Lins Honeyman spoke to Polish producer and multi-instrumentalist MIREK HODUN
Poland-born, Dundee-based multi-instrumentalist Mirek Hodun is a man who wears many musical hats. Currently best known as the highly acclaimed Hammond player with Scottish blues outfit the Simon Kennedy Band, whose eagerly anticipated second album 'All Or Nothing' has received a raft of positive reviews since its release in January, Mirek is also a schools music instructor, producer, arranger, a mainstay of acclaimed wedding band The Avenue and a whole host of other roles that, alongside his infectiously enthusiastic stage presence, betray an obvious love for his craft. In addition, back in 2016 Mirek teamed up with fellow countryman Mariusz Smialek to arrange and produce two Polish-sung worship albums under the Tylko Jezus banner (translated as "only Jesus") which marry Smialek's simple but effective songs with Mirek's innate ability to offer up something vibrant, memorable and accessible even to those beyond the pair's native Poland.
Born Miroslaw Hodun in the Eastern Polish village of Tuczna, Mirek was exposed to music from an early age thanks to the influence of his father who was a brass band leader and also played accordion and trumpet in various function bands in the district. Realising their young son had a natural talent, Mirek's parents bought him his own accordion and, before long, an elder brother would teach him how to play guitar before a move to a music school in Lublin as a teenager would provide wider opportunities for Mirek to develop musically - in particular as an accordionist and pianist. Whilst in Lublin, the Roman Catholic-raised Mirek joined a local Pentecostal church and came to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. This in turn resulted in a realisation that modern music could be used in worship settings and he became part of Polish Christian band Cana before a move to Warsaw saw him make his name as a producer and session musician for some of the country's top performers and labels including Polygram, Universal and EMI.
By the mid-'90s, Mirek and his mentor and Cana bandmate Jarek Pruszkowski formed a mainstream group called Sixteen which would go on to represent Poland in the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest in Birmingham with the song "To Takie Proste". Any joy at the relative success of the group was muted by the sudden death of Jarek and the band's members soon went their separate ways to explore other musical avenues. Having achieved acclaim in his native Poland, Mirek and his family took the bold decision to relocate to Scotland in 2007 in a move that would effectively see the seasoned musician having to start from scratch. Whilst working as a packer for a local food company, Mirek was approached to join Dundee blues band Red State on keyboards before striking up a friendship with the group's guitarist Simon Kennedy - an association that has lasted to this very day thanks to the pair's shared Christian faith plus their involvement with the Simon Kennedy Band and various other projects.
I catch up with Mirek in a rare Saturday off from gigs, production duties and weddings to find out more about the Tylko Jezus project as well as his long and varied career in music. As I ring the doorbell of his house on the outskirts of Dundee, he welcomes me with a wide grin - the same grin that appears at Simon Kennedy Band gigs during any given Hammond solo - and he ushers me into his front room. In the corner sits a Yamaha electric piano which he insists we duet on but not before we get down to business.
I begin by asking Mirek to provide a bit of background to Tylko Jezus. "Actually, the Tylko Jezus project started about 20 years ago - way before I got involved," he advises in a hybrid Polish/Scots accent that reflects both his past and present homelands. "Mariusz Smialek and his wife Grazyna had composed probably about 40 songs and it had been sitting in his heart for a long time to do something with them. At that time, he was leading worship in his church and those songs touched people's hearts and were well received in different congregations throughout Poland. Mariusz and his wife moved to Scotland around about the same time as we did and a mutual friend Piotr Plecha - an amazing musician who runs a worship school in Poland - basically recommended me to Mariusz. Mariusz then emailed me to ask if I would be happy to join the Tylko Jezus project. It sounded a bit crazy at first but it had a good vibe about it. I was so thankful that there were people in Polish communities who were passionate about evangelism."
It seems that once Mirek had confirmed he would be interested in becoming involved with Tylko Jezus, Mariusz wasted no time in moving to the next stage. "When I replied to his email, Mariusz said he was ready to meet me right away," he advises. "He was desperate to talk to me as soon as possible to explain his view of this project. What is amazing about Tylko Jezus is that, when they started to book me to provide music workshops for Mariusz's three sons, I discovered that the whole family was very musical. I said to Mariusz that he should make this a family-based project because that would be the strength of the whole thing and, considering the times that we live in, it would be good to recognise Christian family values. As you can hear from the albums, there are voices other than just Mariusz and it's all very flexible - there's not one front man or big star about it. One of the female singers is Mariusz's sister Magda and, although she lives in Poland, she came across to Scotland to record the vocals. My niece and my daughter also sing on it which helps keeps the family feel of the project."
