Polish Reggae? Yes, It’s a Thing!
default, Cover of the album ‘Nabij Faję’ (Stuff the Pipe) by Izrael, center, izrael_nabij_faje.jpg
Most people’s first association with reggae is Jamaica, but this kind of music has also spread to other parts of the world. Culture.pl presents how Jamaican music culture became popular in Poland before and after the transformative year of 1989.
Zines against apartheid
One of the most important moments for Polish reggae culture took place on the eighth anniversary of the declaration of martial law in Poland, or 13th December 1989, in the Production Hall of the Gdańsk Shipyard. Contrary to what some might have expected, this had nothing to do with commemorating the victims of martial law. Gdańsk’s Solidarity activists decided organise a concert, or, more precisely, what they called ‘a large international musical manifestation’ in support of people fighting for freedom and racial equality in the Republic of South Africa.
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One of Solidarność Anti-Apartheid’s organisers, Włodzimierz Kleszcz, remembers the event:
It was the first martial law anniversary we were able to commemorate with a kind of media battle – using reggae songs as our weapons! […] We were supported by the International Council of Free Trade Unions and by many reggae artists who expressed their solidarity with Poles during martial law and who manifested it in their work: the Twinkle Brothers, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah, Bob Andy and other similar musicians.
The concert was broadcasted by TVP and BBC.
A year later, the state-owned record label Polton released a tape containing performances recorded in the Shipyard. Reggae fans followed the South African struggle for the people’s liberation very closely. Almost every issue of the zine I & I – all nine of its issues were published in the years 1991-1994 – contained the newest information from the Republic of South Africa, and the publishers also reprinted Nelson Mandela’s archival letters. What else could you have learned from the zines devoted to reggae culture which were published in Poland in the 1990s?
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I & I, published in Tarnów by Jacek Jankowski, who went under the nickname of ‘Pielgrzym’ (Pilgrim) was without question the largest Polish reggae-oriented zine. What does its name signify? As Agnieszka Krajniewska explained in her book Rastafariani (The Rastafari), Jamaican Rastafari used the expression ‘I and I’ to say ‘me, in harmony with my maker, the big I’. The second meaning is more direct: ‘I and I’ simply stands for ‘me and you’. The zine was full of articles introducing Rastafari views and calling for peace and unity (especially amongst Polish reggae fans). In the third issue of I & I, you can read the following words:
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Does the name ‘reggae’ signify only good fun, a weed-stuffed pipe and nothing else? Does a single smile require great sacrifices? The characteristic Rastafari expression ‘I and I’ seems to have lost its value. Our unity seems to have worn down and faded.
I & I was also full of articles on everything rom the history of reggae to ecology, music reviews and short interviews with Polish artists. Over time, it published more and more translations of Jamaican songs, especially of those by Bob Marley, the most recognisable symbol of reggae in the world. In 1991, on the tenth anniversary of Marley’s death, the zine’s editor asked the readers to send in their memories of what they did on 11th May, the day of the musician’s death. A woman named Elżbieta lit candles and thought about the message contained in Marley’s music. Pacic, meanwhile, went to his girlfriend’s name-day party – where, together with her friends, they listened to reggae and enjoyed ‘worthy weed’ which lessened their pain. Another respondent, Kamila, went for a walk in a meadow, looked at the moon and listened to Bob Marley.
Many of these articles were written collectively. Pielgrzym asked his readers to send their own work, to provide useful information and to help in editing the independent magazine. He also organised meetings of I & I readers. These were full of various attractions: from sculpture, graffiti and painting exhibitions to collective meditations, Rastafari contemplation of the Bible, dancehall parties and other ‘weird and unexpected activities’. One of the zine meetings even had a sleigh ride!
Przegrywalnia I &I, sometimes called I & I Rekords, was another important part of the Tarnów zine’s activities. Readers were able to send the editors money to cover the cost of an empty tape. In return, they received recorded music. Copyright was still an abstract concept in the 1990s, especially in counter-culture circles. The editors warned that some albums were copied from vinyl records, and there was a lot of audible noise. The full list of albums was available in the Informator (Informer), which you were able to receive after sending an envelope containing a return address, a postal stamp and 2,000 złoty. There even was a list of reggae-bestsellers in Poland – the 10 most-ordered tapes.
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Whilst this practice would be considered criminal today, back then, it was the only way to get a hold of these records. Some zines had ads for foreign record stores, but few Polish reggae fans were able to afford a trip to London or Berlin to get the original Jamaican albums of their favourite artists. The illegal record market was also full of collective spirit – the editors encouraged the readers to send in their collections, to be shared with other fans.
