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Eastern Bloc Disco at Centrala (Playlist for Feb 3, 2017)

4 Feb

Generic Sleeve [Pronit, Poland, 1960s]

The second Eastern Bloc Disco event took place yesterday evening at Centrala, Birmingham, as part of the monthly Digbeth First Friday, and this set ran from around 8pm until 10.40pm (after which a pre-prepared short mix featuring a few other songs, also listed below, saw the event through to its end, more or less). A further collaboration with Centrala, on an archival exhibition and series of events exploring the history, ephemera, design, film and wider political and cultural contexts surrounding some of these artists and sounds, is currently in development for the Summer of 2018. [Watch this space].

Grupa 220: Negdie Postoji Netko (Yugoslavia, 1968)
Koncz Zsuzsa & Illés Együttes: Fáradt Vagyok (Hungary, 1967)
Izomorf 67: Barwy Dzwieku (Poland, 1967)
Karel Černoch: Snídaně v Trávě (Help) (Czechoslovakia, 1971)
Marta Kubišová: Balada o Kornetovi a Divce (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Blackout: Powiedz Swoje Imie (Poland, 1967)
Polanie: Dlugo Się Znamy (Poland, 1968)
Karel Kahovec & Flamengo: Poprava Blond Holky (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
George & Beatovens: Lez Blazniveho Basnika (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Sarolta Zalatnay: Betonfej (Hungary, 1968)
Koncz Szusza: Visz a Vonat (Hungary, 1970)
Petr Spaleny & Apollobeat: Kdybych Ja Byl Kovarem (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Vaclav Neckar & Golden Kids: Goo-Goo Barabajagal (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Breakout: Pozlabym za Toba (Poland, 1969)
Illés Együttes: Nehez Az Ut (Hungary, 1968)
Janko Nilovic: Xenos Cosmos (Yugoslavia/France, 1974)
Czerwono Czarni: Lot na Wenus (Poland, 1969)
Hana & Petr Ulrychovi: A Co Ma Bejt (Czechoslovakia, 1970)
Angelika Mann: Wenn Ich Mal (DDR, 1974)
Hana Zagorová: Svatej Kluk (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Chris Doerk: Glaub Nicht (DDR, 1974)
Czeslaw Niemen & Akwarele: Baw Się W Ciuciubabkę (Poland, 1969)
Josef Laufer & Their Majesties: Útěk z Hladomorny (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Grupa ABC: Za Duzo Chcesz (Poland, 1970)
Jana Kratochvílová & Discobolos: Kyvadlo (Czechoslovakia, 1978)
Bemibem: Podaruj Mi Trochę Słońca (Poland, 1973)
Alibabki: Slonce w Chmurach Lazi (Poland, 1969)
Drugi Nacin: Zuti List (Yugoslavia, 1975)
Olympic: Tobogan (Czechoslovakia, 1970)
Emil Dimitrov: Scherazhade (Bulgaria, 1972)
Arp-Life: Baby Bump (Poland, 1976)
Walter Kubiczeck: Tentakel (DDR, 1979)
Grupul Stereo: Coloana Infinită (Romania, 1984)
Marta Kubišová: Tak Dej Se K Nam A Projdem Svet (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Eva Pilarova: Ohen a Led (Czechoslovakia, 1970)
Izabela Trojanowska: Jestem Twoim Grzechem (Poland, 1981)
Grupul Stereo: Plopii Impari (Romania, 1984)
Manaam: Stoję, stoję, czuję się świetnie (Poland, 1980)

Prepared Mix:

Olympic: Ikarus Blues (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Sarolta Zalatnay & Metro: Fekete Beat (Hungary, 1973)
Filipinki: Nie Ma Go (Poland, 1967)
Halina Frąckowiak: Wodo, Zimna Wodo (Poland, 1974)
Kovács Kati: Add Már, Uram, Az Esőt (Hungary, 1972)
Marta Kubišová: Svlikam Lasku (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Czeslaw Niemen: Enigmatyczne Impresje (Poland, 1971)
Omega: Gyöngyhajú Lány (Hungary, 1969)
Locomotiv GT: The Worlds Watchmaker (Hungary/Poland, 1974)
Tadeusz Woźniak: Zegarmistrz Światła (Poland, 1972)

Various Artists: Privni Pantoniada (Panton) [7

Eastern Bloc Disco Playlist (Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan 2016)

16 Feb

Generic Sleeve (Pronit)

Last month, to celebrate the opening weekend of Monuments Should Not Be Trusted (curated by Lina Džuverović) and expand on the display of Eastern Bloc 7” records included in Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! (both exhibitions remain at Nottingham Contemporary until 04 March), an Eastern Bloc Disco was staged, featuring soul, rock, psychedelia, pop, folk and more, all released by the official state record labels of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany and the USSR between the early 1960s and mid-1980s. The session also included a live set from UrBororo, Pil & Galia Kollectiv’s new venture into “skewed filing cabinet swamp blues for corporate inflight listening” – an “objectively boring” band whose songs are made from an unlikely merger between the sounds of surf, grunge and punk, and whose lyrics are borrowed from a 1970s Management Self-Help guide.

The all-vinyl playlist for the night ended up looking something like this:

Marek Grechuta: W Pochodzie Dni I Nocy (Poland, 1974)
Raimonds Pauls/Margarita Vilcāne: Līgotāji (Latvia/USSR, 1974)
Izomorf 67: Barwy Dzwieku (Poland, 1967/8)
Raimonds Pauls/Nora Bumbiere: Divpadsmit Asaras (Latvia/USSR, 1974)
Blackout: Powiedz Swoje Imie (Poland, 1967)
Grupa 220: Negdie Postoji Netko (Yugoslavia, 1968)
Vera Spinarova: Andromeda (Czechoslovakia, 1972)
Krystyna Pronko: Po Co Ci To Chlopcze (Poland, 1973)
Czeslaw Niemen & Akwarele: Baw Się W Ciuciubabkę (Poland, 1969)
Josef Laufer & Their Majesties: Útěk z Hladomorny (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Flamengo: Kure v Hodinkach (Czechoslovakia, 1972)
C&K Vocal: Generace (Czechosolovakia, 1974)
Omega: Gyöngyhajú Lány (Hungary, 1969)
Romauld & Roman: Pytanie Czy Haslo (Poland, 1970)
Drugi Nacin: Zuti List (Yugoslavia, 1975)
Piotr Figiel: Dyplomowany Galernik (Poland, 1974)
Olympic: Ikarus Blues (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Locomotiv GT: Ringasd El Magad II (Hungary, 1973)
Hungaria: Koncert a Marson (Hungary, 1969)
Blue Effect: The Sun Is So Bright (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Olympic: Everybody (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Breakout: Gdybys Kochal Hej (Poland, 1969)
Illes: Nehez Az Ut (Hungary, 1968)
Karel Kahovec/Flamengo: Poprava Blond Holky (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
George & Beatovens: Lez Blazniveho Basnika (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Martha & Tena: Boure (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Atlantis: Don’t You Break It Again (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Petr Spaleny & Apollobeat: Kdybych Ja Byl Kovarem (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Sarolta Zalatnay: Betonfej (Hungary, 1968)
Halina Frackowiak: Wodo, Zimna Wodo (Poland, 1974)
Stan Borys: Wyplakalem Oczy Niebieskie (Poland, 1969)
Koncz Szusza: Visz a Vonat (Hungary, 1970)
Emil Dimitrov: Scherazade (Bulgaria, 1972)
Marta Kubisova: Tak Dej Se K Nam A Projdem Svet (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Hana & Petr Ulrychovi: A Co Ma Bejt (Czechoslovakia, 1970)
Angelika Mann: Wenn Ich Mal (DDR, 1974)
Arp-Life: Baby Bump (Poland, 1976)
Walter Kubiczeck: Tentakel (DDR, 1979)
Grupul Stereo: Coloana Infinită (Romania, 1984)
Izabela Trojanowska: Jestem Twoim Grzechem (Poland, 1981)
Grupul Stereo: Plopii Impari (Romania, 1984)
Chris Doerk: Glaub Nicht (DDR, 1974)
Vaclav Neckar & Golden Kids: Goo-Goo Barabajagal (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Czerwone Gitary: Coda (Poland, 1970)
Grupa ABC: Za Duzo Chcesz (Poland, 1970)
Marta Kubisova: Cervanky (It’s Not Unusual) (Czechoslovakia, 1968)

