So widespread is the phenomenon of the jazz festival throughout Europe that it is easy to forget that older forms of black music also command the faithful from Sicily to Scandinavia. Bluesroads in Krakow, one of Poland’s most charmingly picturesque cities, is thus a reminder that the deep heritage of slave songs is still able to attract new generations of local listeners and practitioners who defy the received wisdom that their nationality predisposes them to the likes of Komeda, Stańko and Mozder at the expense of Patton, Wolf and Waters. Indeed, the sight of the septuagenarian Antek Krupa, voice and guitar deployed in whispery tantalisation, leading a collective of singers and players with a consummate feeling for a ‘dark night, cold ground’ folklore is a revelation, above all for the compatibility of the sibilant-heavy Polish language with a slow freight two-chord groove. Appearing in one of the cafes allocated for a series of concerts and jam sessions on the penultimate night of the four-day event, Krupa exudes a raw, rugged, spartan charisma that bespeaks long years of hard gigging.
However, several of the younger artists in the programme also have an energy and commitment to a guitar-harmonica aesthetic that shows the strength of the foundation Krupa and the likes of Wojciech Waglewski, another Polish blues institution, have laid. Groups taking part at the packed jam sessions, such as Raspberry Hill, are notable while Hot Tamales are a trio whose spare acoustic sound embellishes the strength of Eliza Sicinska’s voice. In fact, women feature prominently on the closing weekend of the festival, with a gospel choir led by Natalia Kwiatkowska running through spirited versions of anything from ‘My Sweet Lord’ to ‘Roll Jordan Roll’, while Levi, fronted by the dynamic Ewa Novel, also makes an impression with its blend of folk blues and soul that strikes a very good balance between sass and grit.
As does the exuberant Slovakian ensemble ZVA12-28 Band whose artfully croaking vocalist Norbert Cervenak makes for a mesmeric Eastern European Tom Waits, his rasping, road-weary drawl going down a treat with a highly responsive crowd. Most promisingly Bluesroads appears to have the ear of ‘millennial’ listeners as well as artists, and a town like Krakow, with its large student population, is a very appropriate setting. In any case, the standard of playing among young musicians at the annual Band Competition is consistently high, and the winner, a well-drilled combo called The Jammos, triumphs on the strength of one song that shows how a Delta blues template can be used as a jumping off point for a melody that is anything but second hand. Only in its sixth edition Bluesorads is celebrating a genre of music from the past that can still inform the future, and the sly straddling of the language barrier that occurs throughout several of the gigs, as epitomised by Levi’s ‘Babski Blues’, underlines the place of the specific within the universal. It simply means that a Polish woman will tell her own story as it has been lived in Krakow, not Clarksdale.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Jacek Smoter