Do-Re-Mi: Polish Songs for Kids!
default, Majka Jeżowska, fot. Marcin Bielecki /PAP, majka_jezowska_pap_3.jpg
‘A-one, a-two, grab the world by the ears!’ Presenting a nostalgic look back at Poland’s greatest kindergarten and primary-school hits of the late 20th century and what they were about!
Andrzej Kieruzalski & Gawęda
In 1952, scout master Andrzej Kieruzalski set up the Gawęda (Chat) Puppet Theatre for local children at the Scouting Centre on Siedlecka Street in Warsaw’s Szmulowizna district, which had quite a bad reputation in those days. The thirteen brave youngsters who staged the first show founded the Polish Scouting Association’s Arts Group, which still exists today, and more than 16,000 children have been members over the years.
‘Gawęda is a group that everybody should see at least once in their lives’, read one Le Monde review. They performed at numerous galas and celebrations in Poland under communism, as well as the Kremlin, the White House and Castel Gandolfo! One Gawęda song was used as the theme for Siedem Stron Świata (The Seven Cardinal Points), a series about tearaways from Retkinia, a housing-block district in Łódź, while others were featured in films such as A Short Film About Killing and Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom (Ga, Ga – Glory to the Heroes).
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Gawęda - Mozambik oraz Mamy Wszyscy Tak Mało Lat - Barbórka 1978
Gawęda remained popular right up until the 1980s, which ushered in a real boom in children’s arts. Beginning with the letter A, two hits from that period which are still overplayed at kindergarten discos and assemblies are A Ja Rosnę i Rosnę (But I Keep on Growing and Growing) by Fasolki, and A Ja Wolę Moją Mamę (But I Prefer my Mum) by Majka Jeżowska.
Musical fairy tales
Before the 1980s, the most popular format for younger children was the musical fairy tale – dramas which combined spoken word and song.
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The repertoire spanned the classics, such as Jan Brzechwa and Julian Tuwim, as well as specially commissioned works. Some were truly excellent, Moominsummer Madness, for example, based on the book by Tove Jansson and narrated by legendary Polish actor Gustaw Holoubek. Its soundtrack became composer Tadeusz Woźniak’s biggest commercial success alongside Zegarmistrz Światła (The Watchmaker of Light), with songs sung by Krystyna Prońko and others. Popular TV programmes like Pora na Telesfora (Telesfor Time) also released their own songs on vinyl.
These fairy tales also had a direct influence on the development of Poland’s independent scene. Due to the shortage of blank tapes in the 1980s, underground record labels would buy up cassettes of fairy tales and record their own music over them. In the following decade, fairy tales were sampled en masse by hip hop artists.
The young magician
This Polish Canadian family film from 1986 tells of how a boy who dreams of becoming an illusionist discovers he has psychokinetic powers. The songs for the film were written by Jacek Cygan and Krzesimir Dębski (a dynamic duo we shall mention again later), and sung by the young Krzysztof Antkowiak, which launched his career.
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1987 PRZYJACIEL WIE - JAREK BUŁKA I KRZYŚ ANTKOWIAK - DYSKOTEKA PANA JACKA
In his autobiography, Życie Jest Piosenką (Life’s a Song), Cygan recalled how some adult vocalists once asked Dębski: ‘How could you give such a great song away to a kid?’ Showbiz was a tough life for teen stars:
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We would normally be given the recording studio on Woronicza Street at night, as children were deemed less important artists. We were due to record with Krzyś Antkowiak. A huge loudspeaker stood on one side and Krzyś was asleep by it. It didn’t bother him, even though it was really loud. At one point, we woke him up, saying: ‘Krzyś, get up and record.’ So, up he jumped, shook himself, and sang [what became his signature] ‘Zakazany Owoc’ (Forbidden Fruit).
On the other hand, the lyrics also reflected the drab life of the 1980s. In Smutne Reggae (Sad Reggae), Jarek Bułka sang:
Mum’s finished dusting
So now she’s worrying her head
To find enough coupons for bread.
