Village Music: An Interview With Naphta

On the release of a new album that draws links between club music and the traditional sounds of his native Poland, Naphta speaks to Mariia Ustimenko about being an Eastern European artist under the Western gaze, issues of appropriation and more

Photos by Michal Wdowikowski

One dark, stormy Halloween night… or, was it dark, stormy Dziady? “This tradition has a complicated story because we don’t know to what extent things were celebrated”, says Naphta, the alias of musician and journalist Paweł Klimczak, about the pagan ritual of honouring ancestors, “But I think it’s interesting that every culture has its own rituals surrounding death.” In his new album Żałość, the Polish-by-citizenship artist explores local traditions, more specifically the loss of local traditions and their surrounding communities. “We don’t have our original culture. We have a culture that Christianity brought upon us. We don’t even know what our original culture was,” he says. “People are mostly having a holiday for themselves”, he says, “but some kids are doing Halloween and it’s really triggering for some Catholics.”

Identifying with either a Catholic or Polish identity is tricky for Klimczak because the church and Poland’s government use religion, nation-state rhetoric and hate speech against minorities in tandem. Plus, it’s not like the country had the same borders, let’s say, 80 years ago. “I live in an ex-German town [Wrocław] and to this day we sometimes jokingly refer to it as [its German name] Breslau. I was brought up in Zgorzelec, a city on the border with Germany, which is essentially a city split in half. And for the first six years of my life, I was living in a small village. So it’s complicated,” he says. He clarifies, “it’s not about a nationalist identity but a class identity”. He finds belonging in solidarity with the working class people exploited today and the peasants exploited in the past. “There are people who have and there are people who don’t. I’m on the side of people who don’t.”

When we’re scheduling a follow-up call, Klimczak is hiking in the mountains. “I’m strongly connected to nature. In Poland, the government doesn’t care. They will cut all the trees. They will sell land to the highest bidder. They don’t care and for me, it’s tragic.” This grieving process is one of the themes of the album — the sense of longing for nature, the generational trauma left by serfdom, wars and communist rule, and a nagging feeling of not quite knowing where it is that you are originally from. “This is my interpretation. I’m not a reporter, I’m an artist. It’s not reality. It’s my perceived vision that I propose. I’m open to discussing it with anyone, however, I have some books to back me up. So I’m ready.”

Why did you root this album in traditional Polish sounds?

Paweł Klimczak, Naptha: Because it’s rooted in the history of the Polish people. The people, not the ruling class. The stories from the fields and not the castles, so to speak. The majority of us are the descendants of peasants, poor people, the working class and villagers. A lot of current discussion in academia, sociology, and even in fiction — there’s a book called Upiór which looks at vampires in Polish culture as a vessel of class struggle, as a symbol of oppression — is about the people’s history of Poland, not the history that’s written by the aristocracy.

How does that relate to the album?

PK: To some extent, this village music was similar to how we experience club music today. There was a time of the year when you could go and dance your troubles away. The musicians were utilitarian so they played what people needed, kind of like DJs, and checked feedback with the dancefloor. If a musician was playing too fast or too slow, they were beaten up. Life in the village was tough. Hurt people hurt people and that’s the true history of… I don’t like nationalist terms like ‘Poland’. That’s the true history of these terrains.

Why define anything as ‘Polish’?

PK: That’s a nationalist term. I’m looking at it as a "local" or identity, an identity of people who live or lived here. Well, not even here. I’m from Wrocław and this is basically a German town. It’s Polish since 1945. People from this area, like my family, were uprooted from the East when World War II ended and resettled here to the ex-German terrains. I didn’t have an identity or traditions that I could be for or against. Only now, as a grown-ass man, I can look at it critically and maybe look for my identity.

With electronic music, we are copying from the West because we didn’t have techno per se in the 70s or 80s in Poland. Electronic music was sparse, even after 1989. This album is also inspired by dubstep and UK bass, things that really fucked me up when I first heard them. So, I was trying to find a thread in our tradition that I can weave into modern club music and I found this common ground with the village music. This is my interpretation, an artistic vision that you can mould reality into. Anyone can argue with me about it. However, I have some books to back me up. So I’m ready.

This album makes more sense to me as a jazz record.

PK: With my previous works, I was dipping my toes into the jazz world. With this project, I tried to simplify everything. But rhythmically, yeah. The one thing about music from this region that the rhythm is maybe too simple for me. That’s why I’m looking outside for syncopated rhythms, like in jazz, UK funky.

What about Afrobeat?

PK: Definitely. Artists like Sun Ra and Fela Kuti always inspired me. There’s a strong jazz and Afrobeat connection, as in the free-flowing nature of this music or reliance on the groove. I really love… not more complicated, but more danceable rhythms. That’s why I don’t particularly like "white techno". I don’t like the motoric rhythm that’s in there. I like when people dance with their hips.

I see an issue here…

Are you talking about appropriation?


As a person who appropriated a shit-ton of samples frivolously from across the world in the past, I think it is an issue, especially when you profit off of it. With this project, I wanted to explore something that’s actually ours and not look at other cultures. There are a lot of crazy rhythms in village music too but this rhythm is very crowded so you can’t necessarily point the groove out clearly.

I think there’s a case to be made that Poland was never a coloniser in the way that Western countries were. We colonised Belarus and Ukraine, and that’s the discussion that we need to have. But all in all, we were looking at exotic locales because our reality was so depressing. Maybe, that’s why we had this tropical house movement about ten years ago. Like, "there has to be a world where it’s better". And my generation wasn’t alone.

However, on this record, I’d say that I left these inspirations mostly out of the equation. I played the rhythm instruments and drum machine myself. I was sampling just bits of traditional Polish music. Well, the village music, not traditional. In the words of Andrzej Bieńkowski, an amazing writer and ethnographer who chronicled village music in Poland: "It’s not folk music, it’s village music because folk means slavery”.

I feel like using folk music is pandering to the Western gaze.

That’s why I wasn’t looking at folk music. The whole category of "world" music is commercially packaged products for a specific audience, often shaped with malicious or soulless intent.

Throughout my career, I was looking at the Western world, "Notice me! Give me a career!" but for a few years now, I’ve felt disillusioned and disappointed by the Western world. Fuck that. I’m doing something for me. I used to communicate in English on my social media — you know, stupid things like that — and maybe in Polish, for years. But now I don’t communicate in English. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, fuck it. They don’t owe me anything and I don’t owe them anything. Well… they maybe owe us something but that’s a topic of conversation for another time. But my art is my personal identity. Who am I? Am I a “citizen of the world” that capitalism really loves? No, I’m not that. I’m a dumbass from Poland.

So who did you write this album for?

Mostly for myself. It is a cliche but music has therapeutic value to me. This is a slightly sad record, but I made it during a depressive slump: two weeks of garnering this darkness and putting it into music. I don’t want to go outside and say, "I’m doing this for the people" because that’s not true. If people resonate with it, that’s amazing. But I won’t lie, I was doing it for myself. For my own expression of identity, of common history, of generational trauma. I’m not a folk artist.

Naphta’s new album Żałość is out now via Tańce

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