Midnight accordion carnivalesques: Interview with Scotia Gilroy, Canadian expat
She left Vancouver seven years ago with the plan to become a musician. She came to Krakow to learn to play the accordion. One day in a smoky bar she heard an Australian woman, Sonia Maclean, playing her French horn in a rock and roll band. She felt that the sound of Sonia’s horn was perfect to go with her accordion and the “dark, carnivalesque” melodies she had recently been composing. They soon got together to jam. The songs, which fall into two main categories – experimental “reveries” (with loop pedal), and “circus theme songs” – came spilling out. Two months ago they became a real trio when they were joined by Rafal Kaczmarek, who drums in Fox Gang. They’ve just finished recording a demo CD and plan to record a full-length album soon. Two weeks ago, The Midnight Reverie Trio – together with other foreign musicians – performed in a music festival organized at pl. Szczepanski for Krakow’s 750th birthday.
Krakow Post: Altogether there are about 11 expat bands, it seems we have a strong foreign musician community in Krakow. Do you feel yourself a part of it?
Scotia Gilroy: I enjoy being friends with other expat bands. We play a lot of concerts together and support what each of us is doing, and benefit a lot from knowing each other. But I think it’s important to be careful not to get too closed off within an expat music community. We already feel that we’re somewhat outside of the scene, since our music is really different from what the other expat bands are doing. It’s a good scene, but I feel our band could benefit a lot from stepping outside, interacting with the Polish and European music scenes and generally having a dialogue with the society we’re living in. My wish is to play for Polish audiences as much as for “expat” ones. I don’t want to stay in an enclave.
KP: Do you think an expat music enclave exists in Krakow? What does the expat music enclave in Krakow look like?
SG: Most of the expat bands in Krakow are loud rock ‘n’ roll bands, party bands – playing music to dance and have a good time, too. Some of them have their own unique sound; for example, New Century Classics, Fox Gang, and Molus and Zapala. But still, most of the expat bands stay within typical American styles of music. Our music stands apart to begin with because it is strongly influenced by European musical heritage, rather than American. The sound of the accordion alone immediately gives our music a European feel. And a lot of our melodies are inspired by Polish folk tunes and klezmer music. But most of all we think of ourselves as a carnival band. It’s a kind of circus music, what we create, inspired by the old-time European carnival culture.
KP: Where do you play your concerts? Where do the other foreigners perform?
SG: Most of the gigs happen in bars. It seems like the only type of venues that exist in Krakow are these really smoky, dark, underground bars. A lot of groups have their favorite places to play, such as B.Side, Tytus i Koka. Fox Gang has a regular place – Awaria. One of the members of Fox Gang told me that their relationship with Awaria is like the relationship the Beatles had to The Cavern – it’s a grungy little place where they play regularly and feel at home. I’ve played in various Krakow bars, including Tytus i Koka, Kawiarnia Naukowa, Pierwszy Lokal, and Cafe Szafe. I always agree to play, but I’m not always comfortable in this type of venue. Most of the bars in Krakow are small and claustrophobic. I’m a non-smoker, so after I play in a horribly smoky bar, especially in winter when the windows aren’t open, I feel pretty sick. In Canada a band like ours probably wouldn’t be performing so often in bars like that. In Vancouver there are a lot of art spaces, created in old factories or abandoned houses. Artists rent these places and create “art spaces” – venues for concerts, exhibitions, dance and theatre performances, and parties. This kind of space is where I wish I could be playing music. There’s a much better atmosphere, one of the main reasons being that all the people at the show have come there solely to see the show. In bars it’s different. Some people have come to see the show, while others are there just to drink. I’m sure in Krakow there are a lot of big abandoned buildings that could be turned into interesting artistic venues. But you need a group of musicians and artists who are interested in getting together to rent it out. There are a lot of these places in Berlin, but so far I haven’t seen any in Krakow.
KP: You plan to record a CD soon. Has any expat band already done it in Krakow?
SG: I think a lot of them have put out CDs, all self-released as far as I know. None of the groups are on a label, though some of them are probably looking for one. I would like our band to eventually be signed to a small, independent label which puts out interesting, experimental music. For now we’re happy being independent.
KP: Why did you come to Krakow?
