The Feast of Saint Adalbert

Celebrated on 23rd April, the feast of Saint Adalbert traditionally launches the so-called redyk, or spring pasturage, in Poland. This day is supposed to open the sheep herding season. Adalbert is the patron saint of shepherds and his feast day should herald peaceful pasturage and abundant cheese production. It was customary for the shepherds who took their sheep and cattle out to graze to entertain themselves by playing musical instruments.

Common shearing organised by the Polish Union of Sheep Farmers (Związek Hodowców Owiec) in Podhale. A group photograph of shepherds and their children helping with the shearing, 1929. Source: NAC

Which instruments did the shepherds play?

There are at least a few instruments associated with shepherds – these are mainly flutes or reedpipes (piszczałki), bagpipes and horns. Some of them are called ‘pastoral’ to signify their association with shepherds.

A pastoral horn, Institute of Music and Dance, photo by W. Kielichowski.


What features should a pastoral instrument possess? Most of all, it needs to be small and easy to handle (portable), so that it can be used while walking towards the place of pasture. Numerous pastoral instruments are characterised by the simplicity of construction and the availability of the building materials, as some of them were made by the shepherds during herding. The music was frequently made in the simplest way possible. i.e. with a lilac twig or a rolled-up piece of bark. Whilst herding the cattle, the shepherds also liked to play the dulcimer, an instrument which is so small that it can easily fit in a pocket. Shepherd musicians in performance have been frequently portrayed in literature. Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer described the redyk departure in the following excerpt:

The juhases and wolarzes [different ranks of shepherds] blew their fujeras and trombitas [wind instruments], rattled their bagpipes, whistled their reedpipes and sounded their fiddles. The metal circles on their axes and the metal rings on their maces joined in the chorus. Those who did not play shouted out loud, while the shepherdesses shrieked at the cows and the wolarzes cracked their whips. The dogs barked and the sheep, cattle and horses stamped their hooves. How wonderful, melodious and solemn was the sound of the thousand bronze bells at the necks of the animals! The procession was launched. The herds, surrounded on horse and on foot and led by the baca [a head shepherd], started in a huge and long mass, followed by cows and oxen along the road and through the glade in Toporów. That’s when we heard wyskanie – the high-pitched cries of the shepherdesses and young chasers. With the screeching of the fujaras and the trombitas, the scraping of the fiddles and the reedpipes and the droning of the bagpipes, a dozen voices exclaimed [in the highlander dialect]:

Hey our baca, hey our baca, lead the way,
Upon the white rock let us climb!
Hey our baca, hey our baca, tell the mountains,
That we’re off away from home!
Hey our baca, hey our baca, where’s your rams?
Where’s your sheep and where’s your girls?
Przerwa Tetmajer, Up to the Mountains, see the source.

Flutes and reedpipes

In the Carpathian Mountains, the shepherds often played flutes without fingerholes. The relationship of these instruments with shepherds is evident in the nomenclature – they were usually called ‘pastoral flutes’ or ‘pastoral pipes’ (piszczałka pasterska or piszczałka wolarska).

A flute without fingerholes, Institute of Music and Dance, photo by W. Kielichowski

The repertoire performed on this simple wind instrument was strictly related to shepherding:

Na hali, na Hali (Onto the Pasture, Onto the Pasture), after: A. Kopoczek, Folk Musical Instruments from the Carpathian Mountains, 1996, p. 56.


The scale which can be used to play a flute without fingerholes is called the highlander (or pastoral) scale; it distinguishes itself by having a raised fourth sound and a lowered seventh sound. Apart from the type of flute mentioned above, the shepherds also liked to play its six-hole versions and dwojnice (double flutes). Pastoral flutes, or pipes, have been a popular feature of folk songs:

On the meadow, on the green,
Matty chases sheep;
On his flute made out of willow
He plays plaintively.
Oh dear God!
He plays plaintively.

— Where did you, Matty,
While chasing your sheep,
Get your little flute,
To play so plaintively?
Oh dear God!
To play so plaintively?

— Oh young master, I have carved it,
Out of that willow crooked,
That had blossomed on the grave
Of my mum beloved.
Oh dear God!
Of my mum beloved.


Songs with the same lyrics, yet various melodies, have been encountered all around the country – it is a widely popular folk motif. However, what we may find quite astonishing is that the lyrics themselves are not folk-like in origin – the folk musicians just assimilated a text written by Maria Konopnicka [a well-known Polish poet].
Flutes without fingerholes and other types of flutes and reedpipes used in the region of Podhale are beautifully described by Jan Karpiel-Bułecka:


Ocarina is the next instrument that used to be played by the Beskid Mountains shepherds during pasturage. The instrument is a type of a vessel flute. It is made of clay and has an oval shape with burnt-out finger holes and a blast hole. The ocarina may come in a variety of shapes: round, elliptical, conical or spindle-like.