Reggae Front was another important zine, with six issues published in the years 1990-1995 by Jacek ‘Szósmy’ Pasternak and Jarek ‘Banan’ Szwejczewski in Wodzisław Śląski. It devoted a lot more attention to foreign music: not only to Jamaican classics, but also to contemporary British dub projects, such as African Head Charge, which was associated with Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label. Reggae Front was more rebellious in style. Its second issue proclaimed that ‘the Rasta movement is a battle’. The zine also published many blunt political-satire drawings, some of which referred to the classics of Polish punk, such as the band Dezerter.
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This feisty and rebellious character was something typical of Polish reggae, and the Wrocław band Miki Mousoleum is the best example of that. Unafraid to comment on martial law and the repressive nature of the communist regime, they expressed their sentiments in songs such as ZOMO na Legnickiej (Militarised Police on Legnicka Street), which was probably the first Polish dub track. On the second anniversary of the August Agreements of 1980, there was a demonstration which ended in a bloody clash with the police. On Legnicka Street, one of Wrocław’s main avenues, the protesters threw Molotov cocktails at an armoured transporter. But the beginnings of Polish reggae were much milder.
Wiggling to the rhythms of Jamaican ska
One of the first traces of Jamaican music culture in Poland dates back to the 1960s. Jamaican calypso, rocksteady, ska and reggae records reached Poland through Great Britain, but access to them was limited – they were available mostly to sailors, who brought Western albums to Poland, and to passionate fans, who tried to get their hands on any new releases to broaden their music horizons. The most important labels releasing Jamaican music were Island Records, founded in 1959; Blue Beat Records, created a year later in London; and the legendary Trojan Records, operating in London since 1968.
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Blue Beat released albums by Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster and Joe Higgs. Island had such stars as Toots and the Maytals, Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Trojan Records became famous for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff. One of the first commercial successes of Jamaican music was My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small. A song originally written 10 years earlier for the American doo-woop band The Cadillacs, it has been haunting us ever since through countless covers and remixes used in movies and advertisements.
Who was the first to listen to Jamaican music in Poland? Nobody knows. What we do know, more or less, was how the first Polish ska album was created. It was recorded by Alibabki in 1965. Back then, Poland was culturally isolated from a large part of the world, and local artists reacted to worldwide trends rather slowly. But this time, everything went differently – a Polish girl band was one of the first bands in the world to record a ska album.
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It all happened thanks to Juliusz Loranc, a composer and the music director of the girl-scout band Alibabki. Or, to be more precise, it all happened thanks to an unidentifiable person who gifted Loranc the Jamaican Ska single by Byron Lee. On the W Rytmach Jamaica Ska (To the Beat of Jamaica Ska) EP, Alibabki tried to imitate their Jamaican inspirations; these are especially evident in the characteristic wind-instrument riffs and a very pronounced bass line. It’s just that the rhythm that is a little off, a little bit too even – unpredictable syncopation is the secret to Jamaican music.
A punky reggae party
To be honest, this record did not change much in Polish music. Only from today’s perspective can we say that it was something revolutionary – Alibabki was too sweet to lead the rebellious youth in dance. Back then, albums reaching Poland from the West and songs recorded from foreign radio stations during the night were a lot more important (the most popular artists were Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, Johnny Nash and, of course, Bob Marley).
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The Riviera Remont club, located in the heart of Warsaw in Kiniewskiego Street (today’s Złota Street), operated a record club – organised, among others, by Marek Karewicz. The club’s members listened to jazz, rock avant-garde, punk (which was only being born at the time) and also Jamaican music.
As a result, Polish punk began to exhibit reggae influences. Dariusz Dusza, the guitarist of Śmierć Kliniczna (Clinical Death), one of the heavily reggae-inspired punk bands, wrote:
A punky reggae party – some drink, some smoke. But it’s really more about a similarity that can be seen in the lyrics written by punk and reggae bands. They share opinions about the destructive role of the system, the corporations, the politicians. It’s a common rebellion.
Reggae motifs can be found even in the music created by Deadlock, one of the first punk bands in Poland. They were the first to perform I’m on the Top (which was later renamed to Święty Szczyt, or The Holy Summit) – a hit song later performed by a countless number of Polish bands, including Kryzys and Brygada Kryzys, if we are only listing the classics.
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What did the music education of punks look like? Robert Brylewski said the following in an interview with Rafał Księżyk, printed in the book Kryzys w Babilonie (A Crisis in Babylon):
When I was part of Kryzys, I listened to ska – British bands whose records were brought from London by Magura [Maciej Góralski, the drummer of Kryzys]. The Specials, The Beats, Selectors, Madness – these were the main bands back then. Kryzys was happy to include ska elements, because it really frustrated the punks. I remember that Kelner [one of the people who later organised the Róbrege festival] and his friends threw eggs at us […]. We started with The Clash and ended up with reggae. It’s pretty natural – The Clash was the first to express the similarities between punk and reggae. They were interested in the social and not the pop aspect of Jamaican culture, because both the punks and the Rastafari strived for authenticity.
