstruowane)
(categories quoted from the 1995 Zakopane Festival booklet).

The jurors at this and other festivals are usually academics: ethnomusicologists, ethnochoreologists, anthropologists, folklorists ethnographers of one sort or another.

I bring another set of assumptions about authenticity to my interpretation of the Zakopane Festival and Górale music-culture: Authenticity is not something out there to be discovered; it is made constructed in a process of authentication. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Edward Bruner have written, the issue is who has the power to represent whom and to determine which representation is authoritative? ( Kirshenblatt and Bruner 1992: 304; see also Little 1991: 160). At the Zakopane Festival, the power to represent is negotiated between Górale themselves and ethnographers.

During the week-long 1992 Zakopane Festival, I conducted a short interview with Krzysztof Trebunia, one of emcees of the Festival, as well as a lead violinist for Skalni, the featured Górale troupe. At the moment of our interview, Krzysztof seemed mildly agitated. Earlier that same day, he had performed in a band contest part of the Zakopane Festival. Together with Paweł Staszel, he played in what he calls a double-lead violin style wherein two violinists improvise melodic harmonic polyphony accompanied by several additional violins and a three-stringed cello-sized instrument called basy. The following transcription is of a recording I made at that performance. The first-lead violin (top line) begins the piece, followed by the second violins and basy. With the second phrase (pick up to bar 6), the second-lead violin is clearly audible. After the repeat of the second phrase, the tune is sung in harmonic polyphony followed by an instrumental repeat clearly played in double-lead polyphonic style (not represented in the transcription). Please note the similarities between the double-lead violins and the two vocal parts.

Example 1 (137k): Krzysztof Trebunia and Paweł Staszel perform in the double-lead style, during the 1992 Zakopane Festival. Transcription from the recording by the author.

After this performance, Krzysztof learned that one of the jurors believes that the double-lead style is not traditional and therefore not acceptable for the contest. In my conversation with Krzysztof, he protested saying that his grandfather played with two lead violinists as early as 1925. Górale sing in two parts, Krzysztof explained, it is only natural that they play in two parts ( CooleyField Notes III:114 [1992]). In subsequent performances on the Zakopane Festival main stage, Paweł and Krzysztof alternated lead violin, never playing on stage together. The following transcription is a segment from one of their main stage performances:

Example 2 (40k): Skalni with Krzysztof Trebunia and Paweł Staszel alternating the lead violin part, winning performance at the 1992 Zakopane Festival. Transcription from the recording by the author.

The strategy of switching to the single-lead style worked and Skalni went on to win the coveted gold ciupaga in the first contest category, authentic troupes. [4]

The first two music examples were front stage performances, that is they were performed on stage for a public and panel of jurors who both make certain demands on the performers. My next example is a back stage performance by and for Górale. I documented this example on video in 1995 in Poronin, a small village just six kilometers from Zakopane. I and the musicians featured in this video example were in Poronin for a festival celebrating summer called Poroniańskie Lato (Poronin Summer). The festival concluded with a few troupes performing on an outdoor stage. The final troupe was Skalni, the same group Krzysztof Trebunia and Paweł Staszel played for in 1992, but now Paweł was the lead violinist and Krzysztof no longer played with the troupe. After their stage performance, Paweł invited me to join some of the troupe members for dinner at a nearby restaurant, and it is there, off stage and after the festival, that my next example takes us.

As the eating wanes, singing begins and violins emerge. Paweł is joined by Krzysztof Trebunia s father, Władysław, a musician respected for his knowledge about Górale traditions. Like the other musicians present, the senior Trebunia had performed earlier on stage and is still in traditional costume. Though by far the most experienced and respected musician in the restaurant, Władysław is not an aggressive personality, and he freely yields lead-violin to Paweł. Yet at a certain moment, Władysław shifts into an authoritative stance and gives a brief and I believe masterful lesson about performance practice. Sitting across the table from Władysław, I was able to document his playing and explanations on video. The following descriptions and transcriptions of music and speech are derived from this video (v22.vii.95). [5]

In the middle of a song in a style known as wierchowa (mountain peak music) with rubato singing in harmony, in this case accompanied by several violins and an altówka (3-string bowed lute adapted from a viola), Władysław suddenly stands, stops the music, and describes how he believes the three violins and one altówka should play together as an ensemble. He declares:

Czytery głosy: pierwszy prym, drugi prym, pierwszy sekund, drugi sekund. Nie może być jeden głos, ze trzech gra na jeden głos. Tak jakby sycka górale grali na jeden głos, sycka na dół. Musza byc pierwszy, drugi sopran, alt, tenor, bas. Był w chórze? Trzeba sić było uczyć. Ja się uczyłem!

