Disco in Sopot, pogo in Jarocin, and a New Orleans tornado in Tricity. If you want to learn more about the history of Polish summer music events in the 20th century, this is the article for you!
If today’s youth needs to let off steam in an animalistic manner, then a reserve should be set up for them, which would be located far from human settlements and where they could sway like monkeys.
The above suggestion was made by a critic from Drużyna (editor’s translation: Scout Troop), a biweekly magazine for scout leaders, with respect to a concert given by the band Niebiesko-Czarni in the 1960s. Some of the country’s decision-makers might have taken this advice to heart, since the more real-socialist Poland became, the more festivals it had.
What you missed: the chance to see colourful youth for the first time in your life, and a New Orleans tornado hitting Tricity, with nearly-naked girls and boys with moronic hairstyles.
26 thousand guests from 114 countries, 400 accompanying events, numerous concerts and dance parties, 750 thousand litres of beer – Stalinist Poland’s top decision-makers had a lot of momentum when they organised the Fifth World Festival of Youth and Students in Warsaw in 1955.
It was not, in fact, a music festival, but it turned out to have a strong impact on the Polish scene. The authorities turned a blind eye to jazz (banned not long before), and Latin sounds created a sensation. Festival-goes could also broaden their horizons by listening to concerts featuring world music from India, Syria, and Sudan.
Jacek Kuroń emphasises the importance of this event for Polish culture in his book PRL dla Początkujących (The Polish People’s Republic for Beginners):
Colourful young people came from all over the world. They danced, laughed, and they were ready to discuss every topic, unafraid of any taboos. The Festival of Youth and Students was as important for the cultural revolution as Światło’s revelations for the political revolution. It revealed hypocrisy and falsehoods concerning the lifestyle which was promoted as progressive. It turned out that it was possible to be progressive and, at the same time, to enjoy life, wear colourful clothes, listen to jazz, play, and love.
The festival became imprinted in the collective memory as a huge two-week event. Warsaw streets were decorated with colourful murals which differed a lot from social realist guidelines, such as the one painted along the Marszałkowska Street by Henryk Tomaszewski and Wojciech Fangor. The official propaganda talked of peace, brotherhood, and progress, but most of the locals were interested in the alcoholic and erotic sides of the event.
Polskie Nagrania, a Polish record label, released a series titled Kronika Dzwiękowa Festiwalu Młodzieży (The Sound Chronicle of the Festival of Youth). It included the first Polish post-war records to feature syncopated music. Jazz enthusiasts seized the moment, and, in 1956, they came up with the idea of organising the first jazz festival. Its honorary committee included Leopold Tyrmand, Stefan Kisielewski, Zygmunt Mycielski, Jerzy Skarżyński, Jan Kott, and Marian Eile, who in the Przekrój (Cross-section) magazine published an appeal to drivers to pick up hitchhikers who want to travel there.
The first day of the Jazz Festival saw the so-called ‘New Orleans march’. Jerzy Skolimowski and the members of Krzysztof Komeda’s band carried a coffin with a sign saying ‘Polish entertainment music’. Other participants of this cheerful procession, the ‘nearly-naked girls and boys with idiotic hairstyles’, had banners with ‘D.U.P i A’ (a reference to the Polish word for ‘ass’) and ‘Nie damy się!’ (We won’t surrender!) scribbled on them. The police and party journalists didn't know what to do with them. A reporter from Głos Wybrzeża (The Voice of the Coast) noticed: ‘It is good to have crowds on the pier, but it is also very bad at the same time’.
The event polarised the press. Some journalists repeated, with a perverse joy, the gossip of hooligan excesses: ‘The Sopot scandal should be finalised in the prosecutor’s office’, ‘If this is what the thaw looks like, it is better to have a 30-degree frost’. The party’s official newspaper Trybuna Ludu (People’s Tribune) retorted: ‘It’s time to stop treating jazz like Cinderella. Jazz has set free the spontaneous impulses of our youth.’