The Anarchia band was a stepping stone between Brygada Kryzys (1981-1982) and Izrael (1983-1995). Other than Jarosław ‘Gruszka’ Ptasiński and Paweł ‘Kelner’ Rozwadowski, it consisted of Milo Kurtis, who played the conga drums. The Anarchia period was documented in the movie I Could Live in Africa by the Dutch director Jacques de Kooning.
The beginning of martial law weakened the punk scene, as members of tcounter-cultures were not able to openly rebel and had to look for different, somewhat more subtle solutions. In addition to that, things also began to get a little stale in terms of music, as punk offered few ideas for experimentation. For Robert Brylewski and Tomasz Lipiński, rhythm patterns borrowed from reggae became a starting point for having fun with the grooves, improvising and experimenting. The artists exchanged instruments and performed for hours on end. Brylewski said that ‘we once became so entranced in Hybrydy that we played for seven hours’.
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Many of the musicians grew dreadlocks. This led to hostility on the part of the Milicja Obywatelska, but some people were able to play the dreadlock-card in their defence. Robert Brylewski once recounted that he used to tell the authorities that he found their actions hurtful, and that his hair had brought him a lot of problems, but it was not his fault. As he told them, hair mycosis is a serious medical condition. Perhaps he meant plica polonica, the Polish plait? The tactic deterred most militiamen but some of them were fearless. After one of the searches, they found cannabis seeds, but he managed to convince them that these were seeds for feeding birds.
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In Kryzys w Babilonie, Brylewski said the following about Izrael’s debut album, Biada, Biada Biada (Woe, Woe, Woe):
It’s the first reggae album. It has completely non-reggae chords – D major, F-sharp major, A major. The F-sharp major split everything in half. The entire Biada is recorded in rocksteady tempo, which is slightly faster than reggae, but it’s played like roots reggae, not rocksteady. That’s why it’s so original.
Of course, the fascination with reggae amounted to much more than fascination with the music – it went hand in hand with the worldview. Some people even accepted the Rastafari faith, which required many great efforts and sacrifices. Sławomir Gołaszewski, a philosopher and poet working with Jerzy Grotowski’s Teatr Źródeł (Theatre of Sources) as well as Izrael and Armia, was Poland’s lead Rastafari. Brylewski once said:
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Interviews with the Rastafari had a great influence on me. They speak in a distinct way, similarly to Native Americans. They speak with a sense of dignity.
Izrael’s lyrics are full of Bible quotes – an attempt at creating a new mysticism, one obviously rooted in the Christian imagination. Where does the name Izrael come from? In a 1994 interview with a journalist from Wegetariański Świat (Vegetarian World), Brylewski said:
It would be difficult now to determine its [the band’s] true origin. It’s partly a consequence of our mystical interests and partly a provocation. When one of us came up with the name in 1983, many friends and other people approached us and said that the band couldn’t be called that, because ‘somebody’ would make life difficult for us or because the name would bring us some problems. And this convinced us all the more to adopt it. Especially since 80% of Poles are said to believe in Jesus, but many of them have reservations that he was from Israel.
The reggae scene was created by former punks (or rather punkers, as they were called in 1980s Poland), hippies, post-hippies, listeners and new-wave creators – and even jazz musicians. Reggae and punk bands went on tours together.
When Izrael and TZN Xenna performed in Zakopane, they created a poster with the words: ‘God’s music in Babylon’. There were some older ladies in the audience who believed that they came to a religious music concert. As soon as they noticed Zygzak, the lead singer of Xenna, dressed in a punk outfit, they began to yell at him and call him the devil. Another time, they performed together with the Kraków band Düpą (which looks very similar to Polish word ‘dupa’, meaning ‘ass’), and the posters listed Düpą right above Izrael.
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Jacek Kleyff, a performer from the satirical group Salon Niezależnych said:
Reggae was important because it was measured as two by two. It was impossible to march to this music. During martial law, reggae allowed us to discover a world that was separate from the horrible urban reality outside the window. A couple of families moved to the Lublin region, to the countryside. Słoma, one of my musician friends, found great land near Kozłówka, We created a kind of a Rastafari commune: close to the nature, far from Babylon.
Rock and metal fans were a bit less welcoming towards the Polish brand of the Jamaican music, at least according to the stereotypes surrounding the counter-cultures. As the legendary Kraków band Düpą put it (and Kora and Pudelsi later repeated): ‘Rege kocia muzyka’ (lit. reggae caterwauling).