SG: I came here to learn to play the accordion. It was one of my big reasons. I became interested in Eastern and Central Europe while I was studying English literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The literature program at my university was very Anglo-centric – only British, American, and Canadian literature. I became more and more interested in Eastern European literature. By my last year of studies I had decided to move to Eastern Europe to teach English after I finished my degree. Then, during my last year of studies I fell in love with someone who had exactly the same plan: to escape from the commercial, consumerist, banal reality of Vancouver. But we didn’t know exactly where. During the last month of our studies we discovered the Polish writer Bruno Schulz. When you read the first page of Cinnamon Shops you feel yourself hurtled into a completely new world because of his incredibly unique use of language. I was dazzled by Bruno Schulz. It seemed to me that nobody else, either before him or since, has written so beautifully. It was this book that first got us thinking about Poland. We became curious about Polish literature, so we next bought Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind, then books by Witkacy and Gombrowicz. We thought Poland must be a very intelligent, interesting country. My husband and I both write. We felt Schulz was closer to us than any English-language writer.
KP: What was your first impression of Poland? Were you disappointed? You first came here eight years ago. Has anything changed?
SG: When we first came it was an amazing feeling to be in a new country where everything was so alien, unfamiliar. We didn’t know beforehand what Polish society was like; we didn’t know anything about the way Polish people think. Our first impression was that Poland seemed to be very old-fashioned, magical. We were surprised at how religious Krakow was – a center of Catholic culture where people come to train to be priests, nuns, and monks. In multicultural Vancouver, where there’s a constant striving for equality between all religions and cultures, a Catholic procession on the street would be unheard of, so this was very exotic for us. It was fairly easy to learn Polish, because from the beginning of my life here it was total immersion. Some foreigners I now know tell me that they get around by speaking English all the time, and this really surprises me. When I first came here eight years ago I had the impression that it was impossible to communicate with anyone in English, even if I had tried to. It was Polish from the very start – all of my shopping, interacting on the streets, making friends. But these days I’m hearing more and more English on the streets, so I guess things are changing. I’ve even had shop assistants answer me in English a few times lately, after hearing my accent, which is a very strange experience for me. It didn’t use to be like that at all.
KP: Why did you choose Krakow?
SG: After deciding that we wanted to move to Poland, we read about a few different cities in a guidebook trying to decide which one sounded the most interesting. Krakow sounded great. We read about all the different festivals that take place here. We also read in the guidebook that every year, in June, the mayor of Krakow symbolically gives the keys of the city to all the students and they have a festival called Juvenalia! Krakow seemed to be an unbelievable place, where people can be crazy, drink in the street, and wear costumes for a whole week and everybody accepts it, because it’s a tradition. I know an 80-year-old Polish woman who says she remembers Juvenalia in the 1930s. She told me that Juvenalia was so beautiful back then – the students played classical music in the streets. Nowadays everything has changed and become more obnoxious and violent, but nobody says Juvenalia must stop – because it’s a tradition, everybody accepts it.
KP: Was it harder for you to become a musician here than it would have been in Vancouver?
SG: For me it’s a lot harder here. In Vancouver there’s a really good experimental, independent music scene, more open-minded than I’ve discovered here. For rock ‘n’ roll bands it’s probably easy to fit in here. But on the other hand, in terms of folk music it’s much better to be here. I wouldn’t be able to hear any of it in Canada. I spent my first year here looking for a good accordion, and when I found one I bought it and began teaching myself to play by ear. I just recorded every accordion I heard on the streets for about five years. I listened to these tapes at home over and over again. The music that interested me the most was the music I heard played by Romanian Roma. I wanted to play it. I met a Romanian Roma named Ivan, probably the best accordionist in Krakow, and I invited him to my home to teach me. He told me that he had no idea how to teach, so I asked him to just play for a few hours, allowing me to record him, sometimes stopping to show me some special things he was doing. Now I’m also starting to play the mandolin. At the moment I’m very happy here. For me it’s almost like magic when you find other musicians with whom you can work. Maybe I would have found interesting musicians to work with in Vancouver, too, if I had stayed… but it’s true that, no matter where you are born and raised, it always feels easier to find good opportunities if you uproot yourself and go to a different place. There’s a new kind of courage that comes to you. It’s kind of like putting on a costume when you first move to a new country. You can create a new identity for yourself. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to decide one day that I was tired of teaching and that I was going to make money playing my accordion dressed in a flower costume, if I had stayed in Canada! I think this is true for everybody, but it takes different forms. For me it’s to be an accordionist. British stag party guys can be someone new too. Maybe back in London they have a very normal life, they work in an office. But when they come to Krakow for a stag party, they can lie drunk in the street, completely naked or wearing a dress. Could they do this in London, where a lot of people know them? You can be someone new when you travel – it’s true for everyone. You can find new energy, make a new career, create a new identity.
Scotia Gilroy plays accordion in The Midnight Reverie Trio and does musical story-telling shows for kids in English as “Rosie the Accordion-Playing Rose”.