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The beats, tones and rhythms of Warszawa

Published August, 2010
by Easterndaze

The symbol of the Warsaw Uprising, which we come across in form of a graffiti tag all over Warsaw

Warsaw: its spacious streets and the central agglomeration of skyscrapers dominated by the famous Palace of Culture and Science from the first moments evoked a strong urban feeling contrasting with the the touristy “history museum” of Krakow. During WWII, 85% of the city was destroyed, the Jewish Ghetto with its 1943 Jewish uprising was laid to the ground in an act similar to the crude retaliation of the Hitler’s Army after the Warsaw uprising. The Polish people fought for self-definition, fearing that the incoming Red Army would use the act of liberation of Warsaw for political purposes, and so it happened – Stalin’s soldiers waited outside of Warsaw until the uprising was crushed, only then victoriously liberating the city.

The first day we borrow bikes and head immediately to Warsaw’s Praga district, immersing ourselves in its ghetto atmosphere and derelict buildings. On the way there, we cross through the crowded old-town center, passing the Smolensk Cross, which is guarded by fences and guards and the so-called “defenders of the cross”. Now a symbol of Poland’s long-standing discussion about the influence of Catholic church on its government, the cross was erected in front of the Presidential Palace following the tragedy in Smolensk, when 96 people, including high-ranking Polish government officials died in a plane crash. Since then, the cross is proving to be a steady source of controversy: the government proposed to move it to a nearby church, which was met with a fierce resistance from devout Catholics who started to guard and defend the cross on everyday gatherings. Michal Libera, a music journalist, critic and promoter whom we meet later on that day mentions an article, which said that the cross prevents any attempt to mourn over the tragedy in a non-christian way. We also speak about Warsaw’s experimental and improvised music which according to him seems to be in a kind of limbo, with a small fanbase and the older artists retreating from the scene.

Over the next days we nevertheless manag to meet several interesting people and projects. The biggest of them is probably the artists collective PINK PUNK, a loosely connected social network of friends dedicated to play music with a punk, but pink attitude. It is introduced to us by Konrad Smolenski through an image, which portrays Pink Punk’s complicated internal relations. We interview Konrad on the terrace of the Powiekszenie club. He laughs when we compare Pink Punk to mafia, while at the same time proposing another fitting definition: a family. Pink Punk is a music movement without a manifesto, a promiscuous and heteregenous entity that continously develops spawning various projects that range from noise rock (Woody Alien), experimental electronica (Etamski) through cold mechanic spoken-word hiphop (Kot) into doom/sludge drones of Grobbing Thristle. The artists involved in Pink Punk are scattered over different cities, media (with several of them active as visual artists) and labels: Konrad tells us that he never had an ambition to start up a label, thus the “family” releases its records elsewhere, albeit always including Pink Punk’s skull logo in their booklets.

Krakow’s AudioTong label also has its fingers in Warsaw: we meet Brenda, a former theatre actress from Gdansk who now produces music in Warsaw as LEEDVD. Her lo-fi psychedelic bedroom womantronica started as an Ableton experiment. Now she spends her days playing in the garage working on something she calls “a new formula”.

When it comes to labels, in Warsaw we are mostly reminded of LADO ABC with the ABC standing for the trinity of electronica, guitar music and acoustic/improv stuff, a label whose representants we never meet. There is also Dana from the urban beat-oriented CONCRETE CUT stable with its roster composed of interesting dubstep, dub and IDM producers.

I could do dubstep just like that,” says the electronic producer Dawid Szczesny ironicaly when we drink vodka longdrinks late in the night at the flat of his friend Magda. Earlier that day we managed to visit Stalin’s monumental gift to the Polish people – the Palace of Culture and Science. Built in the 50’s, it carries the signature of the Russian architect Lev Rudnev who also designed the Moscow’s Lomonosov University. We sneaked through the palace’s complex interior and infiltrated to the “view” on the 30th floor using emergency escape staircase.

We interview Dawid Szczesny in front of the Plan B club, an underground/subculture meeting point where he had his first gig. Szczesny is a well-known Polish experimentalist, whose current project – enjoying great success in Poland – is Niwea, a cold-wave hiphop collaboration with Wojciech Bakowski formerly of Kot.

Our rented bikes turn out to be a recipe for disaster – we break the key in the lock and, consequently, are unable to get into the Praga district for a meeting with the IDM/electronica producer Pleq and his entourage composed of his manager and translator. Instead Dawid and Magda take us to the place to be in Warsaw right now (Dawid triumphantly exclaims “This is Warsaw! when we enter) – 5-10-15 on Mokotowska street. The abandoned building was turned into a temporary art space, and until its planned demolition an exciting self-organized life takes place here: each room of the building has its own unique atmosphere and purpose. We check out the impromptu galleries, spontaneous parties, intellectuals debating and drinking in the dark, designer-clothes shops, street art, and many other things happening on its four floors. Warsaw manifests itself here almost in a revelatory way. We roam through the colorful panopticon in a drunken haze and later plunge deeper in Warsaw’s nightlife.

5-10-15 by day

On the last day, we finally manage to take the Warsaw underground and leave the city for Gdansk, but before this, we meet and interview Raphael Roginski a musician that is into all things "native” and “roots”. Raphael’s prepared guitar interpretations of Bach earned him a controversial status within the classical music community as did his turbo-klezmer turned prog-rock project Cukunft (released by Lado ABC) inside Poland’s Jewish community. You are not supposed to play fast, rocking Jewish music without nostalgia, yet some of Cukunft’s live shows are simply breathtaking. Raphael’s band managed to shift Yewish klezmer music into something both traditional and new, as is best manifested by its name – “cukunft”, which stands for “future” in Yiddish.

Discovering Warsaw’s music was a slow revelation, and at the end its scene turned out to be pretty big, albeit disconnected and scattered. Apart from the Pink Punk family, which is active all over Poland, there is no feeling of a “vibrant scene”, but the city which was predicted to be the “Kreuzberg of Europe” by Dorota Maslowska, a young and hilarious Polish writer, nevertheless delivers its complexity also in terms of its music.