|Alex Roth, Wacław Zimpel and Hubert Zemler
Photo credits L-R: Ken Drew, Joanna Kurkowska, Maciej Włodarczyk
Guitarist and composer ALEX ROTH left London for Kraków last summer in search of his Polish roots and artistic inspiration. We can hear the results in a new collaboration and a pair of concerts, in Kraków on 19 January and at Jazz Cafe POSK on 26 January. Alex explains his relocation and its results:
Last summer, I left London’s sprawling medley for the enchanting, historic city of Kraków, Poland. Among my reasons for relocating was a desire to (re)connect with my ancestral heritage – a calling that had intensified in the wake of Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis and various debates on immigration surrounding a certain referendum in June 2016. In such an environment, I felt hitherto dormant questions of belonging and identity bubble up to the surface. A couple of years down the line, I’m writing this from a place my ancestors called home for centuries…
My great-great-grandfather Herschel Roth came to the UK around 1890 from Kalisz, an ancient town now in central Poland but then under Russian rule (and formerly part of of Prussia). Fleeing the pogroms against Jews that were sweeping across the region, Herschel found his way to London’s East End, adopting the Anglicised name Harris. Over a century later, I’m retracing in reverse a migratory path that he and many other Jewish families took. The difference (other than the direction of travel) is that they made the journey out of desperation and fear, whereas I came to Poland filled with curiosity and hope.
Thanks to support from Arts Council England, I’ve been in residence at the Galicia Jewish Museum, exploring historical and contemporary Polish-Jewish life and attempting to position my own experience in relation to it after a four-generation separation.
I’m not sure I believe in the concept of national identity (at least as defined geopolitically), but in as much as Polishness can be said to exist, one of its most striking characteristics is surely a pervasive sense of everyday life being imbued with history. The longer a conversation here goes on, the more likely one is to end up discussing the country’s past. And not without good reason: indeed, it’s difficult to think of a European nation that has shape-shifted quite as radically as Poland in the modern era.
In 1795, the last of three partitions by the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires wiped the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (as it was then) from the map altogether. My family records don’t go that far back, but if my ancestors were already settled in Kalisz by this time, they would have been part of a Jewish community that made up 40 percent of the town’s population. Over the next century, growing Russian-backed antisemitism fueled great waves of emigration to western Europe and the US. Herschel/Harris, along with his parents and nine siblings, settled in Mile End.
We all know what fate befell the vast majority of Jews who remained. Today, Poland’s Jewish population – once the largest in Europe – is estimated at well under 10,000. But in the post-communist era, a generation of my peers has been seizing the opportunity presented by a more open society (the current right-wing government’s efforts notwithstanding) to re-evaluate Polish-Jewish culture. For the first time, artists and cultural commentators across the former Soviet bloc are free to engage critically with the complex events of the last hundred years or so. Meanwhile, institutions celebrating Jewish culture have opened all over Poland: Jewish Community Centres in Kraków and Warsaw; the capital’s Museum of the Living History of Polish Jews POLIN; the Galicia Jewish Museum. Kraków’s Jewish Culture Festival – taking place over ten days in the city’s Jewish quarter – is the largest of its kind in Europe.
The music I’m making during my time here isn’t intended to evoke that which might have been heard in 19th century shtetls. Instead, it’s a personal response to the the experience of returning to my ancestral homeland and seeking to connect with the culture I’ve found here. The project’s culmination is a pair of concerts, in Kraków (19 January) and London (26 January), with two musicians at the forefront of Poland’s experimental scene: clarinettist Wacław Zimpel and percussionist Hubert Zemler.
When I first started checking out Polish contemporary music – with the help of excellent features by bandcamp (see here and here) and the Quietus – Wacław and Hubert seemed to be associated with most of the records I really resonated with. Their solo releases (Lines and Pupation of Dissonance respectively) and records with groups like LAM and To Tu Orchestra were signs that something special was happening here. It’s an honour to be sharing the stage with them.
Since I conceived of this project, several of the themes it explores – not least migration and Jewish identity – have become widely discussed issues across British media. My generation of UK citizens looks set to become the last to have grown up with the right to move freely across European borders. Meanwhile, citations of antisemitism abound, both in Britain and Poland. In this context, my explorations seem (to me, at least) to have taken on an extra layer of symbolism, perhaps even defiance.
LINKS: Roth / Zimpel / Zemler perform at Jazz Café POSK, Hammersmith, on Saturday 26 January. More info and tickets are available here.