The ability to cry incorporates us back into human history.
Ernesto de Martino
Why sing and record traditional Polish carols in Arabic today? What is the purpose of such a distinct disruption of their popular and recognizable form? Why make these songs into something completely new, even alien, to the Polish musical culture? Everyone who comes up with these questions while listening to this album should be reminded that carols are, simply, neither Polish (which is self-evident: other European countries also have a rich repertoire of carols) nor Catholic. They are, much like any element of culture, a complex, heterogeneous and multifaceted phenomenon. Only the most popularized form of their use—during a Christmas supper, the mass or in numerous songs recorded by pop stars—oversimplified their meaning.
The origin of carols—which are also called pastorals or Christmas songs—dates back to pagan times and is related to the Roman feast of Kalendae, celebrated on the first day of January and devoted to Janus. He was the god of beginnings, patron of all things connected to joining, mediating, communicating—bridges, doorways, thresholds, and more. Only later, when Christianity became widespread, did carols start to be associated with songs about the birth of Jesus. Carolling did not only mean singing during the Christmas supper, together with close family members, but was a visit paid to neighbours, during which the song was both a form of asking for gifts and expressing gratitude for receiving them.
There are thus two carolling traditions referring to two different—and even opposite—chains of associations. On the one hand, it is singing in an enclosed space of one’s home with one’s family. On the other, it is singing on a threshold, as part of an exchange with others, in a liminal space which belongs to nobody and needs to be domesticated by everybody, in unison. This second type of tradition also constitutes a staging of the very biblical story the songs are about. Carollers knock at doors and ask for gifts in exchange for their singing. The situation evokes the ritual of hospitality which appears in the story about Christ’s birth and, at the same time, reverses its overtone by offering acceptance to the visitors expressed by, for example, gifts. Each year we can commemorate the birth of Jesus by accepting a stranger into our homes instead of leaving them to the hardships of wandering. This is also the meaning behind the empty plate left on the Christmas table, which proves that the space of our homes is never fully separated from the outside world, and is never complete without the presence—even symbolic—of those who are not the members of our households.
Thus, carols cumulate different cultural influences and different meanings. They talk about the hope we have for the good beginning of a new year, they celebrate the joy of Jesus’ birth, and also evoke that which is most important in culture: the joining of different elements, an exchange, a merging of influences, traditions, rituals and contexts. Only in this perspective can they reveal their true brilliance—which has been somewhat overshadowed by the commercial banalization and routine of annual Christmas celebrations. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to sing such well-known pieces in a new way, to introduce the kind of freshness they would have if they were sung, or born, for the first time this year.
The story of Chris’s birth that we know from the Gospel is neither simple nor one-dimensional. On the contrary, it presents, in a dramatic manner, the ambiguity, the true Janus-like face of the very fact of birth. On the one hand, every birth is a miracle. It constitutes the beginning of new possibilities and creates a new world which opens together with each individual biography. It is even more so in the case of the truly miraculous, naturally impossible birth of a god in the shape of a man. This “jolly news” expressed by carols is full of paradoxical figures, the most prominent of which is described in the first stanza of Bóg się rodzi (God is Born).
God is born, power trembles,
Lord of Heavens lies naked;
Fire freezes, light darkens,
The Endless has his limits.
Born lowly in glory,
A mortal King over eternity;
God born in a human body introduces great disturbance into the world and causes everything to seem different than usual: power becomes weakness, the Lord of Heavens appears as a naked and defenceless baby; the endless finds its limits, and the glorious becomes lowly.
The story of Christ’s birth contains, however, very different and very bitter news. The miracle of birth cannot occur without the curse of birth. Every new beginning ultimately takes place in the mundane world which is—as the words of the Oj maluśki, maluśki (Oh Little One) carol describe—full of poverty and anguish. Even God himself can be born here in an unsuitable place, in an inappropriate social group, in an unfavourable time. Even his birth can remain unnoticed, can become a source of loneliness, rejection, persecution. Even he was exiled, forced to become a refugee, scorned by people to whom he did no wrong. Born in a lowly stable he suffered humiliation which is experienced today by masses of those who were born in unfavourable conditions—in countries torn by wars, in poorer regions of the world, in areas suffering the effects of advancing climate change, among oppressed minorities. This paradox of birth—both miraculous and cursed, joyful and disquieting—means that every carol tells the story of Jesus as well as all those who have suffered his fate.