The event had a significant impact on the whole generation. This is how Jan Ptaszyn Wróblewski remembered the festival:
We did not even dream of a thing called a festival. A Polish festival? An international festival? Before that, I had not even played anywhere else other than at Poznań dance parties for my fellow students. It was a big event (…) Tens of thousands of people came to Sopot from all over Poland. The spectators on the promenade were packed like sardines as this legendary march passed by. A strange, marvellous atmosphere lasted day and night. Sopot's streets were constantly crowded, thousands of people occupied the beaches. They all interacted with each other. Certain circles appeared in Sopot. You can’t forget the Piwnica pod Baranami (The Cellar under the Rams) cabaret, the Bim-Bom theatre with Cybulski, Afanasjew, Kobiela. It was here that this generation was bound together.
The jazz tornado visited Tricity once again in 1957. A year later the festival moved to Warsaw (to the Philharmonic building!) and evolved into the famous Jazz Jamboree. It also had other offshoots, such as Jazz on the Odra, Jazz Camping Kalatówki, All Souls’ Jazz Festival in Kraków and many other festivals. Once jazz was tamed, rock and roll became the new wild.
Polish youth sings Polish songs
What you missed: flying jackets and Niemen’s debut with a Latin music repertoire.
Legend has it that Poland’s First Secretary Władysław Gomułka was furious. He banged his fist on the table and exclaimed: ‘What’s going on in this Szczecin?’. Well, indeed, there was something going on – the second edition of Festiwal Młodych Talentów (The Young Talent Festival), Poland’s first mass beat music event. Szczecin attracted thousands of people, who did not mind bad weather or amateurishness as long as the music was loud and had the right rhythm.
The event was promoted as a ‘rendezvous for musical Polish youth’, and it was held under the patronage of Czerwono-Czarni, a precursory Polish big beat band. The laureates included Czesław Wydrzycki, a shy re-immigrant from the USSR (later known as Czesław Niemen), as well as Karin Stanek and Helena Majdaniec.
Due to Gomułka’s anger, the festival had just two editions – in 1962 and 1963, but it turned out that clubs were not enough for the expansion of beat music – it needed its own festivals. The pioneering Szczecin festival was replaced with others, such as Wiosenny Festiwal Muzyki Nastolatków (The Spring Teenage Music Festival), which gathered 35 thousand music fans in Gdańsk, and Gitariada, which was held in the Congress Hall in Warsaw. Windows were broken, jackets went flying, and the vocalists’ voices were lost in the shrieks of the excited audience.
The beat avant-garde counterattacks
What you missed: an alternative Opole Festival and hiding from the police in Jasna Góra monastery.
In 1963, a group of music enthusiasts, unsupported by any official entertainment company, organised the first Opole Festival. Critics complained that its programme featured ‘too many bizarre texts and too few hits, in the positive sense of the word’. The festival’s early editions were a haven for beat music fans and bearded students who performed cabaret songs or so-called ‘sung poetry’, such as Piwnica pod Baranami, a group then known only in Kraków. With time, the festival came to be a mirror reflection of the Polish hit list (although there were still some sensations and revelations).
Since 1977, the Opole festival has been organised by Polish Television, which has changed its performing formula. A medley of hits by subsequent artists has given way to staged shows, such as recitals devoted to a chosen artist, cabaret shows, and the Rock Opole concert.
Irrespective of the level of its subsequent editions, watching the over 50-year-old festival has become a nationwide ritual. After all, it was this event that promoted dozens of evergreens, such as Karuzela z Madonnami by Ewa Demarczyk, Dziwny Jest ten Świat (the English language version: Strange Is This World) by Czesław Niemen, and Boskie Buenos by Maanam.
Festiwal Awangardy Beatowej (the Beat Avant-garde Festival) in Kalisz was an event of musical exploration. It started in 1969 and had four editions. It attracted bands which experimented with new trends, such as psychedelia, jazz rock, and afro beat. Some of those groups have faded into oblivion without releasing a single record, others, for example 74 Grupa Biednych, Romuald i Roman and Grupa w Składzie, have become legends in their circles. There were also debutants who later became pillars of Polish show business, e.g. Krystyna Prońko, Perfect, and Kombi. An all-night jam session, with the Tomasz Stańko quintet playing next to beat musicians was the festival’s climax. A reporter from Dziennik Bałtycki (The Baltic Daily) observed that Kalisz with its festival was one of the few venues where new music was manifested (the others being Warsaw Autumn and Jazz on the Odra).
