Snowboarding may have been a big attraction for returning to the mountain town of Zakopane in Poland for Terence, but for both of us, the exuberant live folk music, highlander culture, and hearty food were also major draws.
Every night and any night of the week in Zakopane, you can stroll down the main cobblestone street and drop into the rustic restaurants to find spirited folk music being expertly played by quartets or quintets – usually consisting of a few fiddles and a cello, although maybe there’ll also be a double bass, bagpipes, and local stringed instruments called gesle and zlobcoki. There is a lead singer, often male, with a powerful voice, although other band members will support him, and when larger groups perform at festivals, women will also sing, and there’ll be folk dancing.
In some strange way, listening to the folk music in Zakopane felt like returning ‘home’, to my grandparents ‘home’. I don’t have Polish heritage, but my mother’s side of the family is Russian, and while my grandparents felt Russian, they were geographically from the Ukraine, which neighbours southern Poland.
Spending a few hours in one of Zakopane’s restaurants transports me back to my childhood and young adulthood in Sydney, Australia – to the Sunday lunches at my grandparents that went on forever, the mouth-watering spreads that my baboushka would serve up, where the pots of piping hot, boiled pelimini and vereniki (Poland’s pierogi), dripping in butter, would be the star attraction.
The supporting act to the feasting and lively conversation that went late into the night would be my papa’s ‘entertainment’. This would alternate between him changing vinyl records like a greying DJ – anything from Tchaikovsky to Russian folk music – and, late in the evening, his own performances on the piano accordion. Tears of nostalgia would often follow those…
And in Zakopane, melancholy tears would occasionally form in my own eyes. Why? Because Zakopane’s special brand of vibrant folk music, known as ‘highlander music’, is not so unique. Zakopane’s ‘highlanders’, an ethnic group from Poland’s southern Tatra Mountains called the Podhale Gorale, originated from 15th century Polish, Czech, Vlach, Slovak, and, yes, Ukrainian shepherds. Over centuries, these groups developed their own cultures, dialects, music, costumes, and also cuisine, that had much in common with each other.
While the band members wear traditional costumes, it’s not for the tourists and the scene is not touristy. There are tourists, Polish and foreign (especially from Russia and the Ukraine), but there are always plenty of locals. Often also shedding a tear or two. The costumes are not intended to entice the tourists in, but simply reflect the pride the highlanders have in their unique culture and their desire for it to thrive.
The men wear white shirt, black waistcoat, perhaps a felt cape, felt trousers featuring embroidered patterns, a wide leather belt, and moccasins that they call kierpce. The women wear floral blouses and flowing skirts, a bonnet or floral scarf, and moccasins.
While the costumes add to the charm, the passionate music is what it’s all about. While most bands perform the very traditional folk songs popularised by the family band, Trebunie Tutki, from the village of Biały Dunajec just outside of Zakopane, some add modern or classical twists — many of the more accomplished musicians we met were classically trained.
Even Trebunie Tutki has experimented in recent years by incorporating reggae, rock and jazz sounds. On our first visit we saw one band that had created its own style of modern fusion folk music, incorporating jazz and classical sounds. Another even threw in some Beatles covers!
A night out seeing live music in Zakopane could become one of your most memorable in Poland, and it will cost you little more than your meal, drinks, and tips. We like to hop between restaurants, visiting several in a night, having a meal at one, and a post-dinner nightcap at one or two others, and when we’re in town, we try to do this every night, never tiring of the experience.
And if you become hooked as we did? Pick up a few CDs from the folk market in the centre of town. Baciarujciez Chlopcy and Zagrojcie Dudzicki by Trebunie Tutki were recommended to us and are wonderful.
Or perhaps return for Zakopane’s International Highland Folklore Festival, which it hosts each year, when as many as one and a half million people can hit town to celebrate highlander music, customs and culture. It’s not just folk music you’ll find here, however, Zakopane is rich in music traditions, hosting annual chamber music and jazz festivals. See www.zakopane-life.com for details on folk music in Zakopane.