Monday, March 12, 2007

Disco polo: the mafia connection

Is the rise and fall (and rise again) of what was once the most profitable form of music in Poland, connected with the similar rollercoaster ride of Polish organized crime?

That was the thesis behind an article in the current affairs magazine Wprost a couple of weeks ago. As the police fight a re-emergence of large organized crime groups, disco polo – a unique Polish contemporary music form, popular in the 1990s – is rearing its tone deaf head.

If you have never had the dubious pleasure of hearing a disco polo hit, then imagine a late 1980s Casio keyboard rhythm track, plus simple chords played under a simple Polish folk type melody.

It didn’t sound very good.

The ‘genre’ emerged in the early 1990s in the small dance halls of small Polish towns. Originally known as piosenka chodnikowa (sidewalk songs – sold via cassette on the streets from little stalls) it was a truly do-it-yourself music, much in the same way as British punk music circa 1976 was. Locals got together in groups, bought a few cheap keyboards, pressed one of the few pre-set rhythm buttons and composed their own little songs.

Sounds horrible, and it was. But it was also amazingly popular.

When I first came to Poland, you couldn’t turn on the Polsat TV station without being confronted by the latest disco polo sensation. Though effectively banned from mainstream radio, ‘artists’ like Shazza (the Madonna of disco-polo, pictured above) or disco polo boy bands like Skaner or Boys - sold much more ‘units’ than more establishment pop singers like Edyta Gorniak.

In 1995, more than 80 million disco-polo cassettes and records were legally sold, and many, many more illegally.

Because the normal channels of recording and distributing this music were not open to disco polo ‘artists’ - no major record label would touch the stuff, neither would publishers, distributors and most retail outlets - alternative recording, publishing and distribution networks emerged (under the guidance of organized crime groups) to cater for what was a genuinely popular form of music among rural and small town folk.

As the TV station Polsat had a good demographic base in such places, they picked up the music and devoted hours of broadcasting to it.

It’s also been suggested that Polsat had a rather too comfortable relationship with organized crime, via disco polo record labels.

And then, in the late 1990s, Polsat suddenly dropped it from their scheduling.

This was, maybe, because they were trying to improve their demographic, and get more advertising friendly viewers in the large cities.

But disco-polo was in a decline anyway.

Partly this was due to ‘cultural’ factors. Disco-polo lovers started getting hip to the more urban hip-hop. The do-it-yourself music of choice now was rap. Disco-polo tried to follow the trend – Rapo-polo? – but the fan base was slipping away.

But there was an economic factor, as well. The financial base of disco polo – the Polish mafia – was also in decline. A high profile series of busts by the cops in places like Pruszkow and Wolomin, on the west and eastern fringes of Warsaw, hit them badly. Suddenly the gangs that run much of the early 1990s proto-capitalism were collapsing.

But now, disco polo is experiencing a kind of comeback. Groups like Boys, etc, are getting invited to power up their Casio keyboards once more. This time, however – with the appropriate amount of knowing irony – Boys and the others are getting invites to fashionable night clubs.

Maybe people long for the relative simplicity and feel good factor of the 1990s, compared with today’s complexity and disappointment. Maybe singers like Shazza have come to symbolize the good old times, when skirts were short, when hope was long, and when music was utter, utter rubbish.

Experience the true musical horror of disco polo with this video of Boys' greatest hit, Jestes szalona (You are crazy) here .


michael farris said...

"though effectively banned from mainstream radio, ‘artists’ like Shazza ... or Boys - sold much more ‘units’ than more establishment pop singers like Edyta Gorniak."

This is why I hate Polish critics.

Disco Polo wasn't to my musical taste (though I enjoyed watching Disco Relax as gallows humor) but it obviously was saying something to a large audience and stupid Polish critics couldn't be bothered to try to understand.

Instead of trying to understand it (and why it was outselling the artists they liked) and nurture some of the real talents in the field (and most of the big acts did have musical talent, to succeed in the genre wasn't as easy as it looked) they just decided it was awful that the stupid Polish masses dared to like something they, the cool people, had decided wasn't hip.

The thing to do with disco polo wasn't to try to shut it out, they should have legitimized it and co-opted it where it could be the foundation of a solid Polish musical industry. But as in so many things here the intelligentsia are mostly provincial snobs falling over crap that doesn't have any connection to most Polish people's lives.

There's a similar phenomenon with Ich Troje, I don't much like their music or frontman but he knows how to move product and deserves massive respect for that.

Anonymous said...

Listened to a few samples on youtube and I sort like it.

beatroot said...

Jan - I think you have the western ‘ketch’ disease. Liking things that are crap is fashionable (Kyle Minogue, bless her, has made a career out of it).

But, as Mike notes, disco polo was a popular music form. And it was a direct affront to the self-styled ‘Polish intellectual’. I remember teaching at university here and students kept complaining that the ‘texts’ of disco polo songs were ‘shit’.

I reminded them that popular music was based on crap lyrics – ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,…’ but they thought that all songs should have lyrics like groups like …er…Big cyc (Big Tits)…which had ‘clever’ satirical lyrics… one of their biggest hits, ironically, about Shazza moja milosc (Shazza my love).

