Ponglish Pop: The Phenomenon Of Polish Songs In English
small, Cover of the album "Wet cat" by Maanam, photo: promotional materials, maanam_okladka.jpg
Polish singers and bands sometimes make the same song, or even entire albums, both in Polish and English. Attempting to cater to both domestic and international audiences, some artists also find it interesting to express themselves in English, a language that's used on many recordings that inspire them. Here we take a look at some well-known examples of Polish ‘dual-language music’ and how they resonated with the international public.
Understandable or awkward?
Polish isn’t like English or Spanish. Not in the sense that it isn’t a Germanic or Romance language, but that it isn’t a particularly international language. Hundreds of millions of people in countless countries across the globe use English or Spanish as their first, or second, language. So, if you're a Spanish or English speaking singer, you can stick to your native tongue and still have prospects for an international music career. That isn't the case for somebody singing in Polish. And that’s fully understandable – it’s only natural that many international listeners want to know what a song is about. Especially since even the most compelling verses can sound unconvincing and awkward in an unknown language.
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Knowing this, Polish singers and bands began to cut some of their tracks, or sometimes even entire albums, both in English and Polish. That way they could cater to both domestic and international audiences. But such efforts to conquer the worldwide music scene have proven (up until now) largely futile, even if the Polish version was a smash hit in Poland itself. But why? It’s certainly not the quality of the music that’s responsible. Much of the music in this article is, easily, on par with international benchmarks. Some say that a singer's foreign accent may be the cause – why listen to someone who has trouble with pronunciation? Indeed, in some cases, it's a bit of a challenge to understand Polish vocalists singing in English.
A very capricious thing
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Republika during a photoshoot, 1991, photo: Andrzej Świetlik/Forum
But what about those whose English is perfectly alright? Perhaps some geographical and sociological issues are at play. Maybe the mythical ‘being at the right place at the right time’ just didn’t happen for these artists. Or perhaps audiences seldom accept vocalists singing in a language other than their mother tongue. It really is hard to say as music (especially vernacular music) is a very capricious thing, one that evades the strict rules of logic.
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Regardless of the return from these English-language ventures, they’ve left us with some interesting music, definitely worth lending an ear to. It’s also worth mentioning that the career-building aspect isn’t the only reason for Poles to record in English. Many Polish artists grew up listening to English-language music and consider singing in English as something quite natural. Some even find it easier to express themselves in English than in Polish. So in certain cases, the English recordings of Polish artists may be, as surprising as it may seem, more authentic than the Polish ones. Here are some well-known examples of some bilingual popular Polish music.
Strange is this world
In 1967, Poland was struck by the sound of the hit song Dziwny Jest Ten Świat by the soulful singer Czesław Niemen. It’s no secret that the tune was inspired by two English-language classics: Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman and James Brown’s It's a Man's Man's Man's World. So when the Polish star was making an English-language version of his timeless hit in 1972, called Strange Is This World, he was actually putting it in the linguistic context it sprouted from. However, the English version was made musically much more complex than the Polish original and therefore wasn’t as well received.
Niemen - Strange Is This World
Oh, strange is this world
Where still it seems
There's so far so much evil
And strange it is that since long ago
Man despises man.
Despite Niemen’s outstanding talent and efforts (he recorded a number of albums in English) he never gained a wide following outside his home country. In an interview for the website Onet Niemen’s friend, the journalist Marek Gaszyński explains why:
(…) He didn’t sing in English all that well (…). In the West, he'd have to adapt to the needs of local audiences (…). That was absolutely out of the question.
Waiting for the show
In the 1980s, the rock band Manaam, led by the charismatic singer Kora and the eminent guitarist Marek Jackowski, became one of Poland’s most popular acts. Being as good as they were in the studio and live, the idea to make a foray into the international scene appeared. The group recorded an entire album both in English and Polish. It came out in 1983 as Night Patrol in English and Nocny Patrol in Polish. The time seemed ripe for such a move as Manaam's concerts abroad attracted plenty of attention. In Kora’s 1998 biography Kora, Kora A Planety Szaleją (Kora, Kora And The Planets Go Wild) the singer reminisced about that era:
People would wait for us until late in the night, like in Paard van Troje in the Hague, because we’d come in four hours late. A club full of people waiting patiently to see us play. It was like that also in West Germany where we even had fan clubs of our own. (…) In a live broadcast of the Music Convoy television, we performed together with Bon Jovi. In Turku, Finland, we played with The Cure (…).
A number of the songs on Night Patrol became hits in Poland (City Spleen, Tango, Raz Dwa, Raz Dwa) but they weren’t recognised abroad. The popularity of Manaam’s foreign gigs just didn’t translate into the popularity of their English-language albums. After 1985’s Wet Cat, the band (known to have been inspired by Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix) refrained from making further LPs in English.
We don’t speak English
Lady Pank - Minus Zero (1985) [Remastered]
In early 1980s Poland, the rock group Lady Pank, featuring Jan Borysewicz on guitar and Jan Panasewicz on vocals, rose to stardom. Their debut album Lady Pank, released in 1983, sold over a million copies. Two years later the highly energetic band, drawing on Led Zeppelin and New Wave music, started touring abroad – their travels took them to the United States. There they released an English-language version of their debut record, entitled Drop Everything. This was done in a truly rock-and-roll spirit as the musicians, according to the Archiwum Polskiego Rocka website (Polish Rock Archives), didn’t speak any English at the time. Though one probably should mention that the lyrics were translated by Tom Wachtel who did. Still, it’s not easy to grasp what the songs are about just from listening to them, even when you’re a Pole who speaks English…
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Ula models for top magazines
See her smile in her pink limousine
Queen of lipstick, shampoo and sun creams
She's the fun of every man's dreams
She thinks she's ooh-la-la
But she's just la-de-da
The above is the opening verse of the single Minus Zero that promoted the album. Understandably, the LP didn’t prove to be a success, and the group returned to Poland where it enjoys popularity to this day. The original version of the single is Mniej Niż Zero and is among the country’s classic rock anthems. Its lyrics are quite different than the English ones though, as they don’t focus so much on women as they do on talking about the uneasy realities of show business.