Counterculture pioneers did not have an easy time in Poland under the communist regime. The Hippie movement was not accepted by the authorities, so hippies could not have their own festivals. They took a liking to festivals in Opole and Kalisz instead. They also organized their own jamborees. One of the popular venues for such events was Częstochowa, where hippies arrived pretending to be pilgrims. The so-called Kudłacze (The Shaggy People), state services responsible for infiltrating the hippie milieu, often came and broke off those meetings. To give an example, a jamboree in the Chęciny castle in 1969 ended in a siege, a battle with the police and arrests.
Progressive disco and bards of the opposition
What you missed: a medley of military songs and samizdat hits.
The Polish authorities, of course, did not ignore the potential carried by a mass festival for young people in stretched jumpers and long-haired fans of loud music. ‘When the song went to the army, all Poland was singing’ – that is how Maryla Rodowicz cheered on the young audience at Festiwal Piosenki Żołnierskiej w Kołobrzegu (The Military Song Festival in Kołobrzeg). The event was organised by the Main Political Directorate of the Polish Army. It was hard to refuse an invitation from such an institution, which is why the festival featured the flower of the Polish stage. The same was true about Festiwal Piosenki Radzieckiej in Zielona Góra (The Festival of Soviet Song in Zielona Góra), whose winners received Golden Samovars and whose climax was the ‘Concert of Friendship’.
The Polish authorities introduced free Saturdays in 1970, so there was more time for festival madness. In the era of Gierek’s propaganda of a successful Poland, they wanted to have a festival which could compete with the Eurovision Song Contest. Between 1977 and 1980 Interwizja was organised, giving an international touch to the Sopot Festival initiated by Władysław Szpilman.
The Forest Opera hosted disco stars from the West, such as Boney M and Gloria Gaynor, and chanson singers from the Warsaw Pact countries, such as Karel Gott and Ałła Pugaczowa. Foreign artists were invited by the state agency PAGART. Its vice-director commented in 1976 in an interview for Życie Warszawy (Life of Warsaw):
Being aware of the role of impresario activities in a socialist country, we attach the most attention to those events which have progressive content and high artistic values.
During the so-called Carnival of Solidarność, the opposition wanted to have their own festival and organised Przegląd Piosenki Prawdziwej (The Festival of True Song). It was held in Hala Olivia in Gdańsk to celebrate the first anniversary of the August strikes in 1980. The stage was dominated by bards playing guitars: Kaczmarski, Kleyff, Zambaty. Leonard Cohen was going to appear but something came up and he finally did not show up. A year later the event could not be repeated due to the imposition of martial law.
Rhythms of the Young Generation
What you missed: debuts by bands which were to stay on the radio for the next 35 years.
In the 1970s, the Polish rock scene was in a rut. The 1975 Pop Session festival in Sopot was meant to change this. Krzak, Kombi, Exodus, Mech and other bands performed, promoting the slogan ‘Music of the Young Generation’. The festival’s aim was to present ‘the trends in the music market of socialist and non-socialist countries without showing off pretentiously’.
A critic from Magazyn Muzyczny Jazz (Jazz Music Magazine) hammered the 1978 Pop Session edition:
The young generation of rock music thrashes about in the Summer Theatre and, allegedly, is going to stay there for good. This expression should actually be put in inverted commas – a ‘young’, bearded, grey-haired generation (...) They present a total lack of musical concepts mixed with an absurd noise from synthesisers. This is monotony and semantic gibberish.
Bands which later became the most important groups on the Polish rock scene in the following decade, such as Republika, TSA, Maanam, and Kryzys, played their first concerts at the Sopot event. In 1980, it merged with Wielkopolskie Rytmy Młody (Greater Poland’s Rhythms of the Youth) a festival which was previously known only locally in Jarocin.
