After the Polka

Disco polo is the music that Poles love to hate

| November / December 2007

  • Toples

  • Topone (Disco Polo 1)

  • Bayerfull

  • Toples
  • Topone (Disco Polo 1)
  • Bayerfull

Polish disco is the ultimate sonic oxymoron. First, there’s the Polish. Polka-dancing, pierogi-eating, pope-loving Poles in the United States have for more than a hundred years been the besotted and bumbling protagonists in all manner of blonde, lightbulb-turning, boat-sinking jokes and other abuses that aren’t so funny. To be Polish in the United States today is to be part of a history of arguably incomplete assimilation from the marked ethnicity of the “dumb Polack” to a less conspicuous shade of white.

Then there’s disco. A great crop of relatively new books have documented disco’s cosmopolitan credentials; it’s also gay and black, and proud of it. So disco polo, a 1990s post-disco musical hybrid created by Poles, seems to be not only a sonic smash-up but also potentially an intercultural carnal sin.

 Poles know they shouldn’t like disco polo, but many do. They enjoy it and enjoy it in public but will not admit to enjoying it when they’re asked. For them, it is that bad. In 1998 the Warsaw Voice characterized disco polo as “music that has thumped the legacy of Chopin well and truly into the gutter.” This is one of the most often stated reasons that Poles hate disco polo: It is perceived as a frontal attack on high culture. Played on digital synthesizers by amateur musicians, it is simple in concept and execution and has lyrics that appeal to multiple generations of listeners, including the most uncool—children and the elderly. In short, it displays to the world the bottled blonde of the wildest ethnic stereotype, and Poles perceive the world as waiting to make them into a punch line.

The polka, the mazurka, the polonaise. These are the dances of Poland. In the spring of 2005 I was invited to a folk costume show in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, home to a large Polish immigrant population. A group of local children in traditional peasant costumes from preindustrial Polish villages danced the polonaise. In these same villages in the 1990s, one would be less likely to see peasant skirts and more likely to hear disco polo, which became the dominant sonic expression of village life in the 1990s and remains such in the lives of Polish expatriates in the United States. Christenings, weddings, name days, and other holidays all have a disco polo sound track. Although disco polo is folk in origin and folk in use, upper-class, urban Poles recoil at the thought of it as an expression of national identity, perhaps because it tells of a Polishness they wish to leave unarticulated.

The sonic genealogy of disco polo began with Giorgio Moroder, the Italian dance music producer. Moroder’s signature production style swapped the strings and organic funk of disco for synthesized melodies, drum machines in basic four, and English-language lyrics (often more like utterances) simple enough to transcend national boundaries. This became the formula for Italo disco, the first truly popular European electronic dance music, which made its way to Poland and the rest of the continent—Iron Curtain or no.

Disco polo’s cultural roots trace back to a genre called piosenka chodnikowa, or sidewalk music. During World War II, Polish musicians had few opportunities for public performance and would travel door to door playing and singing songs to raise money. As part of the resistance movement, young children committed the “little sabotage” of writing graffiti and singing anti-occupation songs in the streets. These melancholic, patriotic sidewalk songs continued to be sung through the 1950s and 1960s and were recorded by small private record labels. Sidewalk music became the ubiquitous rural wedding band music of the late 1980s, and the most popular songs became standard fare for local bands playing at receptions and country fairs. As these bands became more popular through the distribution of cassettes, they began to add their original songs to the repertoire but still played from the tradition.

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