I ask Mirek what he feels the overall aim of the Tylko Jezus project is. "My main aim as producer and arranger was to make it all sound professional," he states. "I played most of the instruments and I tried to make it sound as natural as possible but it was a challenge for me as well. Everything was self-financed which always makes things a little bit difficult because we wanted to push forward and make it happen. Our main goal was to spread the message that Jesus is the answer for everybody regardless of whether they're a Christian already who's struggling with something or are not a Christian yet but need a solution in their life.
"Ultimately, we want to make Tylko Jezus accessible to everybody regardless of the language barrier," Mirek continues. "We sang everything in Polish but our plan for the future is to record the albums in different languages - English, Italian and Spanish - and we're looking for native singers to sing the songs in these languages."
The first Tylko Jezus kicks off with the non-Polish sound of bagpipes and Mirek is quick to explain why Scotland's national instrument takes pride of place at the beginning of an undeniably Polish collection of songs. "The reason we added bagpipes was that the album was recorded in Scotland and our lives are settled here. This project can show people that, even though we are immigrants, it doesn't stop us from doing things and contributing something worthwhile. Including some Scottish instruments helps us blend in as well and mix with people. I can't say this on behalf of every Polish person but we have empathy towards Scottish people and we are so grateful for being here and all the possibilities and opportunities that we have."
With both eponymously-titled Tylko Jezus albums finding success both within and beyond Poland, I ask Mirek to cast his mind back to how it all began for him musically. "I got into music through my dad," he offers without hesitation. "My dad was a musician and he played trumpet and accordion at functions and he basically introduced me to music. We spent a lot of time together jamming and playing together. I'm so grateful for this because it wasn't easy for my parents. I wouldn't say we were poor as a family but they didn't have loads of money to send their children to London or some prestigious place to study music. On my third birthday, my parents bought me a tuned percussion toy to play and my dad figured out pretty quickly that I could play some simple tunes on it and later on they bought me an accordion which my dad taught me how to play. We had to travel quite far to get the accordion and, when my parents bought it, I seemingly wouldn't allow anyone to take it from me when we went back home from the shop. It was my treasure."
A minor disaster nearly stopped Mirek's tentative first steps into the world of music dead in their tracks. "I often played outside in front of our house during the summer," he recalls. "I remember my mum called me in to do something and I left the accordion outside. My mind went onto something else and I'd forgotten that I'd left the instrument outdoors and then the rain came on. Accordions are very fragile instruments and it basically fell apart. My dad found it and I was just so upset. I even stopped talking because my passion had disappeared. My dad said to my mum 'honey - we need to buy another accordion for Mirek'. They put some money aside and bought a slightly bigger accordion and then the old Mirek came back to life!"
Mirek is careful to acknowledge a debt of gratitude towards his mother Teresa, elder brother Slawek and sister Barbara who encouraged him on the road to becoming a musician before explaining that, at the tender age of 13, he moved away from home to the city of Lublin to start a six year spell at music school. "It was very challenging moving from a small village to a big city 200 kilometres away," he readily admits. "It was very tough for me because the standard of musicianship was very high and I was staying away from home. Nonetheless, Lublin is the place where I committed my life to the Lord Jesus and I started going along to one of the city's Pentecostal churches.
"It was a new experience for me because they had bands playing during the services and I had come from a Catholic background and wasn't used to this," Mirek expands. "This ended up changing my view on how music can be used by God and how it should and shouldn't be used. I met some professional musicians whilst I was there - they became Christians too and we started becoming involved in the worship team. The first Christian band that I was ever part of was called Cana - we did kind of soft rock - and that's where my involvement in Christian music began. At music school, I was exposed to different music styles - mostly classical but I also ended up playing piano for a school-based big band. I was lucky to have access to that because we were still under Communism and access to Western music was limited. I learnt a lot through self-discovery and listening to different types of music."
Despite the restrictions on Western music imposed by the Communist regime of the time, it appears that American gospel acts had quite an impact on the teenage Mirek. "The first ever concert I went to was by BeBe and CeCe Winans when they came to Poland and it was amazing. It was in Warsaw and I remember it cost me quite a lot of money but it was worth it. I was just blown away by the freedom of their music and performance and that made a big impact on me. Because of that concert, I started to explore gospel and blues music."
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