Ifi Ude: the Polish pop balladeer blending Slavic and Nigerian folk traditions

17 November 2021

“They just don’t make music like they used to” is something you hear often, though rarely is it spoken by a musician with an acclaimed recent album. But Nigerian-born Polish singer Ifi Ude is the first to admit it.

“I think people had better taste a hundred years ago,” she says, laughing. “Songs stood out for their harmonies, lyrics, musicality — today’s radio tracks are just selling a product. I often think I’d rather look back than ahead.”

Ude’s early career showcased her skills as a restless musical archaeologist. She first made her mark in 2012, teaming up with Warsaw-based West African musicians to tackle Stanisław Grzesiuk’s “Nie masz cwaniaka nad warszawiaka” (“There’s No Hustler Like a Warsaw Hustler”). The song is perhaps the best known of the “Warsaw ballads” of the early 20th century: spiky, spirited paeans to the capital’s dreamers and schemers, once played by amateur orchestras across its roguish Praga district. Ude’s rendition reimagined the much-loved hustler figure as a young black woman in a hefty fur hat. Throughout the 2010s, she also released songs inspired by women’s diaries from the Second World War, her silvery voice offset by drum machines and reggae brass sections.

Image: Natalia Jaszczuk

Ude’s breakout record Ludevo (a play on the Polish “ludowo,” or “in the folk style”) winds the clock back yet further, delving into the folk heritage of her Slavic homeland — and far beyond. Released to rave reviews in August 2021, Ludevo weaves stories of hardscrabble life in highland villages, lovestruck peasants perishing in ancient pinewoods, and wayward fathers lost to drink and disorder. Ude’s achievement is making these tropes sound utterly, achingly modern, not least thanks to the album’s slick production and bold electro-pop arrangements. Ludevo glides from operatic grandeur (“Kwiat”) to pitch-dark dance numbers (“Tato, tato”) and eerie piano-driven ballads (“Nasze drogi złączył czas”), featuring West African drums, kora solos, as much as Polish folk instruments.

Ude says she was guided by what she sees as the timelessness of folk song.

“The idea [for the record] came soon after I attended the ArtGene folk music festival in Tbilisi,” she recalls. She speaks of falling under the spell of Georgian polyphonic singing — “the minor chords, the choruses crashing overhead” — and the romanticism of the venue, an open-air ethnographic museum perched high in the hills above the city.

Folk tradition sees women as far more than victims, despite the cruel fates they are too often dealt

“I came back to Warsaw and immediately bought a compilation of Polish folk records,” she says. “I was awestruck by the wisdom and symbolic depth of those traditional songs. All the whistling, choruses, and exclamations also spoke to me – the music seemed pure in its simplicity; primitive in the best sense of the word. To me, it embodied a visceral, immediate engagement with the world.”

Ude speaks of folk music as “an accessible means of grappling with the absolute,” pointing to Polish village chants which tell of death, catastrophe, and upheaval. Her own writing stays true to these inspirations, peering in on moments of extremity — on her first single from Ludevo, “Tato, tato” (“Daddy, Daddy”), she channels a peasant girl whose father is killed on a drunken rampage. The song’s bleakly ironic lyrics (“Isn’t that what dads are for / to keep young girls free from fear / isn’t that what dads are for / to keep nightmares away”) echo the laconic cruelty of folk songs the world over.

“Pod sosną” (“Under the Pine Tree”), a reworking of a chant from the Radom region, is another tale of shattered innocence, as it follows a village woman through the heady days of young love and on to her chillingly predictable undoing. (“My dear Jaś, I have news for you / we’re going to have a child of our own (…) / My Zosia, I’ll have to kill you here / Lay you down underneath the hazel leaves.”) The soothing, resigned tone of Ude’s vocals lends an air of dreamlike determinism to proceedings: under the hulking pines, history repeats itself; an age-old cosmic mechanism grinds into gear.

Yet the singer insists that folk culture, while not shying away from darkness, can be a source of consolation amid personal and societal trouble.

“I wrote Ludevo at a time when I felt lost, depressed, grappling with a multitude of life changes,” she tells me. “I won’t say folk music was a means of escape, but it was the key to a safe fantasy world, where I could hide … I could draw on it to create a personal, intimate language to describe what was happening to me.”

She asserts that folk tradition sees women as far more than victims, despite the cruel fates they are too often dealt. The choral, prayer-like “Intro” to the record invokes “the songs of old mothers”, gusting down from the mountaintops to lend the protagonist their strength.

