90s: The Local and the Banal

BY Bartek Chaciński

What we experienced in music was two independent decades occurring in parallel: one ‘local’ and the other ‘international’, just as the musical repertoire was often categorized as local and international

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In his new book titled Retromania, Simon Reynolds asserts, rather boldly, that the entire music scene has gradually lost itself in the repetition of the past: re-editions, remixes, and layers upon layers of references. The decade most frequently alluded to is the 60s, a distinct period in which artists were convinced that their work was revolutionary and would change the world. We were expected to live in the moment and see everything through our own eyes, in keeping with the slogan “be here now”. The 70s and 80s were also distinct enough to provide an abundance of material for future references. The next decade wasn’t quite up to par. Perhaps because the 90s were when the references — especially to the 60s — began to pile up. “Be here now” made its comeback as the title of one of the most famous albums of the 90s, released by the Britpop band Oasis, with firm roots in the music of decades past.

M. Maciejowski, Untitled, 1998,
courtesy of Raster Gallery
[One two hips / I kiss your lips /
Three four more / I’ll die for your corps]
The 90s were no longer about the here and now, but about rehashing the genres of the past: grunge resurrected hard rock, while house clubs rediscovered disco music. What about Poland? The situation here was even more difficult: the decade came at a time when the country was arranging a new culture out of the puzzle pieces that had poured in from the West following the fall of the Berlin Wall. What we experienced was actually two independent decades occurring in parallel: one “local” and the other “international”, just as the musical repertoire was often categorised as local and international.

The former could be described as the musical equivalent of “Married with Children”. The music was rooted in local tradition and saw an enormous resurgence in the eastern, less developed regions of Poland. It was shut off from what was going on at the time in the West. The only passports carried by these artists were issued as a marketing gimmick by the private TV station Polsat.

The latter was an attempt to discover Poland’s place on the cultural map of the world. It was driven by an inferiority complex and the need to mimic whatever was being played in the countries to the west of our own. The results were largely miserable.

One foot in the West

Hey, Fire, 1993For Polish music, the “international” 90s started somewhere at the turn of 1993 and 1994 when the foundation was laid for show business and new copyright legislation was passed, turning the sale of pirated records at open-air bazaars and kiosks from a ubiquitous and widely accepted practice into a criminal offense. It was also when the band Hey! — Poland’s answer to grunge and American 90s rock — debuted. It was also then that the Jarocin Festival, unable to survive the shock of the free market, was shut down for a few years, while remaining a field of struggle, although the political context had changed.

The old stars of the Jarocin Festival were replaced in the early 90s with new, future stars such as Edyta Bartosiewicz, a self-sufficient author, vocalist, and producer, who toed the line between rock and catchy pop and lives on as a symbol of the era. Following the trend of the time, Bartosiewicz latched onto the genre of female pop-rock performed by such artists as Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair, and Sheryl Crow. Kasia Kowalska and Urszula attempted to go down the same road, drastically changing their style in the process.

Another manifestation of this search was Kayah and her Polish brand of soul, which stood its ground and garnered a significant audience over the years, leaving behind an entire wave of Polish female vocalists, often disparagingly referred to as “wailers”, who had made the mistake of mimicking the outdated musical styles of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The 90s, after all, were a transitional period which produced a new generation of singers, among them Erykah Badu and Mary J. Blige, whose music was more heavily inspired by hip-hop, was more open to outside influence, and revolutionised the dominant sexy soul standard of the period.

And finally there was the band Myslovitz — yet another cast of characters in our chase to catch up with the rest of the world — a Polish response to everything that happened in the UK in the 1990s. A somewhat belated response, considering that the band’s enormously successful album Miłość w czasach popkultury was released in 1999. In hindsight, the record can be regarded as a prime example of the “international” model of the 90s.

Poland faired rather poorly, however, with its response to two other ubiquitous Western genres of the 90s: hip-hop and club music. The first achieved great popularity through the songs of Kazik and Liroy, but their model of hip-hop was rejected by the younger generation, which initially lacked the necessary know-how, equipment, record labels, and access to recording studios.

Paradoxically enough, as soon as the first significant hip-hop groups, such as 1kHz, Kaliber 44, and Wzgórze Ya-Pa–3, had achieved initial success in 1993 and 1994, TV stations began running songs by rap parody bands (T-raperzy znad Wisły) and children’s rap (Pan Yapa), reaching a far wider audience. Branded as a rejected, ridiculed, and somewhat discredited genre (as far as the success of Liroy and Kazik was concerned), hip-hop was slow to develop. While Kaliber 44 did achieve commercial success, Polish rap would not become a significant part of the music market for another decade.

The Polish club music scene, which started off as an underground phenomenon in the early 90s and revolved around the Warsaw club Filtry, achieved its greatest (underground) success in one of its most radical incarnations: minimal techno. By the late 90s, Jacek Sienkiewicz and Marcin Czubala were spinning their own records at clubs in the West. The nature of the scene was so global was that borders ceased to have any significance.