With the advent of General Jaruzelski’s era, guitar music came back into favour. Polish megastars, for example Perfect, Lady Pank, Oddział Zamknięty, and Dżem, gave their gigs in large halls, such as Rockowisko in Łódź and Rock Arena in Poznań, which were all the rage from the early 1980s.
‘Let’s go, we will get to know the punk clan’
What you missed: recording Siekiera on Kasprzak’s recorder, wild pogo dancing in dust clouds under the Small Scene, and prohibition in the festival village.
At the same time, the underground scene was seething. New Wave artists organised their first festivals in Kołobrzeg in 1980 and Toruń in the ‘Od nowa’ (From the Beginning) club in 1981. The first punk band, Nocne Szczury from Władysławowo, appeared in Jarocin in 1980. Each year, more and more punk groups appeared on the Polish scene.
There is a theory that the Jarocin Festival was a safety valve – the authorities accepted it in order to keep the rebellious youth under control. It is hard to say what was really true. Original documents point rather to the conclusion that the authorities were not aware of the significance of the festival. Krzysztof Grabowski from Dezerter said:
We performed all our songs without any changes (…) Even though our early texts could probably give us several years in prison (…) We mocked the state authorities and allies – that was really tough. Seriously, I was surprised that (…) they did not pay us any visits. We would give our texts to Walter Chełstowski in Jarocin and I suppose he would not take them to the censor. I remember a situation when he asked us for anything that could possibly pass through the censorship.
Judging from the original documents, the Polish Security Service could not find its way in the world of subcultures. They wrote nonsense in their reports. A recent book published by IPN Jarocin w obiektywie bezpieki (Jarocin Through the Lens of the Security Service) reveals statements such the one below:
They believe that mankind’s future will be modelled on anarchy in which:
- the Hippies are priests
- the Punks are warriors
- the Rasta are the rest – humble workforce.
(…) The punks will be pioneers, settlers and colonisers. That is why, at events such as the one in Jarocin, they exercise quick manoeuvres and test themselves in an atypical environment.
Sub-culture freaks often got beatings from police strongmen. Paweł Gumola from the band Moskwa said:
I ended up with five punks in an interrogation room. I remember the question: Five hits with the truncheon or being shaved bald? The punks said they wanted five hits and so their hairdos were saved.
Jarocin was the largest alternative music event in Central and Eastern Europe. Filmmakers appreciated its phenomenon: Piotr Łazarkiewicz in his documentary Fala (The Wave) and the BBC team in My Blood, Your Blood (available here). The festival was full of legends and scandals. Wild stories appeared about Karcer performing just in socks or young Satanists organising a black mass before Kat’s concert. Apart from Jarocin, there were other important events rock events, such as Muzyczne Campingi (Musical Camping) in Lubań and Brodnica.
Cynical youth enjoying themselves in the atomic age
What you missed: the golden age of Polish underground music.
Eclectic festivals were not the only ones in Poland: in the mid-1980s, the first festivals devoted to individual new music genres begin to appear. Slavic Rastafarians enjoyed Reggae nad Wartą (Reggae on the Warta) held in Gorzów, while early electronic music enthusiasts had their own events in Kielce (Moogowisko) and Pisz (Zlot Elektronicznych Fanatyków – Electronic Fanatics Jamboree).
Metal fans were one of the most numerous subcultures in Poland. In order to emancipate themselves from the increasingly punk-oriented Jarocin, a group of Silesian enthusiasts organized in 1986 their own festival, Metalmania. Since everything had to have its official patron, the event was organized under the patronage of… the Silesian Jazz Club. Poland’s strong representation in the genre and the first-league bands from abroad who gave their performance in the Spodek (Saucer) arena in Katowice caused metal fans to say that this was the moment when the Iron Curtain got broken.
Warsaw also had something to say with its Róbrege, a powerful event competing with Jarocin, which took place in the Intersalto circus. The crème de la crème of the Polish underground scene performed there.. The festival featured bands which were too radical for Jarocin as well as famous artists from abroad, such as Misty in Roots (their concert was a milestone in the history of Polish Reggae), Twinkle Brothers, Killing Joke, and Kortatu from the Basque Country. Stage decoration was made by the Luxus group while Totart was responsible for performer attractions.