Generic Sleeve (Supraphon)

Through the evening, a muted playlist of videos also ran on a large screen, and everything shown at the event can be seen in the Eastern Bloc Disco playlist compiled here – between 2 – 3 hours of visuals in total, now available with their soundtracks intact.

Czeslaw Niemen: Kwiaty Ojczyste (Muza, 1970)

14 Apr

Czeslaw Niemen’s Enigmatic (1970) was a recording whose songs were all settings of poems by Polish authors, two of which – Cyprian Norwid’s Bema pamięci żałobny-rapsod (Funeral Rhapsody in Memory of General Bem) and Adam Asnyk’s Jednego Serca (One Heart) have already featured here, along with some background on the recordings and Czeslaw Niemen himself. This further song is Niemen’s setting of Tadeusz Kubiak’s Kwiaty Ojczyste (Native Flowers), a poem that reads as follows on the sleeve of the original Polish LP release:

Kwiaty nad Wisłą mazowieckie
Stokrotki, fiołki i kaczeńce
Zielone wierchy nad Warszawą
Kwieciste nad domami wieńce.
Kwiaty znad Odry, gąszcze, róże,
Stukolorowe pióra pawie
W parkach Szczecina i Opola
W małych ogródkach pod Wrocławiem…

Kaliny, malwy białostockie,
Lubelskie bujne winogrady,
Dziewanny złote pod Zamościem
I w Kazimierzu białe sady.
Kwiaty nad Wisłą, Narwią, Bugiem,
Zbierane w słońcu, przy księżycu
Kocham was kwiaty mej ojczyzny
Nad Odrą, Wartą i Pilicą…

Mostly the version that follows has tried to remain true to this, with the proviso that some details have been added here and there to elucidate some of the place names and locations that may not be immediately recognised by non-Polish readers as, for example, rivers, or towns in particular regions. This has formally altered the poem by in effect, adding an extra line to it, but hopefully it otherwise remains reasonably close to its source both formally and in meaning. The song can be heard here, accompanied by film of Niemen in performance with the vocal group Alibabki, and a stellar line-up of Polish jazz musicians that includes Zbigniew Namysłowski, Czesław Bartkowski and Michał Urbaniak.

Kwiaty Ojczyste (Native Flowers)

(after Czeslaw Niemen/Tadeusz Kubiak, 1970)

There are flowers on the Masovian Vistula,
white daisies, blue violets and marigolds.
Flowers crown the green peaks over Warsaw,
lay floral wreaths on all the houses’ roofs.
There are roses, flowers from the thickets of Odra,
like hundred-coloured peacock feathers
in all the parks of Szczecin and Opole,
in all the small gardens tended near Wrocław.

Mallows strike root in Kalina and Bialystok,
grow in Lublin’s lush vineyards and wineries.
Golden clementines flower in Zamosc,
the orchards of Kazimierz turn white with blossom.
There are flowers on the banks of the Vistula,
flowers by the waters of the Narew and Bug,
flowers I love, gathered under the sun and moon,
bright in the shadow of Pilica’s castle wall,
flowers where the Oder and Warta rivers flow.