Fasolki - Smutne reggae
Straight after lunch, his father would collapse into an armchair. This wasn’t the only song in which all the household chores were left to mothers, while surly fathers isolated themselves from the family to read the paper or watch TV. Take the sensational Wujcio Wariatuńcio (Uncle Unhinged) from the show Tik-Tak, which often portrayed adults as a bunch of boring old fogies:
They’re all sat there, drinking, eating,
Don’t know the first thing ’bout playing.
Their whole life is really boring,
All the while, our time is ticking…
‘Dyskoteka Pana Jacka’ (Mr Jacek’s Disco) (Trans. MB)
There was a long tradition of Polish children’s environmental protest songs. Gawęda sang: ‘Never trample on daisies or emotions’. Children of Group 7 from the cultural centre of Knurów Bituminous Coal Mine staged the environmental science-fiction show Kosmiczne Trawy (Spacegrass), in which beings from the planet Ganymede – where ‘nothing grows and nothing sings’ – fly to Earth to warn us of the consequences of destroying nature.
When the Animal Liberation Front (the first grass-roots animal rights organisation in Poland) was founded in Grudziądz in 1988, Jacek Cygan wrote anti-fur messages into songs for Dyskoteka Pana Jacka (Mr Jacek’s Disco). In Gdybym Była Wielką Gwiazdą (If I Was a Major Pop Star), Magda Fronczewska sang:
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If I was a major pop star
I’d have a wardrobe of my own,
A wardrobe full of fancy furs
Of artificial fibres all.
Because real ones should be worn by
Proper tigers, leopards, foxes
Because they’d freeze without their coats.
A kindly pop star I would be.
Karolina Gruszka - Futra
The young Karolina Gruszka also sang of how real furs were ‘yucky’ and ‘nasty’, after joining Dyskoteka Pana Jacka from the Pantera Musical Theatre in Warsaw’s Służewiec district.
Fear is commonly associated with childhood memories of hits from that era. Hundreds of youngsters were traumatised after hearing Marsz Wilków (March of the Wolves) by TSA in the film Akademia Pana Kleksa (Mr Kleks’ Academy). Kids were also afraid of the mutant hedgehog in the music video for A to Jeż jak Piłka (Hedgehog Rolled up in a Ball) and the Amityville Horror-themed Duchy Łakomczuchy (Gluttonous Ghosts), both sung by the famous kids’ group Fasolki.
The end of the video Moja Fantazja (My Fantasy) is also unexpectedly tinged with horror. The Kowalewski sisters sing and dance around in a circle with other children, having a whale of a time, but then suddenly the enchanted fantasy world disappears, leaving one of them alone in an empty street, as a bell tolls mournfully in the distance. Some tunes were rather ominous in general, such as Jacek Skubikowski's Kto Kłamie Mamie (If You Lie to Your Mum).
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Capitalism & Western cassettes
In Poland, ‘brand-dropping’ quickly moved into the realm of children’s songs, which was logical for two reasons. To begin with, kids and the composers writing songs for them were the first to hear modern music from America. […] Krzesimir Dębski and Jacek Cygan realised that children preferred to listen to Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul, so the shows 'Teleranek' and '5-10-15' featured songs resembling electro, hip-hop and Latino freestyle. […] Secondly, the young generation was ruthlessly consumerist. An article in 'Argumenty' weekly mentioned one pre-schooler who, if offered a toy, sweater or chocolate, would ask: ‘Was it made in Poland?’ and only accept if it wasn’t.
‘I know the power of advertising’, sang little Krzysztof Antkowiak in Nie ma jak Rajd (Racing Can’t be Beat) followed by a list of foreign car makers. Magda Fronczewska dreamed of driving a golden Mazda, and also sang a duet with Majka Jeżowska in honour of Michael Jackson.