[Translation]: Four voices: first-lead, second-lead, first-accompaniment, second-accompaniment. It can’t be one voice, that three play one part. It’s like all Górale played one part, everyone down low. There must be first, second soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Been in a choir? You should have learned. I did!

Taking his violin under his chin, he demonstrates the second-lead (lead violin 2) part for a few bowings:

Example 3 (13k): Władysław Trebunia’s demonstration of the second-lead (lead violin 2) part during the 1995 Poroniańskie Lato (Poronin Summer). Transcription by the author.

Then he plays two bars of the first-lead part:

Example 4 (11k): Władysław Trebunia’s demonstration of the first-lead (lead violin 1) part during the 1995 Poroniańskie Lato (Poronin Summer). Transcription by the author.

followed immediately by the next phrase (bars 4-6) of the second-lead part:

Example 5 (7k): Władysław Trebunia’s demonstration of the continuation of the second-lead (lead violin 2) part (bars 4-6). Ibidem.

Verbally labeling each part, he then demonstrates the first-accompaniment part (violin II{1}). Note the unvarying bowing on the quarter note beats with slurred ornaments in between. Lead playing avoids slurs:

Example 6 (10k): Władysław Trebunia’s demonstration of the first-accompaniment part (violin II{1}). Note the unvarying bowing on the quarter note beats with slurred ornaments in between. Ibidem.

Finally he demonstrates five beats of the second-accompaniment part: (violin II{2}):

Example 7 (9k): Władysław Trebunia’s demonstration of five beats from the second-accompaniment part (violin II{2}). Ibidem.

After this short and virtuosic demonstration of four distinct violin parts, Władysław launches into a historical explanation of style:

Zapisował sto lat temu, sto piećdziesiąt. Ja tego nie wymyśliłem. Zapisane jest w notatkach, profesor Chybiński pisze: Unisono grał skrzypce z gęślami. A to było unisono bo to grał nisko to samo.

[Translation]: It was written one-hundred years ago, one-hundred and fifty. I didn’t make it up. In his notes, Professor Chybiński writes: The violin played in unison with the fiddle. That was unison because they played nearly the same thing.

Returning his violin to his chest, he plays six bars of the first accompaniment part:

Example 8 (11k). Władysław Trebunia’s demonstration of six bars from the first accompaniment part. Ibidem.

While still playing the last few bars of the above example, he comments: “Bartek Obrochta miał taki skład” (Bartek Obrochta had such a group). Below I will discuss Obrochta and the significance of Władysław’s mention of him.

Władysław’s short demonstration is packed with information about playing styles and the influence of ethnographers who dabble in the style debate. First, Władysław Trebunia single-handedly demonstrates his conception of the ideal Górale ensemble playing style, lacking only the basy an instrument not represented at this informal back-stage gathering. Below is an ensemble score constructed from each part as played separately by Władysław above. The second-lead part is a combination of the first three bars with which he began his demonstration and what I believe are bars 4-6, played by Władysław after he demonstrated the first-lead part. The first-accompaniment part (violin II{1}) is a conflation of the two demonstrations played by Władysław. I believe this to be a fair representation of the double-lead style, if only for a few complete bars:

Example 9 (30k). Ensemble score constructed by the author from the elements demonstrated by Władysław Trebunia in ex. 5-8. Double-lead violin style.

The second bit of information that I will highlight from Władysław’s demonstration is his intriguing reference to the ethnographic literature on Górale music: “It was written one-hundred years ago […] Professor Chybiński writes: The violin played in unison with the fiddle.” Though he ages Chybiński considerably, Władysław quotes reasonably accurately a 1926 publication by the professor ( Chybiński 1961[1926]:96):

“Dawniej I skrzypce grywał gęślarz (na gęślikach), niekiedy grający unisono z I skrzypkiem.”

[Translation]: Long ago the first violin was played by a fiddler (on a small folk-violin), sometimes playing unison with a first violinist.

