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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.

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.

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!

Czesław Niemen & Akwarele: Dziwny jest ten świat (Muza, 1967)

2 Jun

Czesław Niemen (born 1939: died 2004) was one of the key figures in the development of Polish popular music and Dziwny jest ten świat (Strange Is This World) is among his best known songs. He started his music career in 1962 as one of the vocalists associated with Niebiesko-Czarni (Black and Blue) and his debut recording was a 1962 twist EP made with them. Further recordings and tours followed, including a prominent role for Niemen – alongside Ada Rusowicz, Wojtek Korda and Helena Majdaniec – on Niebiesko-Czarni’s self-titled debut LP.

In 1965, having developed into a key songwriter as well as vocalist, Niemen joined Akwarele (The Watercolours) with whom he made three LPs, including Dziwny jest ten świat (1967), an album containing a title-song whose Polish lyrics merged with a powerfully soulful delivery: an unusual combination in the Polish context at the time, though Niemen’s fellow Niebiesko-Czarni vocalist Stan Borys was another who had clearly been paying attention to Black American artists, and Ada Rusowicz had also performed versions of Aretha Franklin’s Respect and other similar material both live and on records.

Following the success of Dziwny jest ten świat (the recording is said to have sold over 160,000 copies at the time of its release and it has remained in the catalogue ever since) Niemen’s subsequent career was long and varied, with the progressive organ-based rock of Enigmatic and electronic keyboard-based projects like Idee-Fixe often winning attention in international markets: by the time of his death he was considered sufficiently important for members of Poland’s government to attend his funeral and it’s said that on the day every Polish radio station played Dziwny jest ten świat at the same moment.

While the lyric to Dziwny jest ten świat is very spare, perhaps even slightly generic in its broad sentiments, Niemen’s delivery gives the simple phrases enormous memorability and character when the song is heard in performance. The Polish lyric can be read here, and the song (performed by Niemen at the 1967 Sopot Festival) can be heard here.

Dziwny jest ten świat (Strange is this World)

(after Czesław Niemen, 1967)

This world is strange, home to evil people still.
It’s strange how man despises man.

It’s strange that wars are fought, people are killed.
Strange this world that lets the bad run free

keeps the good in chains. This world is strange.
Our lives make me ashamed, I’m ashamed to say.

But what else is there to feel? It’s too often seen
that words are drawn like knives or swords,

cut good men’s throats. There are good people:
I might believe in them. I must, with all my strength, believe.

For this world, strange as it is, should not end
just because some do evil while we forget the good.

And there are good people: I might believe in them.
I must, though it takes all my strength, believe.

For this world, strange as it is, shouldn’t be made to end
because some do evil: hold in mind the good.

The day has come for hatred to leave our sight.
It’s high time for these hatreds to burn themselves out.