CSOC Faculty Update: Margi Nowak

An all-too brief but significant portion of my summer involved my coordinating a “heritage family tour” to Poland for three of my Nowak cousins, their husbands, and my older son.  I had been to Poland twice previously, but in very different capacities: once, long ago, as a Jagiellonian University summer-school Polish language student in Kraków; the other time, in 2003, as a faculty advisor for some UPS students who were part of a mainly US and Canadian group of 150 students that studied about and visited three Nazi death camps.

What captivated me in Poland just this past July and August, however, was the music I heard in Kazimierz, the formerly Jewish district located less than a mile from Kraków’s Old Town. Students who have taken my freshman seminar on genocide know why references to Jewish districts in Poland today would likely need to be qualified by the word “former” or “formerly”.  Sadly, very few native Polish Jews or their descendants remain in Poland today out of those millions who had lived there before the Holocaust.

And yet klezmer music was vibrantly alive that evening in Kazimierz, pouring out of clubs, playing on stereos in bookstores, and available for sale on CDs.  A little ethnographic digging revealed more:  the musicians (typically, classically-trained and not Jewish) seemed to be genuinely interested in exploring Judaism and their own collective and familial Polish past in respect to Poland’s Jews, and they also seemed very keen on performing this music live and in front of audiences (including dozens of tourists from all over Europe and beyond).

No, this music is not “authentic” 1930s klezmer, but then the idea that an art form should be “frozen” into an unchangeable clone of what had been in the past is probably neither vital nor sustainable anyway.  Furthermore, the music I heard and liked so much was clearly incorporating other new influences: Balkan and Gypsy-jazz in particular.  I bought a CD, brought it home, copied it onto my iPod, and then started looking for more.

I was blown away by the richness of the music of this sort that I found on YouTube and on various MP3 download sites.  In addition to what I call the “neo-klezmer” genre, Polish “ethno” music today also includes music of the Tatra Mountain highlanders (the people, called Góral, have their own distinctive dress, dialect, and musical style). Here again, however, the traditional music has been updated by young musicians, fused with reggae, techno, and other new styles, and even performed collaboratively, most famously by a generations-old Góral family band together with Twinkle Brothers, a Jamaican reggae group.

Given my career-long interest in ethnic identity (a topic I first researched in connection with Tibetan refugees in India at the very beginning of my anthropological career), this summer’s trip to Poland has sparked an enormous interest on my part regarding Polish ethno-music and more.  Stay tuned for future developments.

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