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  Istebna - Polish Folk Ensemble

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 The folk ensemble ISTEBNA is probably the oldest Polish folk groups, and one of the oldest in the world. Its history goes back to the very beginning of the 20th century.


 In 1901 the archduke of Austria, Frederick, was visiting the region

of Wisla in the south of Poland. One evening he saw a performance given by a group of highlanders from Istebna, a village situated in a place where, at present three borders- Polish, Czech and Slovakian meet. The archduke was so impressed by the highlanders’ dancing, singing, playing, that he promised to invite them to Vienna. And so he did. The group, which since 1901 has been officially performing as the Folk Ensemble Istebna, went to the capital of Austria in 1908. The highlanders were invited to perform in front of the emperor- Franz Josef at the 60th anniversary of his reign. On the emperor’s court they presented a traditional highland’s wedding accompanied by dances and songs. The audience was delighted by the simplicity and artistry of their costumes, the sound of their voices and spontaneity in their dancing. It was probably the most significant event in the history of the group.


The ensemble continued to develop throughout the years. The leaders as well as the dancers were changing, but the group was as a one big family. The tradition of being a member of the group was passed from generation to generation. Many of the present members’ ancestors were, in the past, also in the ensemble.

In 1933 the ensemble took part in a harvest holiday organized by the Polish president, Ignacy Moscicki, and two years later the group performed at the first Highland’s Holiday in Poland.

The group’s leader in the 1950’s, Zuzanna Gembolys, wanted to recreate the old Wallachian traditions, dances, songs and costumes. In the next decade, with a new leader-Anna Bury- the group took part in the Festival of Polish Highlanders’ Folklore in Zywiec (in which it takes part every year) and in the International Festival of Highlands in Zakopane, the most prestigious folk festival in Poland.

Since 1980’s the ensemble has taken part in many festivals in Poland and in other countries- Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Romania, presenting traditional spectacles

“In an inn”, “On a pasturage” with many highlands’ dances and songs.

In Scotland and Romania they performed in front of Polish emigrants, to whom those events were very momentous. Many of them had tears in their eyes while listening to the words of one of the traditional songs “Your homeland is a paradise, a gift from the Father in the Heaven you won’t find second like it”.

Nowadays the folk ensemble Istebna consists of 45 members. They are,

 in majority, students aged 15-25. They present the traditional folk-culture, dances, songs, music from the region of Istebna- a village situated in the south-west of Poland in the Silesian Beskid. The culture in this region took its roots from the Wallachian one, based mostly on shepherding. There are 3-4 musicians in the group. They use violin, traditional Silesian bagpipes and shepherd’s horns and pipes. They also use viola and double bass.



Traditional costumes




Men wear shirts with very rich, cross – embroidery decorations, trousers called „nogawice”, which are sewn from the woven woollen cloth. 

On a shirt highlander wear a kind of vest called „bruclik”. In the 19th century people sewed it from black, dark blue and then from red cloth.   A kind of outer man’s garment which plays decorative role rather than practical is thick, dark brown coat called „gunia”. On feet they have socks knitted from white wool and decorated with brown, green or black thread ornamentation on the top and leather flat shoes similar to moccasins called „kyrpce”. They are fastened to foot with long shoe laces tied around the leg (nodkoncia).

The very first part of women’s clothing is a very simple, archaic, sack – shaped, linen shirt with only one shoulder strap (ciasnocha). On this underwear mountaineer women dress a sort of white blouse sewn from thin linen or batiste. Its name is „kabotek”. It has elbow – length sleeves with embroidered narrow cuffs tied with red ribbons. „Kabotek” has a short, stand – up collar embroidered with red thread. Women’s underwear is usually covered with two pieces of cloths called „zapaska”. The back side cloth, black and pleated (fortuch) and blue dyed front one with white floral design (fortuszek). The legs of mountaineer women are dressed with 1.5 metres long red  stockings (nogawiczki) and short woollen socks with red top called „kopytka z wyrszczkym”. Women have the same as men footwear: leather,  moccasins – like shoes tied with ribbons. Young girls have always long hair plaited in tress. Married women have to wear white crocheted cap half of which is covered the net in the same colour as front apron.


Songs and dances


The traditional dances and songs of the ensemble are tightly connected with the shepherd’s culture, which was brought to Istebna by the Wallachian tribes in the 13th century. They show the work, duties of everyday life, the love to their land, to the God and the true happiness of being who they are and where they live. One of the most characteristic and the oldest dances presented by the group is “lowiynziok”- a coquettish dance in which a man (like a roster) walks around a woman showing his strength and handsomeness. This dance is met only in the region of Istebna. There is also a dance “zbójnicki”, danced only by men, who in very complicated figures, show their physical strength and skills. The majority of dances are danced in pairs, either in rows or in circles. Highland girls and women from the region of the Silesian Beskids are known for their beautiful voices called “white voice”. The songs are very varied, they differ a lot one from another. There are touching love-songs, merry songs about work, fun, shepherding, courtship, moving songs about life, death, longing.   


Traditional instruments


In their performances the group uses traditional instruments; violin,

 a kind of bagpipes, shepherd’s horns, pan-pipes. At the beginning the music band consisted of two man playing the violin and bagpipes (called Gajdy - large, low-pitched bellows-blown, the bag sometimes has the fleece left on the outside, other times is bare. The chanter has 6 finger holes but no thumb hole; the full-length drone pipe, decorated with inlaid metal designs, is balanced horizontally or diagonally over the left shoulder. The chanter stock often is saucer-shaped, although carved goat heads are also common, and the drone stock usually has a vestigial goat head (a suggestion of horns and eyes. They were sometimes accompanied by musicians playing different types of horns and pipes, which were originally used by shepherds to communicate with each other. Today the ensemble is accompanied by musicians playing the traditional instruments as well as some new- a double bass and a viola. What should be mentioned is the fact that none of the music band members’ is a professional musician, they all are self-taught.