Koronkowa lambada - Gabrysia OWSIAK i Maria SADOWSKA
Marysia Sadowska and Gabrysia Owsiak from Tęczowy Music Box (Rainbow Music Box) sang Koronkowa Lambada (Lacy Lambada) in 1990 – the year an international scandal erupted over news that Kaoma had plagiarised the famous tune. Since nobody was really bothered about copyright in Poland at the time, a lot of children’s songs were clearly inspired by Western hits.
‘Do a bit of business, then take a break’, suggested Ryszard Rynkowski in a song from the family film Mów mi Rockefeller (Call Me Rockefeller). Then, in the soundtrack to the animated O Dwóch Takich, co Ukradli Księżyc (The Two Who Stole the Moon), Janusz Panasewicz asked ‘Why aren’t we in a place where everything’s free?’ Its stars, Jacek and Placek, set off on a journey to find somewhere they’d never need to work. Banda & Wanda also sang about how they disliked being forced to work in the song Jestem Zmęczony (I’m Tired) from the TV series Siedem Życzeń (Seven Wishes):
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Why is there only one Sunday a week?
It isn’t enough, it isn’t enough!
Whoever said that work isn’t shameful?
Work is demeaning!
The cover of the cassette Kuba-Buba by Szczecin band Arfik showed an archetypal cool dude of the time – complete with cap, skateboard and Walkman – giving a thumbs-up. Equally cool was its opening number Szybko! (Quick!), which praised a slow life of procrastination. It was a precursor to articles on the idleness of so-called millennials: ‘I like to spend an hour or more to cross a puddle, shore to shore […] I like to live my whole life slow, but they forever tell me no’.
‘Everybody needs a friend of their own, even if it’s just a flea’, sang Marysia Sadowska in Żal Mi Lwa (I’m Sorry for the Lion). Love themes in songs usually covered feelings for parents, siblings (e.g. Zabiorę Brata na Koniec Świata; ‘I’ll take my Brother to the Ends of the Earth’) or four-legged friends. Children’s artists would occasionally have crushes on Western stars, like Antkowiak fell for Madonna, with his Polish version of La Isla Bonita.
Showing feelings for one’s peers usually amounted to ‘boorish advances’, but in spite of this context there were a few hints at ‘girl power’. Magda Fronczewska sang to one juvenile delinquent: ‘Stop pulling my satchel or I’ll erase you and you’ll cease to exist!’ Unsurprisingly, one of her songs was later covered by the feminist musician Zdrada Pałki.
One exception to this rule was the relationship between Kulfon and Monika from the programme Ciuchcia (Choo-Choo). To recap, Kulfon Ściekożyj (Schnozzle Sewerdweller) flew to Earth from the planet Kulfocentauris to kidnap Monika the Frog, but didn’t go through with it because he fell in love at first sight.
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Kulfon i Monika- Pójdę przez park.avi
Their relationship was quite complicated, however, as illustrated by the songs Kulfon, co z Ciebie Wyrośnie? (Kulfon, What Will You Grow Into?) or Pójdę Przez Park Sama (I’ll Walk Through the Park Alone). This is how the Szkoła Polskiej Piosenki (Polish Song School) website described the latter when listing its favourite children’s singles:
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[…] Two puppet characters from a children’s programme cover one of the most beautiful love songs from Fasolki’s repertoire, adding plenty of their own charm to an already excellent number. Kulfon mutters comments to the lyrics, sung beautifully out of tune by Monika the Frog, which remind us of our relationships with friends, parents, grandparents and other couples we know. Andrzej Grabowski, you are a genius.
Regularly mentioned in connection with early Polish hip hop are Franek Kimono, Deuter’s Nie Ma Ciszy w Bloku (It’s Never Quiet in a Flatblock), or the title track from the Małe Wu Wu album, which sounded like early Beastie Boys and Run DMC, and contained the first scratching (using tape-heads) in Polish musical history.
