Archive | August, 2012

Czeslaw Niemen: Bema pamięci żałobny rapsod (Muza, 1970)

26 Aug

Czeslaw Niemen‘s 1970 setting of Bema pamięci żałobny-rapsod, a text written in 1851 by the Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821 – 1883), is also the first collaboration in what would become a long-standing series, as Niemen returned to Norwid’s work many times in the years following the release of this recording. Although Norwid himself is now regarded as among Poland’s most important nineteenth century poets in his own lifetime he was largely neglected and lived a life of poverty and rootlessness, living for periods in London, Paris and New York, while never winning much financial stability or recognition: it’s said that at one point, he was reduced to living in a churchyard’s crypt. In fact, the date of Niemen’s arrangement is significant, as it was only in 1968 that the first complete edition of Norwid’s poetry appeared in Poland, so his achievement of public and literary eminence coincides chronologically with Niemen’s time rather than his own, though he had achieved a certain cult status among younger Polish writers in the early 20th century. The funeral rhapsody takes as its subject the Polish military leader Józef Zachariasz Bem, an important figure during the Napoleonic Wars who died in 1850, making Norwid’s elegy an immediate historical response to his passing. The version here follows Niemen in sticking to Norwid’s text, so amounts to a direct attempt to translate the poem itself. Some liberties have been taken but as far as I can I’ve tried to keep within the patterns of imagery and approximate form of Norwid’s original, though for purposes of comparison a more literal English text can be read here. The song can be listened to here, accompanied by footage from a Polish TV performance dating from the first release of Enigmatic, the 1970 Niemen LP on which his Norwid setting takes up the first side.

Bema pamięci żałobny-rapsod (Funeral Rhapsody in Memory of General Bem)

(after Cyprian Norwid/Czeslaw Niemen, 1970)

“An oath was given to my father and I have kept it…”



Where is the shadow going with his broken hands,
sparks flying out from his knees and spurs?
His laurel sword gleams, his green candles cry wax,
falcons and horses beat the rhythms of a dance
as streaming pennants crack whips among clouds.
There are troop encampments moving across the skies,
trumpet calls blown among flags and signs,
tents pitched in the shade of day’s lowered wings.
Did spears pierce dragons, lizards and birds?
Do thoughts sharpen to spear-points among these stars?


A woman mourns, collects her tears in a conch shell cup.
She lifts a scented sheaf that bursts on the wind,
seeks directions from grave-posts on a familiar road.
The rest go wild, smash clay pots on the ground.
In this clay’s destruction is a mournful human noise.


Boys beat their blunt axes in dark rhythms on the sky,
hammer bright brass shields on anvils of light.
A vast banner is spreading its cloth above fires
whose smoke plumes bend, resembling a bow or spear
in a blue haze tense as a tightrope’s steel wire.


We’ll press on, drown in the rock of a gorge, climb out,
pass under moonlit cloud and trembling stars
towards a lake in darkness, an impassable chasm.
The chanting stops, breaks out again in waves.
We spear-thrust your horse into an open grave.


We’ll watch for cast shadows by treacherous roads
where paths seem lost between fallen boughs,
knowing no human convoy will ever truly pass.
We’ll drive our procession on, through sleeping towns,
beat urns at gates, brighten axe-blades on whistling stones.


We’ll hammer until we’ve smashed these granite walls
like the winter log-piles that feed our fires –
chant translucent stars from night’s brink,
feel the startled jump in our ribs as hearts awake.
We’ll go on, gathering lichens from nations’ eyes…


Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – Drive Putin Away! (2011)

15 Aug

While the main focus of this site is material issued in the past, primarily during the 1960s and 1970s, it seems important to include some version of this song here. Its performance inside the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ The Saviour in Moscow in 2011 has resulted in an ongoing show trial in which three members of the Moscow feminist collective – Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samoutsevitch and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – face up to seven years imprisonment for the stated crime of ‘hooliganism’, with the location of the protest seen as key to formenting the required outrage at their ‘desecration’ of its sacred space. In fact, it appears – from both the song’s deliberately provocative lyric and statements by the defendants themselves – that the target was not the church, or the Theotokos (Mother of God) who is addressed in the song, but the very particular financial corruption and politicisation of the Orthodox church in support of Putin by Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, Patriarch of Moscow, who is named in the song. The Lord of Gundyayev’s church, the song alleges, is no longer God, but Putin himself. Gundyayev has undoubtedly put the weight of his position behind Putin, describing his rule as “a miracle of God” and his opponents (including Pussy Riot) as “doing the work of Satan” and deserving of punishment. The song, then, does not attack religion, per se, nor desecrate the Cathedral, but rather attempts to issue a plea to the Virgin that the desecration already visited upon the Orthodox faith be stopped, and the false God of Putin be driven away. Despite this, it’s widely assumed that the state prosecutors are out to make an example of the defendants in a context of escalating opposition within Russia to Putin’s regime, points explicitly raised in the eloquent closing statement to the trial of Yekaterina Samutsevich.

