Welcome to another special edition of our mixtape. Inspired by the generosity of the past few months, I have decided to give you a grand tour of the alternative music scene in Poland. Since the first edition our selections have always included a section dedicated to music by Polish artists. Unfortunately, with the amount of material available it had been impossible to squeeze in everyone deserving a mention. The resulting selection presents mostly newcomers, but there are few names you might have already come across before here. Talented, creative, confident and relevant; this is how I would describe the new generation of musicians from Poland. At first a little shy, but with time becoming more confident, young Polish artists have been securing their place on the musical map of Europe for over a decade now. The increased cultural exchange happening nowadays, with festivals and social media being the main vehicles, the Poles have been gaining visibility and praise beyond their local scene. Plus, the success and prestige of some of the music festivals organized in Poland acts also in their favour. Every edition of those events attracts a large number of international artists and visitors each year. Besides being headlined by big names in the music business, festivals such as OPENER, TAURON, OFF FESTIVAL, AUDIORIVER or UNSOUND, always include the long list of local talent in their line-ups.
It is safe to say that ladies have always dominated the centre of the stage in my homeland. No wonder then that BRODKA, ZAMILSKA and FELICITA are leading this new Polish invasion. Avid music fans may be familiar with Berlin based producer duo, CATZ’N’DOGZ and synth-pop acts REBEKA and KAMP!, who already have made their name on international stage. WOJTEK MAZOLEWSKI QUINTET’s highly acclaimed 2014 album, “Polka”, has been picked up by Whirlwind Recordings label and is now being re-released for worldwide audiences. Folklore ambassadors WARSAW VILLAGE BAND are equally popular abroad as they are in their homeland. WACŁAW ZIMPEL, a classically trained experimental clarinetist, is another name worth mentioning. His joint session for BBC3 radio with English electronic music producer, Forest Swords, and rapper Belinda Zhawi earlier this year got a lot of thumbs up around.
As trends come and go, they also tend to come back again. Usually, it’s due to young musicians finding inspiration beyond their contemporaries and digging out the ideas from the past. Therefore to get a clearer idea of what’s happening right now and why, we should take a step back in time. I presume not many of you are familiar with the history of Polish pop, so I have prepared a short guide through the past of popular music in Poland.
IT BEGINS IN THE EARLY 20th century
The story begins in the early 20th century. The archives from the prewar era prove that Poland was never behind the West when it comes to music trends. The archival recordings of jazz ensembles and vocal groups from that period released on Syrena Record, the biggest record label then, are the evidence of a rich tradition complete with homegrown superstars and hit songs. Even until current time those vintage sounds continue to influence Polish jazzmen. On their last two albums, the musical tandem of MASECKI / MŁYNARSKI, paid a tribute to those old-time charlestons and rags in a very literal way. Staying incredibly true to the source material, their records could easily be mistaken for authentic prewar recordings.
THE WAR AND ITS AFTERMATH
Unfortunately, the war stopped the things from moving forward. Many artists lost their lives during it, archives had been destroyed and there had been very few reasons for celebration. But music lived on, mostly on the streets of big cities, as one of the forms of resistance against the German occupation. In the 50’s, Poland had fallen under yet another regime. With the popular culture under a strict state surveillance, the music did not mirror the cruel reality of Stalinism. Polite, sweet and innocent swinging songs filled the radio waves and the late night parties called “dancings”. But the rebellious nature of the Poles and the strive for freedom found its output somewhere else. Towards the end of the decade a new trouble had started to brew in the basements of student clubs and intellectual hotspots. As the sound of contemporary jazz dripped through the cracks in the iron curtain, the love for jazz music had been reignited. A next generation of musicians, inspired by the American musical traditions as well as the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, had started the first postwar, grassroots popular culture movement. The legendary trumpeter Tomasz Stańko, who sadly passed away this summer, was among the musicians who created unique sound capturing the beauty and the anxiety of those times. Many artists had emigrated, seeking creative freedom, and had found fame on international stages, especially in the US. Jazz, and jazzmen, became the hottest export from Poland.
THE 60’s – BIGBIT ENTERS THE STAGE
The reign of jazz continued into the sixties, until it was interrupted by the arrival of something less intellectual and sublime, but more energetic and accessible. Like their counterparts in the West, Polish youngsters got hooked on that pretty, young thing called rock’n’roll. It started with local bands inspired by The Beatles blatantly adopting Fab Four’s sound and image. With time, rock’n’roll in Eastern Block became its own thing. Christened as “bigbit” (“big beat” with polonized spelling), this artistic trend married flower power carefree attitude and fashion with elements of Slavic folklore. The communist state had deemed it rebellious, dangerous and morally corrupting, and therefore not welcome. All of a sudden jazz, also a product of American imperialism, lost its spot of being the public enemy number one. Seen as ideology free by the state, jazz went from “non grata” status to nearly a government-sponsored darling allowed to flourish freely.
