Żywiołak, initially formed in Warsaw in 2005, is a Polish folk rock band steeped in mythos. Its name references the Elemental, a magical being said to harness the power of nature in the form of air, fire, water, or earth. Their lyrics sing of epic battles (in Wojownik, or Warrior) and explore the traditions of the early peoples of Poland, including the Vandals, a Germanic tribe that originally lived in Southern Poland and whose conquests spanned throughout Europe (in Epopeja Wandalska, or Vandal Epic). Żywiołak revives the history of its native nation while also connecting to a larger global community.
Biography and Influences of Żywiołak
Before the release of their debut album, Nowa Ex-tradycja (New World Tradition) in 2008, Żywiołak’s line-up was in flux. A percussion instrumentalist, Maciej Dymek, joined original members Robert Jaworski and Robert Wasilewski and was followed by two female vocalists named Anucha Piotrowska and Izabella Byra. From 2008-2011, singer Monika Sadkowska replaced Byra. Following her stint with Żywiołak, Sadkowska pursued climate activism and worked with the World Wildlife Fund.
Musically, Żywiołak blends classical folk instruments with rock and metal elements like distorted guitar and heavy bass. Many tracks feature the hurdy gurdy, a crank-operated instrument with similar range to a violin found across cultures in Medieval Europe. In addition, the female vocalists occasionally utilize diaphony, a dissonant vocal harmony found in traditional Slavic cultures, to create tension and contribute to the witchy feel of many of their tracks. A great example of this diaphony can be found in Ballada o głupim Wiesławie, The Ballad of Stupid Wieslaw, below.
Pagan Roots and Modern Popularity
Despite Catholicism’s religious dominance in Poland, Żywiołak is unafraid to reference pagan magic, evil spirits, and witchcraft. Oko Dybuka (Eye of the Dybbuk), a track on their first album, references a malevolent ghost from Jewish folklore. Czarodzielnica (Witch’s Night) is a vivid incantation, a song that invites in a myriad of mythical mischief makers including Slavic folk icon Baba Yaga, who often appears as an old crone who lives in a house with legs.
The song Bóstwa (Deities), included on 2017 album Pieśni pół/nocy (Midnight Songs), mirrors Żywiołak’s place as an ambassador between Slavic folk tradition and modern, Western rock through its depiction of Kupala, a pagan holiday celebrated on the longest day of the year. Originally practiced as fertility rites and an homage to the Sun, Kupala became Ivan Kupala, and fused with the Christian John the Baptist in a process known as syncretism.
Istanbuł (Istanbul) begins with an acknowledgment of the social effects of Catholicism and embraces Europe’s religious diversity. This track is featured on Żywiołak’s concept album Globalna Wiocha (Global Village), where the band composed songs based on major cities in Europe, including Moscow, Berlin, and Oslo. Through this album, Żywiołak reveals its modern, pan-European stance without losing the pride of its original Polish source material.
Żywiołak has performed across Europe, including extensively in Germany. Their song Noc Kupały (Night of Kupala) was nominated for Eurovision’s “Song of Europe” in 2008, though it was disqualified because it had been previously performed before the agreed upon date. The soundtrack of the video game World of Tanks contains a song by Żywiołak, a song which is also their most played track on Spotify with 5.8 million listens. Their single Sol Invictus has enjoyed 3.2 million hits on YouTube and nearly 2 million plays on Spotify.
Żywiołak, the powerful elemental, seems to have mastered all four: rock and folk, history and the present. They have seamlessly fused rock and folk to blur time between themselves and their ancestors. Even if it’s to expand your Dungeons and Dragons playlist, or play something in the background while you slay kikimori in Witcher, Żywiołak is worth an afternoon (or perhaps a few centuries) to explore their songs and entertaining music videos.
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