Czeslaw Niemen Enigmatic (1970)

A Conversation: Mapping Out the Territory of Star City (Spring 2010)

1 Mar

Halina Frackowiak: Geira (Muza)

I recently found this transcript of an early discussion between myself, Robert Adlington and Polly McMichael when we were mapping out the territory each of us would cover during the Communist Rock’n’Roll event at Nottingham Contemporary as part of the programme around the Star City exhibition that Spring. It’s presented here unrevised and unedited, as I try to answer various questions (mostly off the top of my head) put by Robert Adlington at one of our various meetings in preparation for the talk. The more formal finished version of the talk appears here, but this looser exploration touches on many aspects that had to be omitted from the event itself, as it took place at the gallery on April 9th, 2010.

Soviet Nostalgia – being re-interested in the groups and styles of the Soviet era. (Is this similar to our embarrassing fascination with the eighties? Or is it something else?)

In the satellite countries I’ll be focusing on, there’s no real Soviet nostalgia that I’ve noticed, but certainly a strong sense in the Czech Republic, say, of the lost possibilities before the 1968 invasion: the Dubcek era seems to be remembered as a good time before the ‘forgetting’ of standardisation/normalisation set in after 1969. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to the fond memories of the 1960s in England, though obviously the forced cut off (echoed very deliberately on Marta Kubisova’s final recording, which stops dead before finishing) makes the sense of the lost possibilities of the era even more pronounced: there was no long disillusion as the 60s went sour, and humourless extremism and the conservative resurgence got underway (as in West Germany, Britain, the US, etc, with oil shocks, recession, Nixon etc having a notable chilling effect on the similar optimism of the west), just the guillotine of the invasion. In Poland/Hungary both the optimism and the aftermath were less stark…in Hungary, for example, a band like Illes were silenced for around a year in the late 60s after giving interviews in the UK critical of the regime, but this seems to have resulted in their profile rising on their return to performing: in Hungary and Poland, the kind of progressive rock music that saw the Czech Plastic People of the Universe arrested in 1977 (resulting in the foundation of Charter 77 – signed by Kubisova, incidentally – by this point an active dissident) was still being released on State labels – certainly up to around 1975/6 in Hungary, when the climate shifted, and for somewhat longer in Poland (where there was a fairly well-regarded punk/new wave scene that was being put out on the state labels at least until the post-Solidarity Martial Law kicked in during the early 80s)…

The means of censorship. How was music suppressed and was there a certain level of turning a blind eye by the government? If so, why was this?

Total inconsistency through the period on this: much was censored, musicians were refused licenses and opportunities to perform and record, and the ground shifted regularly between hardliners and more liberal elements within the machinery: Kubisova is barred from recording several times before 1970, but finds a way back; Illes in Hungary are ‘punished’ for their interviews overseas (though had been allowed to go overseas to tour before that); Omega release LPs on Decca in the UK, Eva Pilarova has American singles released, Sarolta Zalatnay is part of a reciprocal licensing deal with a British commercial record label (and records songs in English, both translations of her Hungarian material, and things like Janis Joplin’s ‘Move Over’) …all are also out of favour at other times, so the State machinery between 1965 – 1972 (earlier in Czechoslovakia) moves in fairly mysterious and often unpredictable ways. Most of the musicians seem to be variously discontented with the regime, but the State also seems at times to realise that allowing expression to these discontentments buys it favour among the young – at other times, it suppresses them outright, much as I suppose the West’s media and judiciary did also (tales of awful experiences at the hands of the authorities can be found in the US as well as the Eastern Bloc – Roky Erikson, John Sinclair, The Weavers’ blacklisting, etc). The stakes are much higher under the Communist regime due less, I suspect, to greater intolerance – though there certainly was much intolerance – than to the lack of checks on abuses of power: this makes falling out of favour a more dangerous business all round, where personal contacts are key.