THE 70’s – THE UNDERGROUND EVOLVES
The records kept on flowing in, still mostly from the west, bringing new trends over to Poland. The underground scene 70’s was taken over by hard rock and blues, while the mainstream produced homegrown versions of disco, funk and folk rock. The sixties and the seventies remain the decades which are being repeatedly rediscovered and revisited by the younger generations of musicians. The recordings are often given second life, either being covered (MARIKA, NATALIA SIKORA) or sampled by hiphop (BITAMINA) and electronic music producers (NOON, SKALPEL’s Marcin Cichy aka MEETING BY CHANCE, SKARBY) or indie acts like POLSKIE NAGRANIA. Those two decades are unquestionably considered as the pinnacle of musicianship within the popular music.
THE 80’s – TIME OF PUNK ROCK
The 80’s were the time when punk rock exploded. The gritty, DIY esthetics of punk fitted the grim reality of a communist country like a glove. On the other hand, the neon-lit, multicolored synth pop and italodisco, provided a much needed escape from the gray, everyday life. The 80’s synthesizer music runs though the veins of many youngsters today. The artists behind this wave of nostalgia (KAMP!, AGI_M & BRODKA, EFEKTVOL) might not remember much of the decade but they surely are able to refresh its esthetics with truly amusing results.
THE 90’s – HIP HOP FROM THE BLOCKS
The 90’s in Poland were the time of change, hope and more creative freedom, but also arrival of capitalist attitudes towards the art, big record labels and first commercial radio stations. Guitar music, in one form or another, dominated the charts for most of the decade although there had been first signs of dance music, soul and r’n’b breaking through that monolithic wall. Surprisingly, it had been hip-hop that managed make the most impact. As it took over the minds and ears of the young people from the apartment blocks, it gave them a language to express themselves and breakaway from their frustrated youth. It also created a sharp-tongued, realist subculture which provided sometimes harsh but honest countercultural commentary of the times. On their critically acclaimed album, “Sen”, rapper/producer duo SYNY are successfully recreating that feel and sound, nearly 20 years later. Another release, the second part in the compilation series ALBO INACZEJ, contains new interpretations of rap classics by collective of young pop vocalists. The first part introduced the formula by employing legendary jazz and pop singers.
The music kept evolving; musicians kept mixing the new with the old, the local with the global. Some artists have turned to their local roots for inspiration. Polish folklore and folk music is currently being made cool by such groups as TULIA, PANIENECZKI, KAPELA ZE WSI WARSZAWA, MIEJSCOVI.
THE PRESENT DAY – THE KALEIDOSCOPE
This brings us to the present day. With easier access to media and tools for music making and self-promotion Poland’s music scene became more creative, vibrant and diverse. Add flawless English, skill, unique imagination and ambition to that equation. The current alternative sound is made up of a kaleidoscope of genres blending with each other, from dance and electronic music (SONBIRD, LINIA NOCNA, BAD LIGHT DISTRICT), soul (ROSALIE., PAULINA PRZYBYSZ, LESKI, RAPLH KAMINSKI, BASS ASTRAL x IGO, SZTOKHOLM) to acoustic folk (KORTEZ, KUCZ/BILIŃSKA). Thanks to HOLAK, MAŁE MIASTA, TACO HEMINGWAY, BITAMINA, Polish rap graduates from variety of schools nowadays. The club scene has also flourished in recent years and the tracks EARTH TRAX & NEWBORN JR, SELTRON, ELTRON JOHN and NAPHTA included in our mixtape will give you a little teaser of what can be heard across the dancefloors in Poland. On the other hand, the likes of TOMASZ MREŃCA, STEFAN WESOŁOWSKI, XENONY, NANOOK OF THE NORTH produce electronic soundscapes you rather listen to than dance to. Polish jazz, as I have already mentioned, has a rich tradition and many musicians and collectives are carrying its torch. Reaching out the jazz fans worldwide, without the burden of language barrier, groups like EABS, JAZZPOSPOLITA, WOJTEK MAZOLEWSKI QUINTET follow the steps of their predecessors. The indie bands may dominate the festival stages, the first pages of streaming services and radio waves (DZIEWCZYNY, WCZASY, NEW PEOPLE, RYCERZYKI, KOMETY, MUCHY, OXFORD DRAMA) but the fans of the heavier, more traditional sound will be rest assured by the likes of CHEAP TABACCO, KAZIK & ZDUNEK ENSEMBLE, POWER OF TRINITY, GUTEK or HALO that Polish rock is alive and kicking.
What I have presented you with here with is only a rough sketch of a larger, more complex picture. Compact and comprehensive, I hope, it had to be tailored to suit this particular selection. Personally, I’m equally proud and amazed of the variety and the quality of the material gathered here. The sheer volume of it, reaching nearly 130 tracks, proves there are a lot of good things brewing in Poland at the moment, musically at least. I am hoping this playlist will get you to further investigate Polish sounds, past and current. Perhaps you’ll get to visit Poland in near future to experience the music at firsthand. If not you still have your headphones and this mixtape. Enjoy!