Oh, how we laughed.

Anonymous said...

I reminded them that popular music was based on crap lyrics

This is why foreign music is so popular in Poland: it stops being a problem when you can't understand the lyrics.

michael farris said...

In 1991 after returning to the states after five months in Poland I played some music I'd bought for friends (mostly doctoral students in the social sciences).

They weren't enthusiastic... The _only_ thing they all reacted positively to was Mydełko Fa (the grandaddy of all disco polo songs).

michael farris said...

I agree with opamp, western music was (is still?) treated by most Polish listeners as a kind of instrumental rorsharch onto which they can project whatever they want, it's hard for lyrics they can understand to match that.

I've gotten people mad at me when I told them what the lyrics were about.

Polish person: It sounds so sophisticated....
Me: It's about a prostitute. (the song was private dancer)
Polish person: (scowls)

Anonymous said...

Damn you, Beatroot!

I had somehow managed to pretty much avoid dp ever since a coupla plane trips to/from Poland in the late 90s.

Having now listened to and watched the Boys, it's a tossup as to whether I loathed the video or the music more.

I should note, though, that I used to and still like early Kombi which seems somewhat similar (but their later stuff, I couldn't stand, either).

Elitist intellectual snob that I am, I much prefer truly popular, non-mob mediated Polish American music like the Goral Polka and more at:

Anonymous said...

Lyrics comprehension is not something that really matters as far as songs are concerned. In ‘Never mind the buzzcocks’ there was a segment in which native English speakers tried to work out, often unsuccessfully, the lyrics of a hit song. The most requested song at English weddings is ‘Every breath you take’ by the Police (about a persistent stalker), and at Polish weddings ‘Moj piekny panie’ by 2+1 (about a bride-to-be who is getting cold feet before her wedding to a guy she does NOT love). I like AC/DC but even if your put a gun to my head (please, don't), I would not be able to recall what their songs are all about.
As far as disco polo goes - de gustibus non disputandum est, but the reasons for the outburst of talent are simple (in Polish only):
But at least one cannot argue the Polish youth on parole are not trying to make an honest living. And you better like their music or else... On balance, it is just healthier to meet these artists on stage rather than in a dark alley, so whatever keeps them busy must be a good thing.
Personally, I regard this raw diamond as my favorite, at least for the vocals. A heart-warming story about a girl from a fire station:

beatroot said...
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beatroot said...

Why Polish music is so bad has always puzzled me. When I got here all the guys liked Rock – and I mean Led Zepplin, Deep Purple, that kind of thing. It was as if the punk rock never happened, as it did in Britain or New York.

But of course, punk rock didn’t happen like that here. There was some punk stuff in about 1984 in Poland – and maybe that’s why the 1980s Polish stuff sounds better than the 1990s stuff.

What Poles really didn’t do well was pop. In the mid 1990s there was only Kayah and at that time Justyna Steczkowska who were producing good sophisticated pop (Steczkowska was completely reliant on her producer Grzegorz Ciechowski, who died early, unfortunately. He was a genius.

Myslovitz is the most successful Polish band abroad, and they are my favourites still. You can here an English language version of one of their songs here if you don’t know them

But generally, Poles can’t write a good tune and the guys can’t sing. And that’s a bit of a problem when you want to write good pop music.

michael farris said...

I actually like a lot of old Polish pop music. But it seems in the pits at present. Some reasons for this are (IMHO):

1. English - Almost all Polish performers think they can sing in English and distressingly (for my linguistic sense) they often do so. Very few can sing in English in a way that native speakers want to listen to.

2. Abroad - Too many are thinking they can become famous in the west and expend too much energy in that direction (see no. 1) at the expense of basic skills.

3. Looking down on indigenous music - I like popular music that comes from local roots and whose rhythms come from the rhythms of speech. Opinion makers in Poland look down on both (see attitudes toward disco polo which though often dire did have the advantage of being based directly or indirectly on native musical traditions.

4. Rock - I've never much liked rock (except for punk and a few gimmicky novelties here and there). It's a rhythmic, melodic wasteland. And the more 'classic' it is the bigger a black hole of destruction. Paradoxically, I think Poland is one of the few european countries that understood rock well enough to make rock that was good enough on its own terms (even if it's not my taste).

5. Ick, it's popular - Polish opinion makers are mostly provincial snobs who desperately want to believe they belong to the metropole. Being Polish and making music that polish people want to listen to is an unforgivable offense for them.

That'll do as a starter....

beatroot said...
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beatroot said...

That'll do as a starter....

Yup, this is a big subject. I like the bit about I like popular music that comes from local roots and whose rhythms come from the rhythms of speech.

So you like east coast or west coast rap?

Two more problems with Polish music.

They never had a singles market. Pop is a 3 minute singles based medium.

They never had pirate radio. One of the reasons British music is so vibrant is because we had illegal radio since the 1960s (when even the Beatles wasn’t played on the BBC).