Władysław says this with marked irony, and then corrects the past ethnographer saying the violin and fiddle were playing close to the same thing. I believe he is suggesting that the early writer misunderstood what he was hearing. The musicians of a bygone era were not playing in unison but in tight harmony as he demonstrated with the double-lead violin parts transcribed above. Finally, Władysław backs up his opinion that the double-lead style is a historic practice by referring to Bartek (Bartuś) Obrochta, a near-legendary Górale musician whose art was documented by several ethnographers of music, including Chybiński.

I center this study around these two particular instances where Górale musicians criticize ethnographers of music because the object of their disagreement the double-lead violin style is symbolic of opposing views of Górale identity. What is it about the single-lead violin style that attracts the festival jurors seal of authenticity, but arouses such animated disagreement from both the junior and the senior Trebunias? I have two potential explanations, one of them historical and the second ideological.

First, the single-lead style is documented in the earliest authoritative descriptions of Górale music, giving it legitimacy. The historical documentation also created a canon of Górale music. Second, this documented legacy of a single-lead style conforms to nostalgic notions about a simpler, more pure, read primitive, time in Podhale that is ideologically important for ethnographers and tourists, but is interpreted differently by Górale musicians. As I hope to show, the double-lead style subtly subverts ideas of isolation and purity by suggesting musical connections beyond Podhale.

First the historical record: The earliest reliable and substantive description of Górale music practice is Muzyka Podhala, Stanisław Mierczyński’s collection of 101 tunes first published in 1930 and reflecting research done since 1914 ( Wrazen 1988:130).

Figure 1 (47k): Cover of the 1973 PWM reprint of Stanisław Mierczyński’s Muzyka Podhala.

The Górale music Mierczyński describes and transcribes is produced by an ensemble of bowed lutes consisting of a single lead violin responsible for the highly ornamented melody, and one or more accompanying violins together with a basy. The second violins and basy provide accompaniment for the single-lead violin, bowing vigorously on the quarter notes in 2/4 meter, as Górale music is conventionally transcribed. Below is an example from Mierczyński’s book illustrating this ensemble arrangement. The tune is a version of the same tune played by Władysław Trebunia above (Mierczyński 1930: #10; Czorsztyńska):

Example 10 (43k): Mierczyński’s transcription of the single-lead violin style, a version of the same tune that was performed by Trebunia. #10, “Czorsztyńska.” Layout by the author.

The introductory pages to Mierczyński’s book make it clear that he was concerned about preserving old-style Górale music. He is careful to note that his primary source of material, Górale violinist Bartuś Obrochta, was the last representative of the old Górale style, having learned in the nineteenth century (Mierczyński 1930:x). I believe in his efforts to preserve, he and others canonized a particular interpretation of Górale music, repertoire and style. The repertoire and ensemble style canonized by Mierczyński and others continues to be reinforced by ethnographers (see for example Kotoński 1956; Szurmiak-Bogucka 1959 & 1974; Wrazen 1988 & 1991; Cwizewicz 1995).

Like ethnographers, Górale also base their interpretations of their own music on perceived past practices. Both Krzysztof and Władysław Trebunia evoke history to defend their versions of proper Górale music performance style. Krzysztof looks to his family history to defend the double-lead violin style. At the end of the video clip I analyzed above, Władysław Trebunia defended his interpretation of old Górale style by evoking the name of the same Bartuś Obrochta with whom Mierczyński as well as Chybiński worked to create their descriptions of Górale music. According to the historic ethnographic record, Obrochta’s band and others played in a single-lead style. According to Władysław and Krzysztof, Obrochta and his contemporaries played in a double-lead style.

Here I do not attempt to determine how Górale musicians really played in the first quarter of this century. Instead, I am interested in understanding how individual musicians and ethnographers today use the same music played by Obrochta and others seventy-five years ago to tell different stories about Górale identity. This leads to my second idea about why the single-lead style continues to be emphasized by some ethnographers. I believe the single-lead style conforms to nostalgic notions about a simpler, more primitive time in Podhale. Nostalgia is an occupational hazard for ethnographers, and not inconsequently a valuable commodity for the tourist industry (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1995). The single violin playing a strident melody accompanied by a harmonically sparse strong steady pulsing rhythm sounds primitive to the present-day listener. It conjures notions of former times when village life was presumably pure and untainted by modern life. It is symbolic of independence: the single violinist in control of his music s destiny. The sparse single-lead style conforms to the ethnographic trope summarized above about Górale and their legendary purity, independence and distinctiveness resulting from mountain isolation. However, it is my interpretation that Krzysztof, Paweł, Władysław and other musicians use the same repertoire canonized by ethnographers to perform a contrasting history of themselves. They violate the code of purity when they perform in a double-lead violin style. They taint the canon of Górale music. They do so, at least in some cases as I have shown, with full knowledge that they go against authoritative interpretations of their own culture by ethnographers past and present. Instead of celebrating isolation, the classic ethnographic trope, Górale musicians recognize connections when they make music they perform a different story about Górale heritage. For example, the double-lead violin style is a subtle stylistic step out of Podhale west into the neighboring region of Żywiec, or east into Piwniczna where musicians join melodic instruments in heterophony and polyphony. Double-lead violins are also a stylistic step towards Slovakian and Hungarian music, currently very popular among Górale. In other words, Górale play themselves back along the Carpathian crescent performing in the present the same history ethnographers relegate to the ancients. By using the double-lead style Górale musicians turn a canonized symbol of difference and isolation into a performed declaration of connectedness.

Musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and other students of music convincingly show how music is used to construct and maintain individual and group identities. We know that music style is not only a matter of organized sound, but may be a clue to musicians self-conceptions. In this paper, I have shown that the debate about an ensemble performance style references different histories of Górale, and suggests different interpretations of Górale identity. I do not attempt to answer questions about how Górale musicians played seventy-five or one-hundred years ago, but focus on the ever changing meanings of musical style today. I have also shown how past ethnographic tropes are used, debated, and even discarded by the communities and individuals that were studied. The rich history of ethnographic interest in Podhale makes it an ideal location for studying how ethnography influences those studied. The challenge I accept as a present-day musical ethnographer of Górale is to know not only the relationships of current musical style to historical styles, but to understand also the varied and ever changing cultural meanings of old and new music practices.



[1]. Following Louise Wrazeń (1991:175) when writing in English, I use the plural Polish word Górale as both noun and adjective, singular and plural. Derived from góra (mountain), Górale refers to all from mountainous areas. However, here I use the word specifically for people of the Polish Tatra region. [Back]

[2]. Though the anthropological analysis of tourism began in the 1960s (Nűez 1963), only more recently have the sometimes uncomfortable similarities between ethnographers and tourists been noted (see Errington & Gewertz 1989; Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1988). Podhale, however, is a particularly rich field for studying the relationships between the ethnographic enterprise and the tourist industry. [Back]

[3]. For example, in conversations and interviews Jan Karpiel-Bulecka (ac9.iii.95), Tadeusz Styrczula-Maśniak, Krzysztof Trebunia-Tutka (ac20.xi.94.1), Władysław Trebunia-Tutka (v22.vii.95), Tadeusz Gąsienica-Giewont (ac16.v.95), Józef Leśniak (ac3.viii.95), and others all spoke to me about past and present musical ethnographers in Podhale. [Back]

[4]. A ciupaga is a long-handled hatchet traditional in Podhale and other Carpathian regions. [Back]

[5]. Letter and number configurations such as v22.vii.95 and ac20.xi.94.1 are accession codes for my video and audio field tapes. [Back]



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Timothy J. Cooley (b. 1962) is an ethnomusicologist who will receive his Ph.D. from Brown University in 1999 for his dissertation “Ethnography, Tourism, and Music-culture in the Tatra Mountains: Negotiated Representations of Polish GÛrale Ethnicity.” His publications include Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, (co-editor with Gregory F. Barz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); “Music of the Polish Tatra Mountain GÛrale in Chicago” forthcoming in The American Musical Atlas. Edited by Jeff Todd Titon. (New York: Schirmer Books); and the entry on “United States of America (European-American music: Polish).” co-authored with Janice Kleeman and forthcoming in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, revised edition,(London: Macmillan). Cooley also wrote extensive liner notes on early GÛrale music for a two volume CD set recorded in Chicago, Fire in the Mountains: Polish Mountain Fiddle Music , vols. 1 & 2. (Newton, New Jersey: Shanachie Entertainment Corp. 1997). His recent conference presentations include “Skanking in the Tatras: An Unlikely Mix of Polish Fiddle Music and Jamaican Reggae” (Society for Ethnomusicology, Pittsburgh, PA, October 1997) and “Multiculturalism in the Isolation of the Polish Tatras” (International Council for Traditional Music, Nitra, Slovak Republic, June 1997). In the fall of 1998 Cooley will join the ethnomusicology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on a teaching appointment.