The video for Polish band Same Suki’s song “VillageAnka” begins in black and white: seated at a table, a lone woman reaches for a cigarette pack. She lights up and fixes the viewer in her far-off gaze. The smoke that trails from her lips drifts and twists across the frame as she takes stock of the past. Singing in a haunting, nasal voice and through the words of a traditional song from the village of Kujawy, a mother questions her daughter.
A girl was walking through a cherry orchard,
She walked, looking for her downfall,
She walked and looked until it began to dawn,
And up came mother to ask about her wreath.
In folk tradition, Polish communities view the wreath as a symbol of youth, romance, and a girl’s virginity. On Kupala Night (St. John’s Night), girls float wreaths downstream to foretell their love lives; catching a girl’s wreath from the water is a love confession that may earn a kiss or more.
We hear the twang of Justyna Meliszek’s cello, and the scene bursts alive with color. As the melody changes, the language—original lyrics replacing folk ones—turns cocky, wry, and modern, though each couplet rhymes in a way that recalls jump-rope songs or East Slavic chastushki (traditional humorous verses).
The daughter responds:
My first lover was “spiritual”
After our flings he bathed in holy water.
For my second lover, I cooked dinners and did laundry
to get a spanking for it in the end.
By the time she reaches lover number eleven on her list, faces and settings changing with each scenario, we’ve heard a tale of humor, heartbreak, sex, adultery, and love affairs with men and (number seven) women. Despite the confident musical flourish at the end of the ditty, each verse is threaded through with centuries of women’s frustrated longings for something just out of reach. In a return to traditional folk lyrics, and through the band’s gathering voices, the mother asks:
Daughter, my daughter, where did you put your wreath?
She answers: Mother, my mother, I gave it to Janek.
Daughter, my daughter, what am I to do with you?
Should I give you to Janek, or pierce you with a knife?
Same Suki describe themselves as a revolutionary women’s folk ensemble. With an earthy folk irreverence and candor that pulls the audience into their space, the band sets a musical example for the world, telling women’s stories from across the present, rooted in their Polish cultural inheritance. Theirs is an expansive, creative vision, with room for everyone at the table.
“It all started with the suka biłgorajska,” says Helena Matuszewska, the group’s co-founder, on our Zoom call. “I fell in love with this instrument.” Literally suka (“bitch” or a type of fiddle) of Biłgoraj, a town in southeastern Poland, the suka biłgorajska is a reconstructed traditional string instrument played vertically with a bow, an ancestor of the modern violin. The instrument lends the group their name, Same Suki (“Just Suki”) and the playful double meaning of “Just Bitches.”
“From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to write our own lyrics, but based a little bit on traditional ways of writing these texts and saying things,” Matuszewska says, getting a faraway look in her eyes, tattooed fingers moving in front of her as if to draw out the words. “We wanted to sing about women and how women see the world, about ecology, about sexuality—about all the things that are maybe not so easy to talk about. But when we were digging in traditional texts”—she describes the nineteenth-century ethnographer Oskar Kolberg’s collection Lud (The Folk)—“we found that actually, people were singing about the typical current problems and topics one hundred years ago, two hundred years ago.”
Peasant life when Kolberg collected his ethnography was woven through with traditional songs in work, play, and ritual: songs honed and adapted in their re-singing. Folksong critiqued social roles and rules as well as instructed, and lyrics abound with descriptions of thwarted love, mismatched marriages, and desire.
“Folk music, traditional music, was the way to talk about the world,” Matuszewska says. “So people were singing about things that you could not talk about. Sometimes in funny ways, sometimes in sad ways.”
Like “VillageAnka,” many of Same Suki’s songs contain traditional lyrics set to their own arrangement. “We found some traditional texts so current and so important, for example, for things happening now in Poland, that we decided, okay, maybe we don’t have to write our own lyrics every time.”
One example is “Biczysko” (Whip), a song about a woman confronting domestic abuse, compiled from two sets of lyrics recorded by Kolberg (both translated below). Another is “Siedem” (Seven), a folksong in which a mother kills her young children. In the group’s rendition of these songs, faithful to their nineteenth-century lyrics, past and present generations of women speak together.
“Sometimes people think these are our lyrics, because they’re so intense—talking about such difficult things, like abortion, killing children, and things from everyday life, women unhappy in their marriages.” Thinking of the outlet folksong offered women in the past, Matuszewska adds, “I’m very happy that people were singing.”
What I earned, that which I earned, my Franek drank up.
There wasn’t anything I’d say to him that he wouldn’t beat me for.
“Don’t bark with your snout and you won’t get the whip.”
He beat me in the room, he beat me outside, he beat me in the chipyard.
He cut my head, tore up my cap, smacked me in the face.
“Don’t bark, and you won’t get it!”
A wife grew angry with her husband,
She took out money and went to the priest.
“Oh, my benefactor, advise me this,
What will I do with my husband?”
Get up early, even at midnight,
Boil water and scald his eyes.
Scald his eyes, break his legs,
And drag him through four thresholds.
Through four thresholds, over four sticks,
Look, husband, how the wife beats!
—“Biczysko,” traditional lyrics, arrangement by Same Suki
“My home village, where I am now, is a very small village in the Tatra Mountains in Poland. It’s a wooden house, and my parents were completely crazy about traditional living.” Matuszewska smiles as she speaks, one cherry earring dangling. Behind her, I make out darkly varnished wooden eaves and a frame drum on a shelf. “Here in Podhale and Spisz, traditional music is really alive. It always has been, so I was surrounded by people singing, playing, and really knowing their roots.”
“When I met with Magda, our vocalist,”—Magdalena Wieczorek—“we knew we wanted to make folk music based on traditional Polish melodies. We knew that we wanted it to be a women’s band. And we knew we wanted to play traditional instruments.”