Unknown said...

Well, you guys may be right about polish pop (I don't listen to pop or at least try not to listen, as I'm surrounded by it), but there is one kind of music Poland can be proud of - metal, in its heaviest and darkest form. Bands like Vader or Behemoth are VERY famous around the world... for those who listen to this music. Poland is sometimes compared to Scandinavia, which is a metal heaven.

Anonymous said...

It was not the mob that put the kibosh on disco polo. It was Kwaśnieski, who once claimed to like it in a transparent attempt to curry favour with the yoof.

Once Kwaśniak was on board it lost all - ahem - credibility.

beatroot said...

Vader or Behemoth are VERY famous around the world...

Absolutly true. Why Poles do this so well is a bit of a mystery.

My girlfreind and I have a theory about the music situation. Pop music is based basically on Afro-Americans singing Protestant hymns...that's what the spirituals are...and so soul, jazz, blues...all the basics of modern music.

Poles have neither blacks nor Protestant hymns...they have Catholic durges...

And Podelsi...I always thought that Kwas liked disco polo cause Shazza reminded him of is a similarity).

Anonymous said...

'disco polo – a unique Polish contemporary music form'

I challenge your musicological clout. I was in an Austrian restaurant in London recently where the live act was exactly like the disco-Polo I've heard. I have also heard similar musics in pubs and at barndances in Germany, Czech, Slovakia and France. it's just European 'muzyka ludowa' on synthesizers. Not surprising - have you seen the price of accordeons lately?
Marfvellous blog. You should charge for it.

beatroot said...

I was a bit worried about that sentence, as well (I often worry about some of my sentences on this blog – and then think ‘what the hell’… and you are right that what I call ‘Euro cheese’ is heard in many places. There was something similar in Russia, for instance.

But I think the both the circumstances and the melodies of disco polo are unique to this country. Disco polo is a kind of Polish folk music. It uses musical phrases I have heard on some of those (to my eyes) weird Polish folk records.

And the way that disco polo emerged and thrived is quite unique to this place.

But thanks for the compliment but there will never be charges for going to blogs. And this blog would rather be seen dead than even putting an advert on it. There must be somewhere on the web that people can come and not be bombarded with jerks trying to sell us something.

Anonymous said...

But I think the both the circumstances and the melodies of disco polo are unique to this country. Disco polo is a kind of Polish folk music. It uses musical phrases I have heard on some of those (to my eyes) weird Polish folk records.

Well, the same can be said about the invention of our brothers from the south: turbo-folk, which I herein bring to your attention in its full glory:

(I happen to like this genre more than disco polo, for how it sounds and, erm, looks.)

Anonymous said...

For my two zlots, the best fusing of Polish folk and more "modern" stuff, specifically reggae, includes Trebunie-Tutki.

Gotta luv the w Sherwood CD with the Black Jamaican lead singer in Gorale garb. I have looked all over youtube to find anything by them to no avail. If anybody knows of any such video, PLEASE post the url.

Also, I like a lot of the brassy folk/jazzy stuff by the Golec Orkiestra which folks can indeed find on youtube.

And of course Brathanki -- very much pop-folk melodies, which also can be found on youtube.

There was also a folk-rock fusion CD pioneered waaaaay back by Grzegorz Ciechowski, but I forgot the title. I seem to recall it had a picture of a chicken on the cover.

On a more purist folk level, there's the Warsaw Village Band. Their rendition of Crane on youtube is a blast.

All said and done, though, my personal Polish favorites harken back to the rock of 70s and 80s, namely Brygada Kryzyz, DePress, Perfect, and Maanam. You can find them all easily enuff on youtube, although I haven't found anything really good by Perfect (the sound on Nie Wolno blows).

I also much like Robert Pieculewicz, the guitarist busker from Krakow, who sounds a lot like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. I've heard his new cd where he goes by the name Steve Allen, so I guess he's trying to gain some popularity in the west.

My sense is that the band can be great but simply coz it's Polish, it just ain't gonna make it in the west.

As far as I know, the only Polish pop star who has gained any kind of widespread popularity of sorts in the US is Basia.

BTW, thanks to all for posting specific urls. I much enjoy watching and listening to this stuff even if I don't particularly like the music.

beatroot said...

I was actually playing Brathanki (2000) today. Bits of it sound like Jethro Tull!

beatroot said...

There was also a folk-rock fusion CD pioneered waaaaay back by Grzegorz Ciechowski, but I forgot the title.

Heard that a ccouple of times and it is amazing. The man was a genius...

Anonymous said...

Noticed the same thing on a coupla Brathanki songs. I saw Tull last year with my kids. They were playing with an absolutely amazing kid violinist.

They still sound great. First saw them way back around 1969 and many times betwixt..

Anonymous said...

They also played with Lucia Micareli on violin. Tull does Zepp (Kazimierz):

OK, I'll stop.

Frank Partisan said...

I'm old school. In my world the Mafia pushes Sinatra.

Anonymous said...

disco polo still sounds great and if u havent noticed its getting more attention now, plus how should u know ur not polish

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