1982, Warsaw, ZOMO fighting the protesters
photo: Chris Niedenthal / Forum
To understand the beginnings of electronic dance music in Poland, a very brief historical background has to be presented. Until 1989, Poland was ruled by a communist regime, therefore subject to several rules that applied to all states within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. The media, travel abroad, and the import of goods were all heavily controlled. The communist authorities ensured that there was no free and independent media. No one had a permanent passport (you had to apply for it each time, and applications were rejected more often than not), and importing goods was always scrutinised and often unjustly punished.
In general, electronic dance music was treated as a symptom of the moral decay of capitalist countries and was banished from state-owned media (and there was no other media available). This is why until 1989, electronic
dance music was almost absent from Polish music, and the only way it could get through the Iron Curtain was by private citizens buying vinyl records abroad and bringing a very limited number of copies to Poland in their luggage. People who were allowed to go abroad for some rare reason (scholarships, artistic residencies, other work) were some of a lucky few that had a chance to realise what trends in new music looked like elsewhere. This is why the only word that appropriately describes the relationship between Polish electronic music artists and those of the rest of world is, simply, isolation.
The Polish Radio
Krzysztof Penderecki and Eugeniusz Rudnik
at the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio, April, 1972
A photograph from Ludwik Erhardt's Meetings
with Krzysztof Penderecki
This is how it all started! Soon the most avant-garde composers (Włodzimierz Kotoński, Krzysztof Penderecki, Andrzej Dobrowolski and Józef Patkowski), guided by the studio engineer Eugeniusz Rudnik and sound engineer Bohdan Mazurek, started to experiment in search of new means of creating contemporary classical music. They started by over-processing a single sound so that it could become the basis for a whole piece of music.
The first piece ever to be produced or composed by the Polish Radio Experimental Studio was Włodzimierz Kotoński’s piece Study on One Cymbal Stroke.
The composers, perfectly educated in classical music composition, were assisted by two engineers who played the role of their guides – revealing the arcane intricacies of electronic sound processing and working arm-in-arm with them on developing the sounds they needed. One of them –
Eugeniusz Rudnik – soon turned out to be a visionary. Being conscious of the limitless spectrum of possibility provided by the instruments, and at the same time unburdened by an overwhelming knowledge about the rules of composition, he started creating timeless pieces and in the years to come became one of Poland’s most prolific and renowned creators of electronic music.
The First Non-
Marek Biliński was a co-creator of the term ‘el-muzyka’. Moreover, his most popular music video has become a flagship of the genre, voted the best music video of 1984 by viewers of state TV (remember, there was no other media available). A true pioneer of el-muzyka, he was one of the very first to perform live concerts of popular electronic music in Poland. His
preferred way of performing is through sound & light performances, because he thinks electronic music needs a bit of illustration to get the listener into the desired state of mind. The music of Marek Biliński has been a source of inspiration for many artists from different fields of art, such as a ballet based on his album Dziecko Słońca (Child of the Sun).
Komendarek is a truly iconic character in Polish electronic music. His personality, uncompromising attitude, and strange image, as well as his membership in the progressive band Exodus, made him a very popular solo artist in the 1980s. His music is an extremely uncommon combination of progressive rock (Komendarek loves King Crimson), classical piano music and an endless craving for the wildest electronic experiments. In recent years, he has been working with Polish pop
star Tomek Makowiecki, appearing during his live shows to play ground-shaking solos and proving his incredible showmanship. His output is so varied that it would take at least fifteen examples to give even the most general overview of his creativity.
Trumpets & Drums
Music at the
Transition of Eras
This was also the time when people already involved in creating electronic listening music and industrial rock started to engage in producing more danceable tunes. One of the very first projects that was born this way was Trumpets & Drums.
Daniel Kleczyński was tired of being stuck in the industrial rock clichés and decided to do something fresh. What he came
up with was a combination of electro and heavy industrial sounds, resulting in music with a very dark and catastrophic mood.
photo: courtesy of the artist
The album Buy & Die was (ironically, given the title) the first and the last by Trumpets & Drums that was to be released in Poland (two more were released abroad in subsequent years), but spiritual successors soon started to emerge. Bexa Lala was in the game again. Its frontman
Cezary Ostrowski changed the band’s personnel once more and released an album inspired by industrial music and the early work of The Prodigy.
Filter Space, one of the first dance clubs in Warsaw
photo: Filtry's archives
Still, there were very few places where you could go to a party – there had hardly been such things as dance clubs during communist times. The gap started to fill up thanks to young enthusiasts who had had a chance to get a taste of Western clubbing. They started creating clubs imitating those they had seen in Berlin, London etc.