The State Label. Is this akin to the BBC? Was there such a thing as a top of the pops in the USSR? Was the State Label similar to something like Motown with session musicians and if so was there cult of personality that followed certain ‘state Rock and Roll musicians’?

The main State labels I’ll be looking at are Polskie Nagrania in Poland (the main imprints were Muza and Pronit), Pepita/Qualiton in Hungary and Supraphon in Czechoslovakia; we’ll touch a little on Amiga in the DDR as well. Each was a big State run institution, nominally independent, but (like the BBC) certainly subject to a lot of political pressure to be ‘on message’ with the Party in each country. As with censorship, at different times these labels might be run by more hardline or liberal factions, and as with the BBC (or indeed any big bureaucratic corporate institution – say, EMI in 60s England, or CBS in 60s America) factions within them could be pursuing different agendas at the same time. In Hungary, for example, Illes were controversial, but actively supported by the Party as part of a programme in the 60s of ‘small liberties for the people’ – not as liberal as Dubcek’s regime in Czechoslovakia, but part of a similar thaw. Others were tolerated rather than supported, some promoted internationally to showcase the regime’s cultural achievements, some barred from travelling (Illes met both fates; Kubisova went to Paris, where she met Aretha Franklin, before the climate changed after the invasion; Polish figures like Michal Urbaniak and Krystof Komeda recorded in the UK and US, while US figures like Stan Getz and Gabor Szabo went to Poland and Hungary to record with the jazz musicians there, etc). Generally, each label had a roster of bands and musicians, who were independent of one another – discrete units like Czerwone Gitary, Breakout, Niebiesko-Czarni, Skaldowie, Metro, Golden Kids and Olympic – but a band like Metro or Illes would also be the backing group for a singer (eg: Sarolta Zalatnay, Koncz Szusza) or Breakout would perform sometimes with Mira Kubasinska as their vocalist, sometimes under her name, with Breakout as her backing band, and SBB did similar work with Halina Frackowiak. Vocal groups like Partita and Alibabki appeared with everyone from psychedelic soul-rocker Czeslaw Niemen to the most MOR cabaret acts, and jazz musicians would both run their own groups and play with rock or folk bands…there are parallels with the London session scene, as musicians like Alan Hawkshaw, Barbara Moore and Johnny Hawksworth, and writers/arrangers like Pete Moore, John Keating, Nick Ingman and Keith Mansfield (incidentally, Mansfield and his various proteges like Salena Jones and James Royal were popular in Poland, being released in reciprocal deals with British CBS – who in turn issued records in the UK by Michal Urbaniak) moved between their own contract recordings, music for TV and film, backing visiting stars and teaming up with new talents, often running from one session to another – doing a session with Shirley Bassey in the morning and recording their own experimental rock and jazz instrumentals for the KPM or De Wolfe libraries in the afternoon. The difference is that the State label bands/musicians were known in their own right, while the London and US session musicians (the US had its own stables, such as Hal Blaine’s ‘wrecking crew’ in LA) were not widely known outside the business – their pictures wouldn’t be on the record sleeves as it were.

Sampling. What are the key methods by which elements of soviet rock and roll now bleed into our awareness? Hip Hop sampling? Other ways?