In Polish, the saying co wieś to pieśń (“each village a different song”) describes the rich diversity of local folk music. Past members of the group brought their own musical roots from across the country: Patrycja Napierała hailing from Poznań in Wielkopolska to the west; Marta Sołek and Justyna Meliszek from Kraków in Małopolska to the south. “Each city, each town has a kind of folklore, a typical way of saying things,” Matuszewska says. The band’s lyrics make use of slang, regional dialects, and archaisms.
“Magda was born in Warsaw in the typical apartment block. She grew up in that city, but she has a big tradition of singing in her family. She’s always saying that this was her folklore. It’s also the way we’re mixing this village folklore with city folklore.” The band met in Warsaw, and its urban culture is an important influence on the experiences they capture.
Me, I’m from Warsaw, I don’t eat kaszanka
Because I come from a Varsovian father and a Varsovian mother.
And my Varsovian father didn’t work in the fields,
Didn’t chase away weevils and didn’t plow the land.
My Varsovian mother never herded geese.
She only sang to me when I was small.
And today I’ve sung and played the suka for you all,
So that all of Warsaw will rejoice.
—“Warszawianka,” traditional melody, lyrics by Magdalena Wieczorek
“As musicians, as artists, we are changing all the time. Because if you stay in one place, something went wrong. It’s good to explore, to search for new melodies, new instruments. The songs in our albums sound a particular way, and then sometimes when we play at concerts, they sound completely different. I think it’s good to change all the time.”
Over time, the band’s composition has changed too. Recently a man has joined the group, double bass player Karol Gadzało, rounding out the trio with Matuszewska and Wieczorek. I ask if they still call themselves a kobieca formacja, a women’s group.
“We are, because actually Karol—we’re saying that he’s the biggest suka in our band,” she jokes. “He’s totally into folk music, he’s totally into women’s rights and equality, and he’s full of energy. It was good to change in this way too, because it also changed our own thinking about our women’s singing and women’s saying things.” She holds both hands palms-up at the same level. “Men and women can be together, they can do things together, and it doesn’t have to be a fight. We can create a new musical reality together. On stage, Karol’s concert clothes are a Scottish kilt. So he’s playing on stage in a skirt. And this is also his way of saying it doesn’t matter—I’m a man, but I play in a women’s band and I feel it.”
Matuszewska is especially passionate about opening possibilities for women. “As women, we don’t have to be romantic and soft all the time. We can be wild women dancing and screaming and fighting for their rights.” I’m reminded of a YouTube comment on the video for “Biczysko” that reads, “How I wish I was dancing with you all!” Wieczorek created a protest song for the 2020-2021 women’s strike over abortion restrictions—a powerful, building march. Other pieces, like “Chodź tu do mnie” (Come here to me) express tender intimacy. “But also, we can be very emotional and very soft. We have all these different facets of ourselves in us.”
I ask if the group’s work, labeled “pornofolk” by their audience for its provocative lyrics, has been controversial. “For some people, sure, it’s too much. But we want to sing about us, with our voices. There’s no one way to see women or men or how to do things.”
This won’t be a song about love, no, no,
And not of Gryzia, Gryzia gryzie, Adzia adzie.*
This song is about lust, women’s lust.
And where did your beloved girl get lost?
And in the hay with boys she stayed.
And because carnal desire took her,
Because within a girl sits the devil, not virtue.
Guys and women the same are desiring
sometimes flirtatious, sometimes contrary.
Each as they want gives release to their desire,
For some it’s happy, and some it saddens.
You don’t have in this world fairness between the sexes,
A desirous woman makes good people angry.
A guy can frolic around to his fill,
Good people’s heads don’t hurt over it.
—“Równochuć,” lyrics by Same Suki
“You can choose,” Matuszewska says. “You can be eclectic—you can find something different in every kind of text and instrument, and in every traditional melody you can also hear something more like jazz or reggae.” Rooted musically in Polish folksong, Same Suki’s compositions mix and sample genres from rock to techno. Binding the whole together are the women’s compelling vocals and their acoustic instruments.
“Since we got together, we’ve tried to use only traditional instruments from around the world. They give us a kind of united space in which we do our thing.” In addition to the suka biłgorajska, the band has used the Płock fiddle (another reconstructed string instrument), cello, Turkish rebab, Greek lyre, North African bendir (frame drum), Peruvian cajón (“box” percussion), and Irish bodhrán drums, and others.
“As a violinist, after classical school,”—she smiles when she mentions it—“it was amazing that there are instruments that are the grandfathers and grandmothers of the violin and the viola and all these others. I loved the sounds and the possibility of these instruments. And they attract me because I cannot play everything on them.” Like the lyrical traditions Same Suki engages with, each of these instruments has its own voice. “You cannot play every note. They have a bit of a rougher sound, and because you can’t play everything, you have to think of other things, and suddenly you find other ornamentation, other possibilities… In this real simplicity and minimalism, you can find so much space and so much beauty.”
For Matuszewska, the group’s work draws on the rich heritage of Polish folk music and makes it their own, “telling” the stories of modern people in connection with—not severance from—the past.
“We always wanted to do our own thing and explore, but with respect for something that our grandfathers, grandmothers did—taking what they gave us but changing it in the here and now. Women a hundred years ago couldn’t sing some of our original songs and couldn’t have a band called Same Suki,” Matuszewska laughs.
That laughter—and pain—twine together in the ongoing threads of women’s folklore Same Suki has inherited and transformed. The words and music of songs vary along with the constellation of women’s experiences in society, but the need to keep singing has remained.
“We write our lyrics and sing and play them through folk music because this is music for people, from people, to people. And it always has been.”
Chela Aufderheide is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of the College of William & Mary, where she specialized in history and Russian and post-Soviet studies.