He suffered greatly,
at our own hands.
These words should evoke every Son and every Daughter of Man who had to experience suffering through no fault of their own, but because of hatred and indifference.
The carols translated by Szamani Yacoub and recorded by Barbara Kinga Majewska and Marcin Masecki are the songs for the time of contempt that we live in. The era of rising xenophobia replacing care and empathy in relation to the growing number of defenceless victims of wars, conflicts and other calamities. When thousands of unwanted strangers, searching for shelter from a certain death, die at the gates of fortified Europe, we cannot sing about any joyful news as we have always done. This belief guided the decisions regarding the arrangements of the carols on this album. Major keys turn into minor keys and give the pieces a different character and emotional registers. Instead of joy, triumph, there is a sense of melancholia, sadness, nostalgia for something which has been irrevocably lost. In such an atmosphere, every news of birth has the potential to become an introduction to grief. The carols are also sung in a decelerated tempo and offer a meandering rhythm of wandering rather than a lively melody. Finally, their lyrics have been translated into a dialect used in the region of Aleppo, the place which, in the last couple of years, has become the symbol of the ravages of war and senseless massacres of innocent people. To an unfamiliar ear of a Polish listener who does not speak the language, the carols must indeed sound alien. Even more so because of the fact that they are placed within a culture that is increasingly overshadowed by intolerance, prejudice and hatred towards any form of otherness, especially the kind which is even remotely and vaguely related to Arab tradition.
In such an arrangement, the carols become, first and foremost, a kind of a critical echo responding to the words of traditional carols sung without thought or reflection. To the increasingly enclosed community which relies on hearth and home and which domesticated carols to such a degree that they lost any meaning, offering their sense and mood in reversed form. Instead of joy—they bring pensiveness and sadness, instead of a quick rhythm and ceremonial phrases—a worried and disquieted slowness. The echo is unwanted and unnoticed. But it has to be heard by all those who wish to listen to the songs and remember that they reverberate here and now, in the world that we have built for ourselves. The critical aspect of this effort is to remind that the minor key is present in every nativity story and that it also demands mentioning injustice. The injustice of the past (described in the Gospel) of which we no longer wish to remember and the injustice of the present, which we do not wish to notice.
In these simple arrangements, when a sole voice is accompanied by isolated instruments—the harpsichord, piano, keyboard—the songs becomes more and more similar to a silent complaint. The voice breaks, slowly moves from sound to sound, the language no longer communicates legible messages. According to Gershom Scholem, a representative of the Jewish culture, another culture that is at the same time present and absent in Poland, a complaint is an expression of an absolute limit in the language. The language, no longer able to communicate, express anything positive, dies a tragic death right before our eyes. Singing carols in such an incomprehensible dialect is supposed to evoke this very kind of a dramatic effect of otherness, which causes the songs to become completely opaque and suffused with inexpressible sadness or resignation. They almost come to a stop, fade away in the increasingly slow-paced and melancholic phrasing.
But why should carols today deal with lamentations? Because for the last two thousand years nothing has been changed in human relations, as proven by every refugee rejected at the gates, every negative thing said against the others, every act of ignorance and indifference towards human suffering. In the context of the present world and its state, the songs run out of words, begin to sound in strange keys, only trying to express their disagreement and frame the unknown beauty of other languages and other traditions.
These carols are, however, something more than an echo and a lamentation—they are also a form of meditation. Songs which transcend their assigned place within a single religious, national or cultural identity. That is how they become more universal, they talk of the fate and condition of humankind instead of building a closed and exclusive image of a monolithic tradition. While we listen to them, they seem alternately familiar and strange, native and completely unintelligible, ours and alien. Belonging to no one and everyone. In their seductive, but not restrictive, beauty, they make us meditate. On what? For example—on the reasons why we lost the human impulse of empathy that we so eagerly praise in songs sung at Christmas tables. Why we forgot about the simple gestures of helping the oppressed, poor and abandoned which were familiar to common shepherds greeting God before all the high and mighty of this world two thousand years ago. And, perhaps, on the fact that it is still possible to sing all this in a different, better way.