In 1983 the first edition of the Róbrege festival was organised (the name literally means ‘Make Reggae’). The festival was created by Warsaw’s Hybrydy student club (led by Sławomir Rogowski) and organised by, amongst others, Robert Brylewski, Sławomir Gołaszewski and Paweł ‘Kelner’ Rozwadsowski. The first edition of the festival was so successful that the festival had later to be moved from Hybrydy to the tent of the Intersalto circus in Warsaw’s Wola district.
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Róbrege had concerts not only by reggae, but also punk bands: Armia, Deuter, Dezerter, Inkwizycja, Moskwa, Prowokacja, Siekiera, TZN Xenna and others. There were many post-hippie artists’ shows there as well, such as Lucjan Gołaszewski playing the sitar and Jan Skrzek’s Apogeum. The festival also had performances from Stanisław Soyka and Tomasz Stańsko and his C.O.C.X. group. Worth mentioning here is the fact that Stańko listened to Bob Marley very often, and in the 1980s, he had rehearsals in Remont, a club visited constantly by Izrael musicians.
Róbrege was very well organised, which was something rare back then. The preparations began much earlier and that included sorting out the equipment, posters and decorations […] One of the editions had a set design painted by Tomek Budzyński.
Róbrege became one of the most important music festivals in Poland. On the 30th anniversary of the first edition, 6th October 2013, the organisers put together a concert called the Grand Festival Róbrege – 30 Years Later – Reactivation. The concert once again took place in a tent, but this time, it was in front of the Palace of Culture and Science at Defilad Square. It was headlined by the Twinkle Brothers, Izrael and guests, Tymon & The Transistors and others.
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After mentioning Twinkle Brothers, we simply have to say something about their meeting with the Trebunia-Tutka family at the beginning of the 1990s. The idea to combine Polish Highlanders’ folklore with Jamaican urban music was the brainchild of Włodzimierz Kleszcz, who had been promoting international music during Polish Radio broadcasts since the 1970s.
Polish audiences were not at all prepared for such an experiment: the fans of Highlander classics were sceptical about the Highlander-Jamaican project, but there were also positive reactions. Almost 20 years after recording the album, which turned out to be a breakthrough in Polish folk music, Krzysztof Trebunia-Tutka said in an interview with Kaśka Paluch:
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The following years showed that artistically, it was a very interesting idea, and it inspired many other artists to experiment with music, to be open and to think in a broader manner.
The Higher Heights album was released in 1993 and received a very warm welcome from folk and reggae fans all over the world. It was recorded by London’s On-U Sound, a label managed by Adrian Sherwood, a legendary producer who has cooperated with numerous Jamaican artists (and also with Depeche Mode, Sinead O’Connor and Skinny Puppy).
The Twinkle Brothers were born in the ghetto of the Jamaican city of Falmouth. They released dozens of albums and singles – some of them are closer to roots reggae, whilst others experiment with dub. Their recordings with the Trebunia-Tutka band have gained a cult following in some, often surprising, circles – the song Don’t Betray Me was used in a mix by Lustmord, a classic of dark ambient.
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These musicians from the Tatra Mountains and from Jamaica still perform together regularly. They played during the revived festival in Jarocin in 2007, during the Korzenie Europy festival in Warsaw’s Bródnowski Park, as well as during the Freedom Concert in Gdańsk’s European Solidarity Centre organised to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Poland’s first partially free elections on 4th June 1989.
Those who want to be mean say that reggae killed the new wave in Poland. This opinion requires admitting that reggae is less aesthetically interesting than various kinds of new wave – and only musical servants of Babylon should be able to say that with a straight face. I would argue that it’s a shame that Polish reggae began to die out in the 1990s. (It enjoys a bit of a revival in the 21st century, referring more to pop, R&B and rap music, but this is something for another article.)
On the one hand, the reggae culture in Poland has lost its rebellious potential. On the other, the club genres of Jamaican music culture, such as ragga and dancehall, almost never existed at all. One of the important reasons for this is the fact that no one was able to afford to create a real recording studio. We can only imagine what the history of Polish reggae would have looked like if Poland had ended up on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
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Originally written in Polish by Filip Lech, Oct 2018; translated by MW, Jul 2019
Sources: ‘Obok, Albo Ile Procent Babilonu’ by Mr Makowski, Michał Szymański and others (Katowice, 2010), ‘Kryzys w Babilonie: Autobiografia’ by Robert Brylewski and Rafał Księżyk (Kraków 2010), ‘Desperado’ by Tomasz Stańko and Rafał Księżyk (Kraków 2010).