My Adventures in Poland (Part Three)

On the second day of my trip, I went over and spoke at a conference on internet research hosted by the Warsaw School of Social Psychology, built inside an old factory, in what was described to me as the “dodgy” side of the Vistula River. The river divides the city into two parts: historically more working class people lived on the west bank. This area, however, is now undergoing gentrification and the university itself was a modern, inviting facility. I will have less to share about this conference because it was mostly conducted in Polish without translation facilities and so I was not able to really engage with the other presenters as much as at the Kultura 2.0 event. I did hear a really interesting presentation on a phenomenon called Couchsurfing, where people use social networking tools to arrange to stay in people’s homes as they travel around the world. The presenter discussed it in terms of the interplay of virtual and physical spaces and the different kinds of sociality that each enables.

Later that night, we ended up going out with a group of students to a typically European drinking hole, Sklad Butelek. I spent much of the evening talking with Alek

Tarkowski, who is the primary person in Poland organizing and promoting the Creative Commons movement.

The Polish Reggae Scene?

One of the most interesting aspect of his conversation, however, centered around the emergence of a Reggae movement in Poland. Keep in mind: There are almost no Jamaicans living in Poland. This is not a case of emigrant populations porting music to another part of the world. Poland is an incredibly homogeneous country with very limited immigrant populations and clearly, there are no cultural reasons for Jamaicans to want to relocate to this part of the world. Reggae emerged here because it served Polish interests and reflected Polish tastes and thus it has taken some distinctly Polish shapes.

I shared some of the music I brought back with Generoso Fierro, who works in the CMS offices. For more than a decade, he has hosted Generoso’s Bovine Ska and Rocksteady which airs every Tuesday from midnight to 2AM (EST) on 88.1FM WMBR Cambridge and can be found online. His show focuses on the beginnings of Jamaica’s music

industry (1955-1970) from the earliest recordings of mento (sometimes referred to as

Jamaican calypso) through Jamaican R & B,ska, rocksteady and the rise of reggae. Here’s his insights into the Polish reggae phenomenon:

I have found that Jamaican music truly appeals to any culture that is in a dire economic position. In the case of England there was the effect of children of post WW2 Jamaican immigrants who were brought to England due to the labor shortage, living in depressed neighborhoods with white London youth turning them onto Jamaican rhythms during the Mod and Skinhead movements of the late 1960s..The whole merger of punk and reggae (i.e The Clash covering Jamaican music) happened due to a London DJ named Don Letts who, due to the small amount of punk records available at the time, would spin reggae before live punk rocks shows. But in the case of Mexico, which has a huge Jamaican music community, this seemed to have spawned from radio broadcasts from California during the Jamaican revival in the early 1990s. Several of the revival bands that formed in Mexico told me in interviews that California radio really turned them onto the sound.

A group called Izrael was the first to introduce the sound into Poland in 193. Some members of Izrael heard a few songs and were so fascinated that they started to produce music in this style (at least as they understood it). I gather there’s a good deal of reinvention going on here given how limited their initial exposure to the music was. The name created confusion in Poland with some people assuming this was a Christian Rock group. Indeed, my hosts shared with me stories of older people storming out of the concert, confused and angry, having hoped for a more conventional religious experience.


Generoso added, having heard some of this music:

Rastafarianism which is what alot of the Izrael record expounds (based on titles of songs and style) really wouldn’t mix with Polish Catholicism so I understand their confusion. There are American “Jamaican” bands like “The Israelites” that actually are born-again Christian. They keep the Jamaican patois accents but side-step the mentioning of Hellie Selassie or Rastafari. The Izrael record is quite sincere in it’s production and sound. On the compilation disc you gave me what I find great is the variance in style from what is dancehall to dub to modern ska sounding tracks. During one barrage of Polish dancehall toasting (singing over the rhythm) the occasional Jamaican patois word like “Samfi” or “Ganja” that get’s thrown in which is almost too bizarre to the ear.

Much of the growth of the community has taken place online. There is apparently one store in Warsaw which sells only Reggae and its variations. Many Polish groups send their masters to the west Indies in order to get them cut onto Vinyl by Jamaican recording companies and then shipped back so they have the particular sound they want.

As the sound was introduced into Poland, and as Polish youth started to respond to its cultural politics, Reggae spread. There emerged at least one store in Warsaw devoted entirely to the sell of Reggae albums, which has become the headquarters of the local culture. And there is a very active internet community which helps direct fans to clubs where various groups are performing and educate them about the music. A recent album, Polski Ogien, showcased the younger artists who have emerged in Izrael’s wake, and included a surprising array of different sounds and rhythms.