This material began to emerge into the West after the wall fell, so certainly in the early to mid 1990s German DJs and collectors were starting to compile mixtapes and use samples of material from Poland and the former DDR, and these reached the US and UK a little later, where information on the things to look out for began to filter along the networks: by the late 1990s (aided by the spread of the internet, and international selling outlets like GEMM and ebay) people were building up a broader picture of what was out there in the West: this was in turn aided by programmes of reissues and CD releases of older music in the former East – Poland had already reissued much of its 60s/70s catalogue as part of a ‘Beat Archive’ series in the later 1980s, Czechoslovakia began repressing records that had disappeared from shops after 1969 (and in some cases, such as Hana & Petr Ulrychovi’s Odyssea LP, records that were recorded during the Prague Spring, but shelved and never released after 1970) most notably Marta Kubisova’s ‘Songy a Ballady’, which had appeared, then been censored, before she was banned outright after 1970…this appeared in 1990, and Kubisova was brought onto a balcony in the midst of the Velvet Revolution (alongside Havel) to sing ‘Modlitba Pro Martu’ (Prayer for/of Marta), which had been something of an anthem during the invasion (“in the government of my affections, you must return what you have stolen…”) to the crowds in Prague: her return to concert performing followed very soon afterward. So it’s a combination of Western interest – first among record collectors and dance music/hip-hop producers seeking samples, then more broadly – and a return to this material in the East itself. Even so, it’s still taken almost 20 years for the process of releasing these musicians in the West to properly begin: the first compilation of Kubisova appeared in 2009 on a small label (compiled by German DJ Lou Kash), while a retrospective of Hungary’s rockscene and compilation of material by Sarolta Zalatnay appeared on the Manchester based independent Finder’s Keepers only a year or so ago (this is run by enthusiast, sample-based artist/remixer and Badly Drawn Boy discoverer Andy Votel and colleagues – they also run B-Music nights around the country to promote Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, French, Spanish, Pakistani, Iranian and other lesser known music and film scenes). The process goes on…

How was the rock and roll packaged? Were albums made or is this more of a singles market? Was there a marketing machine, videos, to promote music?

Very much so: promo clips were made (of which I’ve sourced many, often from Youtube), bands featured in popular films (eg: Illes in Hungary’s ‘youth scene’ movie Ezek a Fiatalok or Skaldowie and Niebesko-Czarni in the Polish comedy Mocne Uderzenie, and many jazz artists contributing to Czech and Polish new wave film soundtracks, the best known being Krystof Komeda’s collaborations with Polanski on all his films up to and including Rosemary’s Baby), both albums and singles were made and widely sold (and had great cover art, comparable to the better known Polish film posters much admired by Western designers today). Though some releases were sabotaged by censorship, others were very popular, so degrees of scarcity vary widely.

Was Rock and Roll considered a rebellion of youth or an embracing of Western mores? Depending on how this rebellion was considered by the authorities were the penalties of some musicians much stricter than others? Were they persecuted for their music?

I think I’ve touched on this above – I think in Polly [McMichaels’] words regarding official attitudes to The Beatles in the USSR, it’s complicated. Some were supported by the various Communist Parties, some actively repressed, and the same bands or musicians could undergo both not just at different times, but sometimes at the same time: Kubisova, for example, was Czechoslovakia’s most popular singer from around 1965/6 till her final banning in 1970, but was at various points not allowed to record – yet her earlier recordings would still be broadcast. The Golden Kids TV show, Micro Magic Theatre, is an example: Kubisova was not allowed to record with her Golden Kids colleagues Helena Vondrakova and Vaclav Neckar when the soundtrack of this TV show was being made, so the producers simply used her existing recordings to fill the gaps.

Did this Rock and Roll spread throughout the USSR or was it quite cloistered within each of the countries so that there was a specific flavor of music for each soviet country?