“It took me a few years to come out of my shell,” Ude says. (Ludevo was penned in instalments between 2015 and 2021). “When I did, I turned towards women. I wanted to seek support in the wisdom of those who came before me; I listened to female singers carrying on Poland’s folk traditions. They gave me a foundation, a sense that everything will be alright — that no matter what happens in one’s personal life or in the world, it will already have happened sometime in the past. It may be trite, but it’s still powerful.”

She argues that folk music transcends time and place, tapping into a commonality of feeling that knows no regional or racial boundaries. “As Jung said, we’re all islands that connect underwater,” she tells me. “As different as we think we are, we have a common emotional core. This core is perhaps easiest to access through art, especially art dealing with universal, timeless predicaments: death, uncertainty, feeling lost or out of place.”

Image: Zija & Pióro

“Musically speaking, I think all folk songs are based on similar foundations. Regardless of where it comes from, it retains a certain trance-like quality, a central preoccupation with rhythm. Personally, I’m fascinated by the cross-fertilisation of musical traditions around the world,” she adds, her examples ranging from Tuareg blues (inspired by American blues records brought over to North-West Africa by the British) to Thailand’s 1970s funk scene.

Ludevo, similarly, borrows from a multitude of regions and genres. “Gdy dorosnę” (“When I Grow Up”), incorporates Ude’s recordings of traditional Nigerian songs, performed by women from her paternal family’s village near Enugu, Igboland. Another track, “Bart und Helga”, foregrounds Polish multi-instrumentalist Bart Pałyga‘s skill with the Swedish nyckelharpa. Gambian-born Buba Badjie Kuyateh, familiar from Ude’s “Warsaw hustler” anthem, contributed kora parts throughout the record. Ludevo also brings in instruments such as the Indian sarangi and the Armenian duduk.

“Most of all, I was after a certain plaintive sound,” Ude tells me. “The sarangi and duduk‘s vibrations certainly resonated with my heart!”

In interviews, she stresses the international character of her vision, saying that she wrote Ludevo for “a tribe of people linked by a common view of the world.” The music video for the second single, “Kwiat” (“Flower”) has a strong environmental theme; it features an ornately dressed figure dancing in the morning sun, removing plastic rubbish from lakeshores and forests as she moves through the landscape. Promotional blurbs for Ludevo suggest that we as a humanity should draw lessons from past rural lifestyles in order to care for our planet. It is possible to think of Ude’s work as part of a broader Polish folk revival. Across the country, young artists such as Polish-Ukrainian quartet Dagadana and Warsaw-based Sutari are reinventing traditional Slavic and Baltic musical forms; many of them weaving in personal experience while also encouraging audiences to listen with a greater ecological awareness.

“I want my work to be meaningful,” Ude tells me. “It’s all very well writing about love, as profound and life-changing as love can be. It can be hard to watch the news these days, seeing the deforestation, the oil spills, the refugee crisis on Poland’s eastern border. I think it’s worth addressing these topics – I believe small behavioural changes do matter, at least when it comes to the environment. As an artist, a mother, a woman running a household, I’d like to contribute however I can.”

She says that the first single, “Tato, tato”, was explicitly intended to address the impact on alcoholism on Polish families (“every other friend of mine has been affected in some way”). Kinga Brocka’s award-winning music video shows grieving women in their rural home, their mourning dresses and billowing veils mingling with wisps of candle smoke. “It was important to me that the mother in the video is black,” Ude says. “I saw it as a way to hint at the universality of the experience, but also to foreground my own situation.”

She recalls facing discrimination and struggling with self-acceptance as a biracial woman in Poland.

Image: Honorata Karapuda

“For a long time, I felt like I had to earn my inclusion in communities around me,” she recalls. She remembers thinking that the only way to be accepted and earn the respect of her peers was to embody complete self-reliance and — possibly, as a method of self-protection — project an image of herself as someone who can “deal with anything life sends her way.”

Ude’s version of “Warsaw hustler,” featuring Gambian and Senegalese-born musicians living in the city, once paid homage to the Polish capital’s increasing multiculturalism as much as to its musical classics. “I’m still convinced that Warsaw is an enclave of sorts,” she says. “It’s by far the most diverse city in Poland – not just due to an influx of visitors, but also people who settle down here, who see Warsaw’s potential to be an open, modern European capital. I’m full of hope for the city’s future.”

I ask if her exploration of folk music’s “common emotional core” has influenced her ideas around identity and belonging.

“I really believe in the power of communal feeling,” she responds. “A common wellspring of human emotion that can be accessed through art, particularly art as primordial as folk song. There’s an expression in Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”, she adds, referring to the Polish Nobel winner’s 2009 novel. “‘The power of communal feeling in liminal states.’ Searching for that is my first artistic principle.”

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