Ukkubit Divass, an all-female Polish dancehall crew. This video is well worth watching.
I'm sitting in a linoleum-floored, fluorescent-lit Sunday school room on the third floor of the Polish National Home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I'm drinking a Polish beer and looking out onto the Polish neighborhood below, and sitting across from me is Grubson, AKA Tomasz Iwańca. In thirty minutes, Grubson will headline the Polish Reggae Invasion that's taking place downstairs in the first floor ballroom.
Downstairs, a hundred-or-so Polish-American youth are sipping double-size Zywiecs and passively watching a squad of singers—Cindy Simeon from Jamaica, Dionne Blaize from Grenada, Tony Rankin from here in Brooklyn—who are taking turns ad-libbing a verse or two on top of Bob Marley’s anti-imperialism classic, “War/No More Trouble.” They’re being patient and polite, but you can tell they’re waiting for Grubson—the OG face of Polish reggae-hip hop—to take the stage.
Living in Greenpoint, I had come to associate Polish music with a souped-up kind of electro-polka that dopplereffekts past my house every few minutes during the Polish heritage parade. “It’s called disco polo,” says Grubson, whose single “Na szcycie” (“Atop”) is about to top 42 million views on YouTube. “Polo disco sucks, and it doesn’t require a very high level of musicianship… but it’s one of the most popular styles in Poland.”
Grubson prefers Toots and the Maytals, Junior Reid, or Capleton, and he’s apparently not the only one in Poland—where Caribbean music festivals draw about a hundred thousand attendees annually, and where every year the country crowns its own dancehall queen. After our chat in the venue’s makeshift green room, I watched him rhyme in a Polish raggamuffin style to a house full of twentysomethings who cheered when they recognized the first bars of his hits. I got a text from a friend halfway through the show: “WTF? Polish reggae is a thing?”
I texted him back: “U have no idea dude.”
Marika, a Polish reggae star, and her band. Photo by Piotr Drabik
“Under communism, reggae was forbidden,” says Gregory Fryc, who organizes Brooklyn’s Polish Reggae Invasions, as well as dozens of other Polish-American events throughout the country. “It was Western-influenced music, and anything that comes from the West went under heavy censorship.” But despite the Iron Curtain, roots music has been present in Poland as far back as the early 80s, when bands like Daab and Bakshish were cleverly defying the prescribed restrictions and transforming reggae into a homegrown political outlet.
“Polish reggae artists fought for freedom,” he continues. “They empowered the whole nation—intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” Greg draws parallels between the county’s domestic reggae movement and its local film tradition—in that both forms had to find ways of eluding the censors. “Let’s say you wanted to write a song about freedom—you couldn’t just write the lyrics,” he says. Instead, punk and reggae artists needed to encode secret message into their lyrics through the use of allegory and metaphor. “So they’re writing about walking in the garden and feeling happy,” he continues, “but that represents being free, and people understood that message.”
These days, Poland is free from censorship and has become one of the great capitalist success stories of Eastern Europe. According to the Economist,it was the only country to avoid a recession during the recent financial crisis. The Wall Street Journal has called Warsaw a “magnet for immigrants,” drawing in young people from France and Spain in pursuit of “jobs in business and a low cost of living.“ In 2013, it’s GDP was one-fifth higher than it was prior to the recession.
Fryc attributes the thriving culture industry to the booming business sector and high educational standards. “Warsaw [is] the new hipster capital of Europe,” he says. “New Yorkers that go to Poland are often shocked because they’re used to this immigrant stereotype: the vodka-drinking, kielbasa-eating construction worker. But when they go over there they see that the whole city is like a Little Williamsburg.”
While Warsaw-as-hipster-capital sounds like a bit of a stretch, Grubson and his cohorts say it’s easy to find a helping of roots, dancehall, or reggae hip-hop on an average night in town. “We played in Poland for the first time last year at the One Love Festival. It was an amazing vibe,” says world-renowned dancehall and reggae DJ Gabriel Heatwave. “One of the things I love about the Polish scene is that so many of the artists sing and MC in Polish rather than in Jamaican patois.”
Poland is home to about a half-dozen homegrown roots, dub, and dancehall festivals, from One Love, which draws 50,000 annually to an indoor stadium in Warsaw, to Ostróda, a three-day camping festival near the Baltic Sea whose motto is "Jamaica, Made in Poland." There’s also Reggaeville, Regałowisko, and a handful of smaller open air gathering where unassuming norms come to mingle with mega hot festie babes, picnicking families, and dreadlocked dudes with puka shell necklaces who look like they graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1998.