A decorated ocarina from Górny Śląsk (Upper Silesia), Institute of Music and Dance, photo by W. Kielichowski.

The flute-like instrument used to be (and still is) sold at fairs, bazaars or church fetes, and often bought for children as a toy, but let us not forget that ocarinas were also played by shepherds and ensemble musicians in Żywiecczyzna (around the town of Żywiec). One such ensemble comprised a bagpiper, two fiddlers and an ocarinist.


The bagpipes are regarded as the most typical pastoral instrument in the Polish mountainous region of Podhale – it is commonly known as dudy podhalańskie (Podhale bagpipes) and koza podhalańska (Podhale goat pipes). The instrument was made from materials available for the highlanders while they were shepherding their sheep high in the mountains. The Podhale version belongs to the so-called south-eastern type of bagpipes and resembles similar instruments found in Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

Let us listen to a few stories about the Podhale bagpipes:

A number of famous bagpipers were themselves involved in shepherding – we know some of their names, e.g. Jan Furmański from Hala Kondratowa, Wojciech Gał from Olcza, Jędrzej Gąsienica Gładczan, Stanisław Gąsienica Byrcyn, Stanisław Budz Lepsiok (a.k.a. Mróz) and Józef Galica.

A Podhale pipe made by Adam Kuchta, photo by Waldemar Kielichowski, Institute of Music and Dance.

Just like the flutes (or reedpipes), the bagpipes in a duo with a baca have been a popular theme of folk songs:

Play your bagpipes, piper,
Here in my shelter,
Let the music sound
For my sheep around
(in: Stanisław Cercha, Łopuszna 1891, p. 175).

Redyk – then and now

The feast of Saint Adalbert traditionally marks the first departure of the sheep and the shepherds for the mountain pastures in the spring. The accompanying music was still widely performed throughout the nineteenth century, but it gradually became to fall out of use at the turn of the following century. It is still possible to encounter musical shepherds on their way up to the mountain pastures, but the sight is now rare and unusual. However, there has been a certain resurgence of the tradition, helped in no small measure by the organisation of the Unique Folk Instruments Performance Competition (Konkurs Gry na Unikatowych Instrumentach Ludowych) in Orawa and the Pastoral Instruments Performance Competition (Konkurs Gry na Instrumentach Pasterskich) in Ciechanowiec.

Shepherds’ shelters – a shepherd feeding his sheep in front of the entrance to his shelter. Source: NAC.

It is not only the popularity of the tradition that is changing but also its scope. Today, each shepherd carries a mobile phone to be in touch with his family and with the world at large. It used to be different, though. It is a historical fact, and a curiosity, that the shepherds used the sounds not only for their pleasure but also for very practical reasons – to communicate and to help guide their herds. Whistling was one of the most elemental stock-in-trade skills; different ranks of shepherds developed their own inimitable methods of whistling. A shrill and short whistle through the fingers was used to guide the sheep back. It consisted of two elements: a rapid whistle – a sort of glissando upward sound and a momentary stop eventually interrupted by a sudden repetition of the initial sound to wrap up the trick. Obviously, there used to be more types of whistles, with the ultimate one reserved for sounding the alarm.

Source: A. Trojanowicz, Laments, rhymes and cries in Polish folk music, 1989, p. 190.


Beside the instruments

Wincenty Pol wrote that:

The music of the pastures also serves to cheer up the mood – the bagpipe arouses dancing but the flute awakens the echoes of the rocks
(W. Pol, The Pictures of Nature 1870, p. 321)

However, the shepherds could not only play the instruments – they were accomplished singers, too. Some of their songs and cries/shouts served as communication signals. One of them was called wyskanie – it was a kind of solo guttural cry that allowed the performer to send signals over long distances. Wyskanie used to be the domain of girls herding the cattle. The scholars emphasise that wyskanie sometimes served as an introduction to a longer message sent over long distances through singing. At other times, however, it was performed for sheer pleasure, to beat the loneliness and monotony of herding. With the course of time, it detached itself from its original application and started to be used as ‘embellishment’ of the songs performed by musicians.

Source: A. Trojanowicz, Laments, rhymes and cries in Polish folk music, 1989, p. 187.


Wyskanie was sometimes known as helokanie. Interestingly, having undergone multiple editing procedures, this type of crying/shouting was used by David Bowie in his song titled Warszawa. Back in the late 1970s, the musician had an opportunity to enjoy a short sightseeing walk (less than three quarters of an hour long) around the Polish capital city. During the excursion, he came across, and bought, a record by the well-known Polish folk ensemble Śląsk featuring a song titled Helokanie, which inspired him to write his own music based on the original material. Does Bowie’s song conjure distant echoes of Polish shepherds? Listen and judge for yourselves:

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