Article by Małgorzata Stanek
Imagine spending a sunny August afternoon in the streets of a charming Old Town filled with colourful stalls, the hustle of bustle of various languages (Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Slovak) and traditional music. This is what happens in mid-August in Lublin, Poland.
Lublin is a charming city in eastern Poland that has much to offer. Beautiful sites, places of remembrance, pleasant, calm atmosphere, residents passionate about their heritage and many fascinating events that take place all year round when many of the residents as well as tourists gather together in celebration of culture, art and tradition and of a sense of age-old community.
One beautiful annual event is the Jagiellonian Fair, now in its 12th year. The Jagiellonian Fair is, broadly speaking, a meeting with traditional culture of Central and East European countries in many forms: concerts, workshops, presentations but also direct meetings with another person. The event historically refers to 15th century fairs that took place in Lublin. Lublin, located on the crossroad of trade routes, attracted traders and merchants from various corners of Poland and Europe. The event aims at showcasing the most beautiful, authentic aspects of traditional culture of this area and how it inspires more contemporary forms of art, or how they can engage in a dialogue and draw inspiration from one another.
The event focuses around a craftsman’s fair – wooden stalls scattered around the Old Town erupt with colour. The organizers highlight that unlike in many other similar events, the stalls at the Jagiellonian Fair cannot be simply bought – the artists are hand-picked; the organizers strive to invite only those artists who represent genuine local or family traditions. We meet around 300 of them from various countries (Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Hungary, this year even Sweden), always kind and eager to tell us about their craft, what drove them to begin, to show and explain the skills. They are happy to answer any questions, they are happy to demonstrate and explain their work, including at various workshops they run.
You can learn from them – they are happy to teach us so that the tradition and awareness of it live on. Their stories are varied, interesting and usually do highlight one fact – they carry their crafts in their heart. This openness, honesty and authenticity strongly resonates. As I walk among the stalls, listening to their stories, observing the skills and admiring the meticulous work, work that is the result of absolutely pure passion and love, I feel moved to tears. It is pure delight to meet them and learn what it means to have a genuine passion and love of traditional handcraft, to be reminded of a certain lifestyle, values and to feel like a part of a warm-hearted community.
The variety of items on display (and available for purchase) range from traditional pysanky eggs, lace and embroidery, through decorations (including pająki traditional, spider-like ornaments that used to be hung in households), toys, unique instruments, blacksmith’s wares – and many others. There is much to feast your eyes on – and the stories of the artisans fill the hearts too.
Every year, the festival focuses on a different theme. This year, the main theme was lace.
There were several exhibitions dedicated to this delicate and meticulous craft. One, entitled “Her majesty Koniaków lace” featured lace from Koniaków, a village in southern Poland known for its lace-making traditions and even finding new applications for this meticulous art, including g-strings. There was a lace umbrella and lace wedding and cocktail dress on display, among other things. Another lace-focused exhibition was a presentation of the organizers’ field research trip and their interviews with lacemakers. Lace was also the inspiration for a mural that adorned one of the event’s locations – the building where the office of the organizers is located, a delightful, peaceful, green-filled patio where workshops were held during the event. Moreover, a pająk referring to this year’s theme was hung in the ancient entryway to the Old Town – the so called Cracow (Krakowska Gate), an architectural symbol of the city built as part of its fortifications during the reign of Casimir the Great in 14th century. The pająk hung at homes was the guardian of good fortune and providence of the household; hung in the Gate, it brings joy to the city.
This year’s pajak was made to reflect the theme of the Jagiellonian Fair – lace.
The Jagiellonian Fair is also very much about celebrating traditional music. There is plenty of music! As we walk among the stalls, for instance, a traditional band may suddenly gallantly surprise you with a spontaneous mini-performance. One of the projects associated with the Jagiellonian Fair is the Jagiellonian Fair Orchestra – open to all enthusiasts of traditional music who also wish to hone their music skills. The Orchestra hold rehearsals throughout the year and perform at the dance parties during the event.
The dance parties are a fantastic opportunity to dance through the night to the tune of lively, fiery music. Sometimes, the band starts going so fast, it becomes hard to keep up! If you feel insecure about your dancing skills, you can always join dance workshops that teach the repertoire played at the parties, but it’s also fun to just hop spontaneously as you like. Trying to keep up with the rhythm can be a real challenge though! Aside from dancing, there are also presentations and workshops dedicated to traditional singing techniques and old song repertoires from various corners of eastern and central Europe.
Furthermore, the bands perform not just at dance parties or in the streets. There are also concerts. One of the concerts is called re:tradition, during which popular performers meet with traditional village musicians, practising authentic traditional music. They rehearse together and learn from one another. The result is an absolutely arresting dialogue between tradition and more modern sounds.
The village singers stand in the highlight, not quite used to stage performances, evident in how microphone-shy they can be at times. They present their musical skills, telling various tales through their art. This year, one of the ladies sang out the haunting, tragic story of the Ulma family – her own relatives. The Ulmas were a family living in south-eastern Poland during the Nazi occupation. They gave shelter to Jews, were denounced and subsequently murdered one early morning – first the Jews, then the Ulmas, including the pregnant mother of the family. Reportedly, she started giving birth at the moment of execution and the baby died too. The song, performed in a traditional singing technique, was a genuinely heart-rending experience.
It’s worth noting that re:tradition was performed in the courtyard of the Lublin Castle that served as prison at various times, most infamously during the Nazi occupation. Just before the Nazi withdrew from Lublin in July 1944, the remaining prisoners (around 300) were murdered.
There are also individual concerts featuring foreign bands playing their roots music, or mixing it up with personal ideas and arrangement. This year, the festival introduced the Norwegian Raabygg – a trio of delightful girls. The girls spun folk tales illustrated with their enchanting music. It was an intimate affair performed on a small stage in the Dominican Monastery, a quiet setting, slightly removed from the hustle and bustle of the main artery of the festival. The big stage in Lublin Castle courtyard also featured the Cypriot Monsieur Doumani whose simple but energetic, honest arrangements easily reached the heart and Violons Barbares consisting of musicians from Bulgaria, Mongolia and France who swept us along on a musical journey featuring a combination of music traditions from their countries. All concerts during the Jagiellonian Fair are unique experiences, an opportunity to take in an incredible richness of themes, techniques and approaches. Most of all, it’s always full of heart.
Other than concerts, workshops, exhibitions and meetings with people and tradition, there is also a place for families to spend quality time together, playing traditional games. The Jagiellonian Fair Playground, located in a huge green area directly below the Lublin Castle, offers a variety of large-scale games, some more familiar than others. Among others, you can play tic tac toe using large wooden noughts and crosses, but there is a variety of other traditional games all families can enjoy – together.