Better than the original
Republika - 1. New Situations (album: 1984)
Another important Polish rock band to record a whole album both in Polish and English in the 1980s was Republika, led by the exuberant vocalist Grzegorz Ciechowski. After the group gained substantial stature in Poland, it received an offer to re-record its 1983 album, Nowe Sytuacje, in English. As a result, it appeared abroad as 1984 (it was released that year). Despite attempts to promote 1984 with concerts abroad, the album didn’t really click with English-speaking audiences. But interestingly, some consider it in certain ways to be superior to the original. On the Rate Your Music website you find the following opinion from a user with the nick cyprianbendarczyk:
All the songs are sung in English, and the music's the same, well, almost the same because some additions have been made, and since the songs were quite probably recorded again from scratch after having been played many, many times, this album is way better than its predecessor.
Indeed, for instance, the opening song New Situations sounds fuller when compared to its Polish version. But even the quality of the album described as having been inspired by Jethro Tull (Ciechowski played the flute) and punk music, can’t make up for the fact that it’s just too hard to understand what the singer is singing about to simply ease back and enjoy the music. The setback of 1984 didn’t, however, stop Republika from becoming one of Poland’s most influential bands.
I love you
T. Love - I love You (English Version)
In 1994, the celebrated rock band T.Love, best recognised for the boy-next-door vibe of its frontman Muniek Staszczyk, released a concert album titled I Love You. Apart from live versions of already existing compositions, the record included also three new tracks, among them the cheerful song I Love You which appeared in both Polish and English. The Polish version became a major hit, but the same can’t be said about its English counterpart. But one should add that creating the English-language I Love You wasn’t part of some organised effort to establish a presence in the international music scene. It seems it was just something the band wanted to do.
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I don’t care about the government
Or the guards of the president
I don’t care about TV faces
I don’t care about my hair
Merchant bankers piss me off
You are the one I need, my love
I wanna spend my time with you
Don’t wanna waste, wanna waste (…)
O yeah, let me say
I love ya, I love ya, I love ya, I love ya
The lyrics (very similar to the original) appear to be a nod to T.Love’s appreciation of punk-rock music.
Myslovitz - Sound Of Solitude
In 2002, the popular rock band Myslovitz, who’ve mentioned R.E.M. and the Strokes among their inspirations, released the album Korova Milky Bar. The title is a tip of the hat to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. In an interview for the Montreal Mirror the band’s guitarist Przemek Mysior explained why they decided to name their record after the fictitious establishment serving drug-infused milk:
To us, Korova Milky Bar is a place where something peculiar can happen with your mind. It’s like Poland. You know, Poland is a place where very strange things happen with your mind. Its full of crises and everything around you is very sad, dark, very f**ked up. That’s why the lyrics on our album are sad. We tend to sing about being in a peculiar state of mind quite a lot.
In 2003, an English-language version of the album came out under the same title. It featured, apart from the songs from the original, English versions of earlier tunes by the band, such as a remake of the 1999 hit Długość Dźwięku Samotności – The Sound of Solitude. The music video for this English rendition was directed by the Oscar-winning Polish cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. But neither the video nor opening for Iggy Pop or playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival helped make Korova Milky Bar popular outside of Poland.
I prefer to sing in English
On his 2013 debut album Comfort and Happiness, the talented pop singer Dawid Podsiadło included the same song in both Polish and English. The first version is titled Trójkąty I Kwadraty, whereas the latter S&T. As in the case of T.Love’s I Love You, the Polish rendition became a hit, but its English counterpart didn’t. This happened even though the singers English is very good and, according to a 2013 interview he gave the Dziennik.pl website, prefers to sing in English:
Dawid Podsiadło - S&T (Live at Eska ROCK)
(..) On the album you sing mainly in English, why is that?
Because I know how to do it (laughter). I like doing it and am better at it than at singing in Polish. Take for instance guitarists. Some prefer bass guitars to regular ones. Me, I prefer to sing in English than in Polish. But seriously: when I sing in English I feel I’m more authentic, more truthful.
The artist, who mentions Lynyrd Skynyrd or Charles Bradley as his inspirations, admits that he’d like to interest foreign audiences in his music. As of yet, he’s still waiting for his big international break.
A letter to Chopin
Polish artists are also known to have made dual-language recordings in Polish and languages other than English. For instance, the singer Anna German, who enjoyed enormous popularity in the Soviet Union thanks to her Russian records and performances, recorded the song List do Chopina (A Letter To Chopin) both in Polish and Russian. The rock and roll band Czerwone Gitary, who had a following in East Germany, recorded their classic 1968 song Takie Ładne Oczy (Such Beautiful Eyes) in Polish and in German.
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Also, some Polish songs gain foreign versions when they’re covered. Not long ago, the Polish jazz pianist Bogdan Hołownia and French vocalist Chris Schittulli made a record with French renditions of classic Polish songs, titled C'est Si Bon. On this 2017 release, you find, among other songs, Sauve Toi Mon Pauvre Coeur, a French version of Uciekaj Moje Serce (Escape, My Heart) composed by Seweryn Krajewski, the long-time leader of Czerwone Gitary.
polish pop music
Polish popular music in English, although c’est si bon, is still waiting for international recognition. Let’s hope that when it comes, it will be comparable to that of Frederic Chopin.
Author: Marek Kępa, April 2018