Repulsion to Ritual: Interpreting Folk Festivals in the Polish Tatras

By Cooley, Timothy J. | Ethnologies, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

Repulsion to Ritual: Interpreting Folk Festivals in the Polish Tatras


Cooley, Timothy J., Ethnologies


I invite you to join me vicariously on a journey to a folk festival that takes place in a village in the Tatra Mountain region of Poland.(1) This region is called Podhale, which means "piedmont" or at mountain's base, and the people of Podhale call themselves Gorale, after the word gora, or mountain. They are mountaineers, and the music and culture I focus on here is defined by the alpine Tatra mountains. Podhale has been developed as a tourist destination since the late nineteenth century to the extent that today tourism is the major regional industry.(2) Part of the development of the region as a tourist destination was the creation of a new performance venue: the folk festival. The goal of this paper is to interpret folk festival stage presentations in two different ways. First I interpret the festival stage shows as stylized events for tourists that contrast sharply with off-stage events that are typically considered more "authentic" and valuable. Second, I argue that the festival stage shows are better understood as modern-day rituals that fulfill some of the same human and social needs met by more universally recognized rituals.

Poronianskie Lato: The "Poronin Summer" Festival 1992

It is July 1992 and I am making my first journey to Podhale after several years of fascination with the music from this mountain region. In the late 1980s when researching for the state of Illinois what they called "ethnic and folk art," I met a group of Gorale immigrants who played violin, sang, and danced with an exuberance that fueled my imagination. My desire to better understand Gorale and their culture has led me to spend the summer in Krakow studying the Polish language. Later in August I will live for a few weeks in a Podhalan village, but I have not yet actually made my way south to the Tatras. Today, Sunday 19 July, I make my first trip into the mountains at the invitation of Aleksandra Szurmiak-Bogucka, a Polish ethnomusicologist with perhaps the most long-standing and active research interest in Gorale music (i.e. Szurmiak-Bogucka 1959, 1974, 1991, & Szurmiak-Bogucka & Bogucki 1961). She has published several books and academic articles on Gorale music, and she is an almost constant presence at folk festivals in Podhale. Already familiar with her work, I had contacted her at her home in Krakow and requested a meeting. She suggested I meet her in the village of Poronin this weekend where we can both talk about and witness the topic of my interest. I am going to the source of my fascination and I feel a sense of pilgrimage.

A few friends and adventure seekers, two Polish-Americans and one Canadian, join me on my journey. We board a bus and are driven through the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque splendor of Poland's former royal seat, Krakow, and wind our way south toward a collection of mountain villages. Krakow easily negotiates the distance between the ancient and modern using the physical presence of the town's splendid architecture as monumental symbols of Poland's people and statehood. The old royal castle and Renaissance town square have long lost their original functions as the home of the King and as a cloth market, but they are given new life in a process that Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett theorizes as "heritage" (1995). What once drew royal visitors and fine cloth merchants to Krakow is now heritage that attracts tourists and their money to the local economy. Gorale in Podhale too negotiate the past and present, but as we will see, here the past is not monumental, but enacted, performed in what I will call music-culture: the sounds, concepts, social interactions, and materials associated with music.

After a two-hour bus ride into ever higher and more rugged mountains, we arrive in Poronin near the village park where the festival is already under way. This village contrasts sharply with the cosmopolitan old-Europe feel of Krakow. Instead of gothic masonry arches, the predominant architectural medium is a refined and regionally specific style of log construction [photograph 1]. …

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