LABEL: SLOW DANCE
ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: EXPERIMENTS IN POLISH FOLK WITH INDONESIAN INSTRUMENTATION WEAVE A FRESH DREAMWORLD
Aga Ujma was born into a small town in South West Poland, which she describes as being ‘quite conservative but open-minded and extremely loving at the same time.’ That may express a tension for Aga Ujma in her development as an artist, but also works as a metaphor for wider folk culture as a whole. Is folk music conservative or liberal? Is it backward looking or an eye cast towards a vision of utopia? Is it the stultifying privilege of a young man shouting ‘judas!’ or a democratising force insisting the culture of any and every place is of vital interest?
Aga Ujma’s first EP, Songs of Innocence and Experience, creates a startling, fresh approach to folk music by being steeped both in the Polish tradition she was born into and the Indonesian culture where she was educated. Now based in London cosmosphere, Ujma has woven one of the most distinctive soundworlds of 2021. Her world is fathoms away from the vocabulary of folk music as articulated by most British, Irish or American artists.
That matters because in a genre of music where tradition is part of the appeal, freshness is essential. Comfortable cliché takes a chokehold faster than heresy and is just as deadly. There is nothing clichéd about this EP.
The five Songs of Innocence and Experience on the EP are minimalist, centred on Ujma’s voice and her playing of either the Indonesian sasando or gender barung. Ujma cites Bjork as an influence on her work, but for music geeks of a certain vintage, there is something reminiscent of Stina Nordenstam in the exposed nature of her delivery. Ujma has a wider range though and can produce surprising operatic flourishes.
For those, like me, who are new to Indonesian instrumentation, Ujma’s playing has a trance, ambient quality, particularly on ‘In The Ocean’. If you did not know that these were acoustic instruments, a listener could easily assume that Ujma was an electronic artist working through a variety of synths and computers. None of this is to say that this EP is hard work to listen to. ‘Night’ is romantic in a sense similar to the William Blake reference of the title. Hopefully, while Ujma reveals her restless spirit who likes to ‘be on my own without my mind’, she won’t stumble across any tygers in the forest.
Excitingly, a deluxe version of the EP has been released with 3 remixes added to the original release. Each remix earns its place in the collection, but the Felix Raman dub of ‘In The Ocean’ is exceptional. On the reworked version, Ujma’s vocals and playing are abstracted and arc-welded to a compelling sure-shot drumline that kicks as it kicks down expectations.
Aga Ujma is an important new voice for 2021. We are in constant need of artists who inhabit the conventions of traditional forms and are able to challenge and breathe fresh life into them. As a nation, we are in constant need of artists who can relate and open up folk cultures from Europe and the wider world back to our closing, insular context.