This is how Muniek Staszczyk from T.Love described the birth of the festival:
It was paradoxical that all of the music groups of that time – Kult, Izrael, Dezerter, Armia, T. Love – were centred around the Hybrydy club, whose boss was Sławek Rogowski. He had a very ‘red’ backing, but he did several good things. Robert Brylewski came up with the idea of Róbrege festival and Rogowski helped him organise it. He did not let any censorship or security service in. He did not let his ‘red’ colleagues interfere. This is how the centre of Warsaw could see a festival without policemen, with everyone smoking marijuana and with bands from outside the official market.
Check out archive records from Róbrege '87
New wave artists met with lofty avant-garde musicians in 1988 and 1989 during the two editions of the Marchewka (Carrot) festival in Warsaw’s Hala Gwardii (Guard’s Hall). It was yet another festival whose organisers invited foreign artists. The Warsaw band Poza kontrolą performing in Hala Gwardii represented a local but decent standard.
Trójmiejska Scena Alternatywna (Tricity Alternative Stage) was an important and recognised event on the alternative music scene of the mid-1980s. It breathed some fresh air into Polish underground music, which was getting increasingly conventional. It attracted bands which represented very different styles but with an interesting sound, for example the oneiric Bóm Wakacje w Rzymie, the psychedelic Apteka and the avant-garde Szelest Spadających Papierków. The most interesting Polish groups could also be heard during the first edition of Zlot Cynicznej Młodzieży Ery Atomowej (The Cynical Youth of the Atomic Age Jamboree) in 1986, whose later editions were called simply Nowa Scena (New Scene).
The new is approaching: commercial Jarocin and the invasion of Force
What you missed: the light and dark sides of the transformation on the music scene, a stay in hospital in Jarocin and Wind of Change sung by 700 thousand people.
In the early 1990s it became a trend to make festivals centred around an idea or against something. As a sign of support for the people of South Africa, Solidarność organised the Anti-Apartheid concert in Gdańsk Shipyard, featuring many foreign Reggae artists. The Tama Tamie series of concerts was held to support protests against the construction of a dam in Czorsztyn.
Black clouds gathered over Jarocin. It became an open-air museum of punko-polo music. The only musicians from abroad could be ranked as third league. There were already many similar Polish events, and fans required more from a legend. ‘Profitability’ appeared as a new word in the transformation period’s dictionary. Kuba Wojewódzki, a young music journalist, tried to adapt the festival to the new reality: he found a sponsor – Marlboro – and promoted artists imitating the popular grunge. Omnipresent advertisements annoyed orthodox punks. During one of the performances, they shouted ‘F… off! It’s our festival’, casting expletives at Wojewódzki.
The festival’s last editions in 1993 and 1994 made headlines due to riots provoked either by the audience, the security staff, or the police. There were no more Jarocin festivals in the 1990s.
The Energia sztuki (The Energy of Art) festival in Żarnowiec, which was meant to be a modern answer to Jarocin, ended up being a flop. There were just two editions: in 1992 and 1993.
The chaos of the transformation made it possible to do things which are now unheard of. In 1995, the Praffdata collective from Warsaw organised Legalise it, a series of half-wild events on the Czerniakowski Cape in Warsaw, where a thousand joints were distributed to the audience.
Early capitalist times in Poland came to be marked with large commercial events with numerous sponsors. The Inwazja Mocy (Invasion of Force) series by RMF FM Radio, which hosted many Polish and foreign pop stars, was one such example. It featured the largest Polish mass concert: the Scorpions played for 700-800 thousand people gathered in the Pobiedniki airport near Kraków. British magazine NME put the event at the top of a list of the most unfortunate things about being a young Pole.
The Woodstock Festival Poland is one of those events which still represents the old order. There is also a new hip-hop and electronic expansion approaching. Poland is now emerging from its festival crisis, but this is something which is common knowledge.