Finally, a few points regarding this English presentation of the lyric. The version below is collated from several online translations, including one set alongside footage of the Cathedral protest, which show only fairly minor variations and so seem likely to be reasonably accurate English renditions: it is not made directly from the Russian, which I’m not qualified to do anyway. The Russian lyric runs as follows (text is taken from the version posted on the group’s own livejournal blog). There are many active petitions and planned actions for those who wish to register opposition to the Moscow prosecutors, details of which can be found on the links here [Russian language] and here [English language]. [Footnote: shortly after I posted this, Modern Poetry in Translation posted its own version, by the poet Sasha Dugdale, and further information about the trial and events in support of the women].

Богородица, Дево, Путина прогони
Путина прогони, Путина прогони

Черная ряса, золотые погоны
Все прихожане ползут на поклоны
Призрак свободы на небесах
Гей-прайд отправлен в Сибирь в кандалах

Глава КГБ, их главный святой
Ведет протестующих в СИЗО под конвой
Чтобы Святейшего не оскорбить
Женщинам нужно рожать и любить

Срань, срань, срань Господня
Срань, срань, срань Господня

Богородица, Дево, стань феминисткой
Стань феминисткой, феминисткой стань

Церковная хвала прогнивших воджей
Крестный ход из черных лимузинов
В школу к тебе собирается проповедник
Иди на урок – принеси ему денег!

Патриарх Гундяй верит в Путина
Лучше бы в Бога, сука, верил
Пояс девы не заменит митингов –
На протестах с нами Приснодева Мария!

Богородица, Дево, Путина прогони
Путина прогони, Путина прогони

A Punk Prayer: Drive Putin Away!

(after Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samoutsevitch and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 2011)

Maria, Mother, Virgin,
drive Putin away, drive Putin away!

Black robes and epaulettes of gold,
parishioners are crawling and bowing.
The spirit of liberty is up in Heaven,
Gay Pride’s been sent to Siberia, chained.

Their chief saint is the head of the KGB
who sends protesters under escort to prison.
In order not to offend the holy
women have only to give birth and love.

Holy shit, this lord is shit!
Maria, Mother, Virgin,
become a feminist, become a feminist now!

This church praises rotten dictators;
black limousines in procession carry its cross.
In school you’re thrown to a preacher –
get into class, bring him hard cash!

Patriarch Gundyayev believes in Putin.
Putin’s bitch should believe in God.
No belt of the Virgin can replace meetings
to protest what’s done in a Virgin’s name.

Maria, Mother, Virgin,
drive Putin away, drive Putin away!

Niebiesko-Czarni: Nie pukaj do moich drzwi (Pronit, 1967)

10 Aug

Nie pukaj do moich drzwi (Don’t Knock On My Door) was written by Czeslaw Niemen and Jacek Grań, both of whom have cropped up here in previous entries, Niemen as a solo artist, and indisputably one of the key figures in Polish music of the period, and Jacek Grań as lyricist on several songs associated with Tadeusz Nalepa and Mira Kubasinska’s blues-rock outfit Breakout. It’s also worth noting the importance of Niebiesko-Czarni (The Blue-Blacks) themselves, since they were, along with Czerwono-Czarni (The Red-Blacks), one of the first beat groups to form and tour in Poland. In their early days, they proved something of a laboratory in which many future talents were nurtured, the roster of members on their debut LP having included Stan Borys, Michal Burano, Helena Majdaniec and Czeslaw Niemen, among others. By 1967 the membership seems to have settled, with Ada Rusowicz and Wojtek Korda alternating on lead vocals and Nie pukaj do moich drzwi  is very much one of Ada Rusowicz’s moments in the spotlight. While she often (like Niemen and Borys) brought American soul and r’n’b vocal styles into the Polish context, the primary influences in this particular song seem drawn more from beat sources, not least the Beatles of Rubber Soul and A Hard Day’s Night. Both band and song also appeared in the 1966 film comedy Mocne Uderzenie and it’s worth noting that the ‘live’ version featured there has a much harder edge than its studio equivalent, as featured on the Alarm! LP the following year.  It seems that at this stage bands like Niebiesko-Czarni were primarily considered (and considered themselves) as live entities, with recordings produced almost as an afterthought – albeit a frequently high-energy and persuasive afterthought. By 1968, more time and resources were being spent in studios developing material designed to be heard on record, but as late as 1967 the approach still seems to have been to try and capture something approaching a band’s live sound with few frills. Nie pukaj do moich drzwi can be heard here, accompanied by some very low-resolution footage from Mocne Uderzenie, and a transcript of the Polish lyric can be read here.