The popularity of these first
clubs was so big that not only did they become homes for the nascent group of party lovers, but they also started attracting all kinds of people who wanted to do creative things, looking to meet like-minded people, artists, DJs and musicians. Soon, apart from DJ sets, clubs started hosting live concerts, artistic performances, and exhibitions. Stanisław Trzciński, one of the founders of Warsaw’s trail-blazing club Filtry recalls:
‘There was a certain aura of festivity and spontaneity; there was something “arty” about that. Every night there was a long line in front of the club. (…) Even though we had never designed Filtry as a club for elites, our customers in the early 1990s turned out to be present-day key players in film, media, advertisement etc. That was just the sort of people that got attracted by the spirit of the club.’
clubs encountered endless complications and constraints. There was no tolerance for the noise the clubs produced, and people accused their owners of selling drugs and spreading moral decay. However, clubs which got closed for administrative reasons or went bankrupt were soon replaced by new ones. Thus, Polish clubbing was born.
Moreover, soon it became standard for dance clubs to be organised into two rooms: one for dancing
to techno, house or whatever, and the other, usually called the chill-out room, where they served mostly ambient, minimal and, later, trip-hop. This way young people could enjoy the freshest mix of tunes from Western Europe and the United States.
Ahead of Their
Jacek, after his journey to Berlin, where he bought records by Robert Hood and Cristian Vogel, started gathering the gear indispensable to a professional producer.
‘Eventually I bought a Roland TB303 in 1996,’ he said in an interview with Paweł Gzyl for
muzyka.onet.pl. ‘At first I thought that it was enough to produce a whole piece but then I discovered it was only a bass synthesizer. This is how I started completing my set-up: TB303, then a sampler, drums and other synthesizers. To be honest, I never stopped this process.’
Jacek started producing in 1997, and in 1999 he self-released the very first Polish techno album, titled Recognition. Surprisingly (for him as well), it
became widely acclaimed, not only in Poland but also abroad. He was invited to perform in the capitals of European electronic music – Berlin and London. Soon, he moved to Berlin and got the opportunity to record an album for Cocoon, a label owned and run by legendary DJ and producer Sven Väth. Jacek Sienkiewicz immediately became the most recognisable artist in Polish electronic music. In the following years, he released many magnificent albums and founded Recognition Recordings – to date,
one of the strongest voices in Polish techno, gathering artists and collectives such as Chino, Sroczyński Prus, Tumult Hands and Jurek Przeździecki. Yet, when Jacek’s popularity started to grow, he backed down and continued his path as an uncompromising artist.
The older of the Sienkiewicz brothers, Maciek, started working as a DJ around 1993. Soon he teamed up with
another enthusiast (who in the years to come would become DJ 600V, one of the most accomplished Polish hip-hop producers) and started playing the most popular clubs in early-90s Warsaw – Hybrydy and Alfa). Maciek remained a very active DJ until the mid-1990s, when he stepped aside somewhat, growing tired of electronic dance music. He turned to avant-garde electronic music and noise, swapping raves and clubs for concert halls. His career as a journalist simultaneously started to flourish. He
began working for iconic magazine Machina as well as Kolor, one of the first private radio stations, and eventually hosted his own TV show dedicated entirely to popularising electronic music.
In 2015, Maciek founded Father and Son Records and Tapes, a label offering a wide spectrum of electronic music. It began with its founder's releases and quickly put some of the most promising present-day artists on its roster (e.g. Das
Komplex, Selvy, and Naphta). The label is also recognised for its captivating LP covers, all designed by celebrated Polish visual artists.
of the Polish
‘With the passing of time, chill-out music started to speed up,’ Novika said in an interview with Paweł Gzyl for muzyka.onet.pl. ‘This is how chill-out rooms became alternative dance rooms! People no longer felt the need to listen to ambient and relax on the sofas...’
For Novika, it became obvious that there was a gap that had to be filled with new music,
something danceable but relaxed and smooth. In 2000, Novika joined forces with Konrad Kucz and Wojtek Appel to form the band Futro (Fur) which instantly became beloved among the nascent class of alternative pop listeners.
Even though Futro didn’t last long, Novika’s career continued, and to date she remains the first lady of Polish electronica. She releases solo albums, is part of the popular Beats Friendly DJ collective, and
has appeared as a guest on countless records. Her role is special for two reasons: she was a true pioneer for live acts, and she did a huge amount for the promotion of electronic music. Even those without a penchant for electronic sounds have heard about Novika and, thanks to that, about Polish electronic music.
Overcame the Biggest
Wojcek Czern OBUH Records founder
photo: A still from 'Obuh na jednego' documentary
Marcin Czubala, co-founder of Currently Processing Records – one of the very first recording labels to produce vinyl records in Poland after 1989 – said in an excerpt from an interview with Paweł Gzyl for muzyka.onet.pl:
‘It was all insanely complicated! We ordered the vinyl discs to be pressed at some factory in the Czech Republic, because in Poland
it was completely impossible. Then, all the issues with tax and customs regulations started. No one had a clue how to categorise our product! Moreover, we had to do all the work ourselves. One day, a huge lorry arrived at our door and we had to unload thousands of vinyl records on our own!’
In 1993, Wojcek Czern, an original character from the borderlands of eastern Poland, started producing and releasing vinyl records under his
self-established label OBUH records. He did it just to make one of his many music dreams come true:
‘I release records on vinyl just because many of these groups are worth it and, even though they wanted their music to be published this way, they never had the chance. Today, their albums are being released in the form of vinyl EPs as an homage to their works, paid after many years.’