What had attracted my interest in the club had been a song I heard on the radio which was collaboration between Twinkle Brothers (a Reggae roots group well known in the west) with Trebunie Tutki (a traditional Polish highlands group): they had discovered a similar rhythm pattern in their music. This was an amazing cut and I am told the rest of the album is this good, but I couldn’t find it in the two record shops I was able to visit.

This was one of the major signs I saw of the ways globalization was impacting Polish culture — a fascinating story of cultural appropriation and transmission. (Where is George Lipsitz when you need him?)

Here’s another: a Chinese restaurant has opened in the old section of Warsaw.

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When I spoke to people there about the internet, it was clear that the local political leadership and news media has stirred up some anxiety about the erosion of the distinctive qualities of Polish culture in the face of the globalizing force of the World Wide Web. It was a question I asked about often as I spoke to people there. And it is certainly the case that they have extensive exposure to American and British television, films, and comics. Yet, it is also the case that there was probably more local content for sale in the comics shops (more on this tomorrow) than I see traveling in most other parts of the world.

The Global Marketplace

Another site of globalization is the vast flee market which has sprung up along the outskirts of what was once the national Soccer Stadium. I have frankly never seen anything like it in terms of scale — it spreads out below you in all directions.

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The merchants came here from across the old Soviet empire — Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusian, Latvians, and Lithuanians — and from parts of Asia — especially from Vietnam. Most of what we saw were knockoffs of goods which we could buy for only slightly more in the western world — there was just lots and lots of it. I, however, purchased good quality Russian fur hats for my son and myself. Growing up in the cold war era, I had a fascination for those hats which were a central icon of my imagination of what Communists look like.

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And I am told if you wander deeply enough in there you can buy anything you want — legal or illegal — if you just know where to look. There were certainly plenty of signs there of the illegal trade in pirated dvds, cds, and software and only the thinnest efforts to cover it over, often with totally transparent sheets of plastic and a few stray items, whenever word goes out that the police may be paying them a visit.

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Trying to head off the spread of piracy, Polish media importers have struck deals with local magazine publishers so that one can buy cheap legal copies of many recent releases bundled in with the periodical, much the way our magazines used to come with AOL discs (clearly a less desirable trinket) stuffed inside. My hosts suggested that this practice has become so widespread that Poles would be reluctant to buy a magazine which didn’t come bundled with some media content. These legal dvds circulate without any of the extras — to get these, you have to buy the full package.

A Walk Through Oldtown

We also walked through the restored Oldtown section of Warsaw, which, on this particular afternoon, was full of street performers of all kinds. I was particularly taken by this traditionally dressed organ grinder who was playing Polish folk songs — in part because of my fascination with pre-20th century forms of popular culture.

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And of course, as the holiday season approaches, Christmas decorations were everywhere — some traditional

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some a bit more eye catching like this scene of Santa Clause trying to break into the second floor of a shop.

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(I was struck by how widespread the American iconography of Santa was here — which is, as most of you know, really an invention of the advertising firm handling the Coca Cola account in the 1920s and 1930s rather than the Gwiadorz or Star Carriers, wandering mummers, who were once a central part of Polish Christmas traditions). As a western observer, I would note ways, however, that the iconography of Santa was a little off, as in this display in front of a department store, where Santa’s bag bears Red Stars (Is this a nod to the Communist past, the star carriers, or just a confusion about cultural iconography?)

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Sorry, Bruce, There Are No Dead Media…

On my last morning in Warsaw, I was waiting for my wife to extract some cash from the bank machine and looked up to see a sign for what looks to be a fascinating attraction. There seems to be a fully functioning Fotoplastikon.

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Unfortunately, this being a Catholic country, it was exactly open on a Sunday morning, so I suspect I will have to catch it on my next trip. But a little Google-searching got me to the English language of the establishment’s web site which explains:

The viewer for three-dimensional pictures, known as the Photo­plasticon, was invented in Germany in the second half of the 19th century. The new invention soon became popular, enabling everyone to visit the most distant parts of the world, at a reasonable cost, without having to undertake an expensive and risky journey. The three-dimensional pictures produced by a special dual-lens camera provided an amazing illusion of reality. Thus, the Age of Steam, offered the average citizen the possibility of enjoying virtual tourism without the usual restrictions of time and space. Photo­plasticons (known as Kaiser­panorama in Germany) appeared in every corner of the world. By the turn of the century they already numbered about 250 in the whole of Europe. However in time, the Brothers Lumière in Paris introduced their cinema of „living pictures” — an appealing invention which soon displaced the Photo­plasticons. Gradually, the strange, impractical Photo­plasticon drums were forgotten

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I am posting this here so that others who share my fascination with what Bruce Sterling calls “Dead Media” might learn about this site and visit it should they ever find themselves in Warsaw.

Next Time: Polish Comics