Polish reggae fans playing in foam. Photo courtesy the Ostroda Festival
The line-up at Ostróda this year will included Polish reggae leaders like Maleo Reggae Rockers and Vavamuffin, plus Jamaican staples like Black Chiney and the Skatalites. There will be a reggae film series and daily “Reggae University” courses, which will include a sit-down with the Honorary Jamaican Consul, Maria Dembowska, who will discuss the best options for making your own pilgrimage to Jamaica.
The festivities will culminate in a performance by the home team’s hero Kamil Bednarek, who stepped into Polish pop culture in 2010 after scoring third place on Mam talent!, or Poland’s Got Talent! His band’s debut album, Szanuj, or Respect, skyrocketed to number one on the Polish charts after his widely televised victory—topping Lady Gaga, Pat Metheny, and three different Sade albums. With YouTube counts in the 25 million-and-up range, Bednarek serves something between Sublime, Shaggy, and Ben Harper, all while making dreadlocked rattails look effortless.
Kamil Bednarek's winning performance on Poland's Got Talent!
Beyond all the roots and righteousness, Poland boasts a proud tradition of domestic dancehall queens. Hop a flight to Warsaw on the right night in May, and at a beach club just past the city zoo you may see a gaggle of Polish dancehall queens-in-waiting gathered on the banks of the Wisła River. The record selector is banging out Vybz Kartel and Beenie Man tunes, the wall of videophones has gone up around the dancefloor.
Aside from a few minor details, the beach scene looks a lot like your average Caribbean dance competition. There are the Rihanna hairstyles with the oversized earrings, the feather-studded hot pants (in Jamaica they're "pum pum shorts" or "batty riders"), the green and yellow and red bikini tops. The women are athletic wonders, many of them executing credible renditions of dancehall's iconic maneuvers: the head-swinging Dutty Wines, the full splits, the pussy-popping headstands that require an incredible ability to isolate muscle groups while keeping a convincing smile on your face. And at the end of the night, one of these ladies will head for the European dancehall queen contest, where Italians, Germans, Slavs, and the rest of them converge for the continental prize.
"There are a lot of people [in Poland] who are fascinated by Jamaican culture and dance," says Justyna Konowalska, the general director of Regałowisko Bielawa, one of the country's oldest reggae festivals. "There are regular workshops with the most famous dancers from the whole world." This year at Regałowisko, workshops will be led by the Polish Dancehall Mafia, five natives who devoted their lives to Jamaican dance, and Ula “Afro” Fritz, who in 2008 took home second place at the International Dancehall Queen contest in Montego Bay, Jamaica—a contest that has been won by native Jamaicans all but twice since its inception in 1999.
Polish reggae fans. Photo courtesy the Ostroda Festival
Regałowisko, at roughly 10,000 strong in attendance, is one of the smaller Polish reggae festivals compared to gatherings like One Love Sound Fest or Ostróda—and despite the moments of mainstream crossover and a growing fan base, its general director maintains that it’s “still a small musical island for enthusiasts.” A small island, perhaps, but there’s no denying that the reggae bug has taken root in the Land of the Fields. The question on everyone’s minds is: Why Poland?
“People were just tired of being sad and living in a grey Communist country,” Gregory Fryc reminds me. “Reggae brought color.” On top of that, he says, the Polish are a very spiritual people, and the metaphysical leaning of roots music resonates with that tendency towards asking the bigger questions.
Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall says reggae’s success can be attributed to its many divergent (even contradictory) forms and meanings. “The genre offers a flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions,” he explains, “from Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression.” So whether it’s the image of Bob Marley as a revolutionary avatar, the liberated body politics of dancehall music, or simply the flows of culture enabled by the sprawling networks of English empire, something has made reggae stick in a number of unlikely locales.
“You can find local reggae scenes just about anywhere in the world: Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Native American reservations, you name it,” Marshall continues. “It really is remarkable that reggae has inspired local scenes all over the world, especially since Jamaica is such a small place.” So while we may not be hearing as many Sean Pauls or Beenie Men crossing over into the North American pop charts, there appear to be plenty of booking opportunities for Jamaican artists looking to tour the European continent—as long as they can get their visa in check.
Follow Max Pearl on Twitter