The catalogue of OBUH records (now defunct) was very much varied: from jazz/improv, through ambient and industrial, to Krzysztof Penderecki’s soundtrack for the Wojciech Jerzy Has film The Saragossa Manuscript.
the Polish Weapon of Choice
photo: promotion materials
The duo teamed up in 1998 and were seriously into Polish jazz and fusion vinyl records from the very beginning of their existence. The next step was chopping all those classic LPs into samples and spending months and years assembling their cut-and-paste mosaics, morphing dusty jazz pieces into the freshest nu-jazz tracks.
Skalpel's music is a perfect combination
of their fascination with the past and the future. Their highly original and extremely creative approach toward the rich-but-unknown improvised musical heritage of their country resulted in the creation of albums that were the subject of rapturous acclaim and popularity.
Catz ’N Dogz:
From Casual DJs
To An Institution
Catz ’N Dogz
photo: promotion materials
Their real breakthrough came with a remix of Who’s Afraid of Detroit? by Claude Von Stroke, a popular techno producer and the owner of two record labels – Dirtybird and Mothership. Von Stroke was so pleased with the remix of his song that he offered Catz ‘N Dogz further collaboration. In 2010, Catz ‘N Dogz decided they were ready to establish their own recording company – Pets Recordings.
Twelve years into their career and five years as a label, Catz ‘N Dogz and Pets Recordings are both institutions. As a DJ collective, they hold residencies at Berlin’s Watergate Club and Ibiza’s Dirtybird while touring non-stop, playing high-octane sets that prove their dance music star status is well deserved. Pets Recordings releases big names as well as Catz ‘N Dogz albums, and organises showcases and events around the world.
Tracing Catz ‘N Dogz' artistic evolution from underground techno to sample-infused house is a fascinating process recommended for every thorough music fan. For those who just want to have a taste of their sound, checking out their recent release, Basic Colour Theory, might be a good idea.
One of Europe’s
10 best record shops
Rafał Grobel and Wojtek Żdanuk
photo: Albert Zawada / Agencja Gazeta
Side One goes way beyond the boundaries of a mere record shop. Thanks to its owner Wojtek Żdanuk and his intrinsic non-commercial attitude, it has become a cultural centre, a place where you can go when you lack inspiration or when want to meet or learn something from the best DJs in Warsaw. Żdanuk’s persevering endeavours to offer his customers the most up-to-date and high-quality selection has made Side One a significant factor in this heyday for electronic music in Poland’s capital. The shop was recently named one of Europe’s 10 best record shops by The Guardian.
Side One’s 10th
photo: courtesy of the artist
Rafał Grobel is an extremely active music promoter. He's been Poland’s Boiler Room promoter and co-producer since its first visit to Poland in 2014. He co-produced a marvellous short documentary for Boiler Room TV about the roots and emergence of Polish electronic music titled Stay True Poland, starring the aforementioned pioneers Eugeniusz Rudnik, Marek Biliński and Władysław Komendarek, as well as present-day electronic music creators.
In 2016, he started MOST Records, an electronic music sub-label from renowned hip-hop label Prosto. Its manifesto states that MOST Records aims at ‘leading Polish electronic music out from its underground ghetto’, vowing to popularise the best artists outside of the ‘underground electronic music niche’.
U Know Me:
From hip hop
to new beats
Soon, U Know Me Records became the leading voice in new beats and electronica. Unlike other independent electronic music labels, they also try to reach a broader audience than underground electronic dance music fans per se. Among their star-studded line-up of outstanding DJs and producers, they also
include two electronic indie-pop bands: XXANAXX and RYSY. It begs the question: what is it that links all the U Know Me artists? Groh said in an interview with RedBull.com:
‘(…) It’s all about quality. Since the very beginning, UKM’s music was aimed at a global audience. In other words, everything we released must have been good enough to attract people’s attention everywhere on the planet. Plus, me and Buszkers (the other co-founder) had to like it!’
Polish Cut Outs
– diggers’ gold
‘Krystyna’, an edit of a Polish record from the 1970s reworked by popular DJ-producer collective Ptaki, drew so much attention that the TVPC label became internationally recognisable and got the publicity it needed to expand. After releasing several EPs, all of a sudden at the peak of TVPC's popularity, Zambon announced that there would be no further releases under the label.
‘I simply didn’t want to be only that “Polish edits dude”,’ he said in an interview for dwutygodnik.pl magazine.
Transatlantyk’s release from 2015 titled A Look Into The Bowels Of The Polish House Underground is a compilation curated by the label’s owner himself. It’s probably the best answer possible for what Polo House is – a high quality underground dance music infused with Polish melancholy and with a certain specific deep vibe… Naphta, Lutto Lento, The Phantom, Eltron John, Selvy – it’s high time to learn those names by heart.
As their press release says, ‘If you didn’t fall in love with the sound of Transatlantyk until now, after hearing this – you will for sure.’
Skalpel - Theme From Behind The Curtain
Creative concept and production by
With thanks to:
Irena ‘Herka’ Głowniak