Don’t know about the USSR specifically (though my impression is that certain groups had stronger followings or identifications with particular regions – eg: Pesniary’s drawing on Bylorussian folk on their records?) but Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia all have quite distinct scenes, and quite distinct styles and approaches. Very broadly, Poland seems to have been the most consistent – from jazz and skiffle groups in the later 1950s, to Komeda’s ‘Astigmatic’ in 1965 (a key recording) and on through the move into beat, rock, r’n’b, amplified folk and progressive rock over the next 5/10 years, the pattern in Poland is akin to that in the West – a decline in quality through the 1970s but not especially related to political pressures (except as it was in the west also). By 1979/80, with Solidarnosc and Martial Law, things became very safe, but until then there’s a notable consistency. In Hungary, the mix of folk and beat pioneered by Illes developed into a very strong rock scene, represented by Omega, Skorpio, Zalatnay and Locomotiv GT, with poppier/jazzier material by Kati Kovacs and more traditional songs by Koncz Szusa also immensely popular (though so strong was the rock influence, both did a lot of rock material too). Czechoslovakia was most extreme – the most open and Westernised scene prior to 1968, the most repressive after it. In all three countries, the material I’m looking at was generally properly popular – played on radio, featured on TV, and still in heavy circulation on ‘oldies’ stations and TV channels today, much as The Beatles and Motown are on TV and radio in the US/UK – so these are not the more obvious dissident or underground things, which, almost by definition, weren’t released on vinyl by the State labels and – as far as I know – aren’t available elsewhere, either. There was a good deal of traffic between the various eastern bloc countries, and a surprising amount between these and the west at certain points, so popularity did spread beyond particular borders: I understand that mostly (within the eastern bloc states) that this would take the form of concerts and import/export of records rather than fresh pressings for each new market, though there are Czech pressings of Polish LPs, for example, but they’re comparatively scarce. The biggest project in this kind of cross border activity I know of was the DDR’s bringing together of bands from all over the bloc to re-record songs in German for a series of compilation LPs called ‘Hallo’ – 12 volumes, on which bands like Czerwone Gitary remake Polish songs for the DDR market alongside music from well known DDR bands like Panta Rhei, Electra Combo and others.

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…”

Hannibal

(i)

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?

(ii)

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.

(iii)

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.

(iv)

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.

(v)

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.

(vi)

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…

Czeslaw Niemen: Jednego Serca (Muza, 1970)

26 Aug

Czeslaw Niemen’s 1970 album Enigmatic is a fascinating recording on many levels, not least for its inclusion of an extraordinary sixteen minute setting of the Polish poet Cyprian Norwid‘s 1851 funeral rhapsody Bema Pamięci Rapsod Załobny, a version of which I hope to add here at some future date. For today, though, it’s another song from Enigmatic that finds its way into the spotlight, Jednego Serca (One Heart). This song is particularly intriguing for its prefiguration of much that would later be considered as the signature sound of Pink Floyd on their mega-selling concept LP Dark Side of the Moon in 1973. The resemblance is so strong, and Niemen’s song appeared so far in advance of its Western reflection, that it seems highly unlikely that Jednego Serca was anything other than a primary but unacknowledged influence. Niemen’s music had already found some support in international markets by this stage and Pink Floyd’s members had sufficiently eclectic tastes (it appears to be fairly well known that their early signature freak-out Interstellar Overdrive borrowed its basic chords from Ron Grainer’s Old Ned, better known as the theme to 1960s sitcom Steptoe and Son) that it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that Niemen’s composition played a role in redirecting their sound a few years after Enigmatic appeared. Whatever the truth of that chain of influence, though, this is a powerful piece of work in its own right, its simple lyric by Adam Asnyk performed by Niemen with his signature soulful delivery, accompanied by Alibabki and some of Poland’s finest jazz musicians: Zbigniew Namysłowski, Czesław Bartkowski and Michał Urbaniak are all in the Enigmatic line-up. Jednego Serca itself can be heard here, accompanied by footage from a Polish TV performance, and a version of the original lyric can be read here.

Jednego Serca (One Heart)

(after Adam Asnyk/Czeslaw Niemen, 1970)

One heart is so small, almost too small to find on earth.
I need a heart that would tremble knowing the love I’d give.

I will not speak among the silent, but stay calm,
learn the handwritten paragraphs that mark out our time.

I need lips, to drain this potion of all its powers,
eyes that would see myself glimpsed as a saint among stars.

These are mine: one red heart and two small white hands.
Might another’s arms wrap me when I fall asleep?

I’ll dream of an angel who can lift me in his arms to the sky.
The heart I need is small, but still too much to ask.

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!