The “international” decade included a few less exciting ideas, such as Smerfne hity (“Smurf Hits”), a bestselling series of cheesy dance records for children, featuring anonymous, unrecognizably “smurfed up” vocal performances by famous singers. The 90s also saw the success of the Polish music industry, and the commercial radio stations that were its driving force, giving us such excessive events as enormous, free outdoor concerts (Inwazja Mocy), overinflated promotional ploys (the anniversary concert by Budka Suflera at New York’s Carnegie Hall, career attempts by a variety of celebrities (including Bogusław Bagsik, infamous for his role in the Art-B scandal), empty gestures by former alternative heroes (Krzysztof Skiba mooning the prime minister), and the race to be the first to sell a million records on the legal market. The dawn of the new decade and the crash of the record market put a halt to almost all of these trends.

And one in the East

The “local” face of the 90s in Poland is best illustrated by another event, one that capitalised on flood of cheap entertainment let loose by the lifting of censorship. The company Blue Star was founded in 1990 in a Warsaw suburb by a former soccer player in an attempt to profit off the burgeoning genre of “sidewalk music”, sold on cassette. He even came up with a new name for it: disco polo. It was an ingenious move. An extraordinary coincidence made it possible to quickly popularise this unsophisticated dance music, crudely performed on the cheapest keyboards available.

Its roots lay in Polish wedding standards and italo disco, but the source of its popularity lay elsewhere. First of all, an enormous distribution network was already in place, one previously used to sell knockoff copies of foreign records. Second, Polsat quickly launched a TV show (“Disco Relax”) to promote the growing genre. And third, the infiltration of new pop music trends resulted in the alienation of some the older and less sophisticated variety performers such as Krzysztof Krawczyk, Bohdan Smoleń, and Janusz Laskowski, who subsequently turned to disco polo and “Disco Relax”. It is impossible to estimate the sales volume of disco polo, which was largely distributed through the gray market, but it was an enormous part of the Polish music industry in the 90s.

Another dimension of locality was visible in the direction taken by music labels in the maturing record industry: the use of Polish folklore, especially later in the decade. Notable acts included Brathanki and Golec uOrkiestra, Grzegorz Ciechowski (who had already experimented with traditional Polish sounds), and the enormously popular (thanks to their hit single “Szalała Szalała”) band Krywań, whose music was the exact mid-point between disco polo and this new vision of folk. Kapela Ze Wsi Warszawa, which had already been founded by that point, offered an entirely new perspective on folk tradition. But it wasn’t until they achieved success in the West that they won an audience at home and exerted their musical influence over the next decade.

And what about rock music? That was definitely the decade of Kult and its frontman Kazik Staszewski. In hindsight, the band was part of the “local” decade, as is evident by the fact that English journalists were at a loss in trying to determine the correct musical label to pin to Kult when Kazik and the band performed for Polish émigrés in the UK. It wasn’t just about the style of the band’s arrangements; it was also the content of the political lyrics, much of which was lost to listeners unfamiliar with the current events of the time. Take for example the controversial song “100 000 000” with the memorable line: “Wałęsa, gimme my hundred million”, a reference to the campaign promises of President Lech Wałęsa. The country was experiencing its first disillusionment with its regained freedom, which translated perfectly into art. Like many of the dying “local” trends, this one eventually became dated.

Both here and there

Kazik did, however, play a role in what I consider to be the only trend in the 90s that combined the chase for foreign culture with an emphasis on local flavour: the “yass” scene. This genre was an exceptional mix of several different themes. First, it was a direct descendant — thanks to a few of its founding fathers and the vibe of the Tri-City music world — of punk rock and the alternative scene of the 1980s. Second, it referenced (rather unceremoniously) the Polish jazz classic Krzysztof Komeda. Even the title of the best-known yass album Asthmatic, by the band Miłość, was a nod to the famous record titled Astigmatic. Third, the scene found a mentor in Lestor Bowie, the American avant-garde trumpet player. Fourth, yass was a rebellion against the Polish jazz establishment. And finally, it did not shirk away from its Polishness, instead emphasizing it, albeit somewhat ironically. On the above-mentioned album, Miłość described themselves as a “polo yass band”.

Despite the tough, ideological elements that were especially prevalent in comments by one of the leaders of the movement, Ryszard “Tymon” Tymański, yass changed significantly and metamorphosed while retaining the traditional jazz lineup and such elements as improvisation and mild satire. In hindsight, the most significant album of the genre seems to be P.O.L.O.V.I.R.U.S. (1998), by the band Kury, a compilation of songs parodying a number of popular styles, from heavy metal and soccer fan chants, to disco polo (of course) and “sung poetry”. The record was at once a synopsis of the social problems of the Polish decade. The fact that the band managed to ridicule them gives me hope that one day, someone will succeed in referencing Polish 90s music in a coherent and nostalgic manner, extracting from it an essence, a common denominator.

The challenge will be all the greater given that yass, as an inspiration, has been constantly present in Polish music ever since, and has given birth to more or less interesting musical projects in the genres of independent rock, jazz, and improvised music. It hasn’t lost its freshness, and remains a good alternative to the lackluster mainstream. Perhaps the 90s aren’t over in Poland after all?

translated by Arthur Barys

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.