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The Young Gang & Brooklyn (who, despite the name, hailed from Kraków’s Podgórze district) were also inspired by the Beastie Boys. On our list, they were the first example of adult music performed by children. On their 1994 cassette Banda Osiedlowa (Gang in the Hood), the 11-year-olds rhymed about scaring the neighbours and ‘drinking whisky since birth’, but also expressed their frustration at the realities of rampant capitalism and the war in Yugoslavia.
Szkoła w Stanie Oblężenia (School Under Siege) is a similar song, and the only one on our list recorded without adult assistance. It was also the only album released in the 21st century (though the recordings dated from the late 1980s). Two 11-year-old music school students, Konstanty Usenko (who later joined Super Girl & Romantic Boys and Najakotiva) and Filip Rakowski (aka Funky Filon), formed The Leszczer’s in 1988. Behind their teachers’ backs, they recorded punk rock on an out-of-tune piano, a glockenspiel and a toy balalaika. In their transgressive covers of children’s hits, Fasolki’s Witaminki (Vitamins) became Heroinki (Heroins, like the drug, not the female hero) and Mr Tik-Tak was a psycho killer. They were proud to break the school rules and wish tapeworm on their biology teacher. Anarchy in the lunch break, in Poland under communism.
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Teleranek (TVmorning), Tik-Tak, Tęczowy Music Box… Most of the hits we have listed were released on Polish national television shows. Nevertheless, some songs warned against the pernicious consequences of too much TV, such as the video for Złudzenia Telelenia (Illusions of a TV Slob) by Papa Dance, made for Teleranek. The eponymous TV slob would:
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Rather die than skip commercials
Of the Stick-O-Kill-Roach series,
And although he’s numbed his feelings
Drowns his gaze in relish adverts.
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‘My brother’s always reading about aliens’, sang Kama Kowalewska. In the 1980s, unidentified flying objects visited Poland more frequently than nowadays. Blossoming ufology clubs recorded at least a few dozen encounters with extraterrestrial civilisations. Young people’s imaginations were captivated by Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the British TV series Space: 1999, while Natalia Kukulska dreamed of meeting E.T. and Seweryn Krajewski sang ‘Ufonauts are the gnomes of our times’.
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11. Małe Wu Wu - Ufowyliczanka [Voo Voo]
Although the entire Małe Wu Wu album is excellent, they outdid themselves with the song Ufowyliczanka (UFO Counting Rhyme). The reviewer from Non-Stop praised Jerzy Bielunas’ lyrics for showing that ‘kids don’t have to be treated like infantile, underdeveloped stick insects’, and ranked Małe Wu Wu as joint best Polish album of 1988 with Dezerter.
I dreamt I was dancing, in New York, in the Bronx,
Boys, as dark as panthers, taught me dance, was doin’ great.
They were my age and had elastic arms, like Donald bubble gum,
Snapping their fingers in time, bringing down the house.
‘Wow’ performed by Magda Fronczewska, trans. MB
As we already know, in those days children’s songs dreamed the American dream. Alongside scenes straight out of MTV videos, there were also Wild West landscapes, although they were already rather passé. In the song Konie na Nieboskłonie (Horses in the Firmament), Piotr Fronczewski tells his daughter: ‘The Wild West is made of cardboard, the sombreros are Made in Japan’. Jerzy Bielunas and Wojciech Waglewski also disputed the romantic myth:
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They say the Wild West used to stand
In what they now call Disneyland,
While the Indians in their wigwams
Lie fast asleep like little lambs.
A to Z
For dessert, here’s a snippet from Słodkie Abecadło (Sweet ABCs) by Mały Wu Wu, where A is for Apple, B is for Bubblegum, etc…
What is Z for? No idea!
But I’d still eat Z, that’s clear!
This ABC book’s oh so sweet,
It makes you want to eat and eat…
And we bring our nostalgic journey to a close with the most fitting song of all – Pożegnanie z Bajką (Farewell, Fairytale) by Zdzisława Sośnicka.
Zdzislawa Sosnicka Pozegnanie z bajką
culture for children
Originally written in Polish, May 2018, translated by MB, Oct 2019