Nie pukaj do moich drzwi (Don’t Knock On My Door)

(after Jacek Grań/Czeslaw Niemen, 1967)

You said that you’d love me forever,
that you’d never, ever, love another.
So tell me, was it a sudden wind
that yesterday took your heart from me?

I’d have told you I wanted to be alone
but you never once came to knock on my door.
I heard you, but it was just the wind –
only the wind, then the wind again.

You said that you’d like me forever,
that you’d always like me more than the rest.
Today it seems I’ve been cast away
like a handful of grass released on a breeze.

Maybe I didn’t keep watch in my house,
left it unlocked, so someone stole you away?
I’d have told you I wanted to be alone
but you never came by to knock on my door.

I heard you, but it was just the wind,
only the wind, then the wind again.
Yes, I heard you, but it was just the wind,
only the wind, then the wind again.

You said that you’d love me forever,
that you’d never, ever, love another.
So tell me, what was this sudden wind
that yesterday carried you away from me?

I know all your words. I know them well.
There’s a word I’d like to say to you.
I want to tell you how much I want to be alone
but you never come to knock on my door!

Marta Kubišová: Tajga Blues ‘69 (Supraphon, 1969)

4 Aug

Said by Marta Kubišová herself to be her favourite among all her recordings, Tajga Blues ‘69 is also one of the greatest records of its era, and not only in the former Eastern bloc. Few Western singles of the day are as remarkable as this particular few minutes of dramatic balladry and highly political poetics underscored by heavily distorted guitar. Tajga is the arctic region of the northern hemisphere, and appearing so soon after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it’s unlikely that the song’s allusion to Siberia as a region of exile would have been missed, however oblique the imagery of the song itself, reminiscent as it is of some of the material written the Serbian poet Vasko Popa in Yugoslavia, and others elsewhere. How the record was released and even televised (and not, like another overtly political Kubišová song of the same moment, Ne (No), quickly withdrawn) is something of a mystery, possibly related to a time-lag between the management at the State record label (itself a powerful export income generator through its Classical music arm) and the ‘normalisation’ process, but no real information seems to be available. Whatever the reason for her recordings continuing to be released for around a year after the 1968 invasion, Kubišová did not hold onto her room for manouvre for very long. Despite her immense popularity, smear stories were run in the press and used as grounds to impose a ban during early 1970, preventing her from performing, recording or travelling for the next twenty years. If at least some of these post-1968 songs were pressed (though often left largely undistributed) the ban finally managed to silence her, musically at least, until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. This version of Tajga Blues ’69 first appeared in Poetry Review (Vol.100 No.4) in the winter of 2010. The song can be heard here and a transcript of the original Czech lyric can be read here.

Tajga Blues ‘69

(after Bohuslav Ondrácek/Zdenek Rytir, 1969)

Tajga sleeps, soft white drifts in,
Tajga lies sleeping, is gracious – his first grave sin.
Tajga slumbers in a dungeon of trees,
handcuffed to the Blue Mountains
as guards cling to houses in a quiet street.

Tajga blues, sing out the chorus still –
no word fears these short days
or the long nights.

Tajga does not wake, the north is quiet,
Tajga’s wolf trails are tracked by guards.
There are white places on maps,
blank pages in this open book
and power in the eyes of those who look.

Tajga blues is the echo I hear
as rivers roar and wind laughs a storm
through the long nights.

Tajga spreads its blankets to hide the world,
Tajga’s snow thickens on the quiet woods.
Where to go, but walk blind
through forests whose beautiful frosts
envelop us, though our eyes are closed?

Tajga blues, we sing as they imprison us;
our voices echo – exiled, heard –
and long nights whiten until the world returns.