Confronting Bigotry and Xenophobia With Dance

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photo by Dominik Werner

Theater review: “INTRO” by Dada von Bzdülöw

Bohemian National Hall

October 1, 2017

New York, NY

 

by Ernest Barteldes

 

During a recent visit to Poland last September, my wife Renata and I made plans to meet with a couple who I’ll call Lukasz and Dorota. It was well after 10 PM by then, and since we were visiting a smaller town,  it meant that kitchens in most places were closed. I suggested going to one of the local kebab restaurants in the area since there were two of those within walking distance from where we were and they stayed open late.

“We don’t do kebabs,” said Lukasz, “because we don’t want Muslims in Poland.” I kind of stared at him in disbelief but reluctantly kept my New York attitude in check. Instead, I just retorted that not all Turkish people are Muslims, but he seemed uninterested in continuing the conversation.

I was aware that Dorota had supported the right-wing PiS party in the last election, and I am guessing that she pulled him into her conservative politics. After an awkward moment of silence in which I took a big sip from my glass of vodka, Renata abruptly changed the subject.  We then reverted to small talk and later we drove to another restaurant that we had visited in previous trips. Since my wife and I had already had dinner, we just enjoyed couple of drinks while they ate.

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photo by Dominik Werner

I didn’t talk about it any further during our trip, but a few days after we returned to New York I had a brief conversation with my Dorota about the issue. When I asked her about how awkward I felt that day, she replied, “My opinion is the same. I don’t like Muslims in Europe, they should be in their country with their own culture.” When I asked what she meant about that, she said, “I like Muslims and my husband does too but when they are in their own countries.”

I countered that Muslims have been in Europe for centuries, and pointed out that Turkey is a secular country with Muslim majority that happens to be part of Europe (and part of the European council since 1949), she replied that “Turkey is not really part of Europe.”

The conversation ended there, and got me thinking about the conservative nationalist wave that has pretty much taken over the conversation in both sides of the Atlantic, especially after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

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photo by Dominik Werner

As I was reflecting about this whole conversation, I learned about a one night only presentation of “Intro,” a theatre/dance production by Gdansk-based Dada von Bzdülöw Theater that took place at New York’s Bohemian National Hall on October 1 as part of a larger program entitled “Rehearsal for Truth,” a festival showcasing (as stated in the press release) “topical and thought-provoking Central European productions” that also showcased plays from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

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photo by Dominik Werner

The show focuses on four central characters that represents different ethnicities living in present-day Poland: one Polish-born Jew that returns to the homeland after a long period of exile, a Croatian-born immigrant who “received a transfusion of Polish blood, “a Chechen seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin and finally a Middle-Eastern woman who expresses her undying love to her adopted home. All of the characters have great conflict and this is expressed in their dance, which is backed by pre-recorded live Polish punk rock band Nagrobki.

The dance moves, which sometimes happen in total silence or with old Polish folk songs (played from cellphones placed onto microphones) depict the anguish that all these different groups live with: at one point, the Chechen (Piotr Stanek) and the Jew (group co-founder Leszek Bzdyl) mimic working out together and flexing their muscles in a duo dance in which they seem to be searching for something unattainable.

All the dance routines are inspired by different forms of dance: at one point there is a lot of modern jumping jazz-influenced movements, but during another movement the two women in the group (Katarzyna Chimielewska and Katarzyna Ustowska) do a classical ballet-inspired dance.

In between numbers, each character reveals him or herself in short speeches: The Croatian immigrant sings the beauties of Poland and spouts nationalist rhetoric; the Jew, long away from his birthplace, shows conflict about coming back home following the end of Communism. The Chechen vows to blow himself up for Poland, there is a surprise twist when one of the female dancers (Ustowska), who spent most of the play scantily dressed in a barely there top and skirt, reveals herself to be Middle Eastern while being forcibly dressed and put into a hijab. Towards the end of the piece, she reappears in a burka – in Polish flag colors.

“INTRO was created in response to the growing acceptance of extreme national, nationalist and xenophobic declarations in the Polish public debate,” said Bzdyl in an interview released by the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, which co-sponsored the event. “in 2015, somehow in a futuristic way, we presented a monoculture psychosis that will have to be confronted by potential immigrants trying to settle in Poland.”

“When we were creating INTRO, the refugee problem wasn’t yet so blown up by the politicians of the extreme right,” continued Bzdyl in the interview. “By introducing the characters of a Jew, a Croatian nationalist, and Arab woman and a Chechen to the show, we thought of mocking the character of the Pole. The Pole is the one who happens to feel like the messiah of Europe, a Pole gazing at his or her national navel, and reaming of the purity of the Polish blood, and of shedding that blood on the altar of national church.”

The piece – which lasted about 90 minutes – was quite moving and even comic at certain times as it exposed the tragedy of these four different characters and their struggles to assimilate and be accepted in Poland.

During a brief Q&A with the group after the show, Bzdyl mentioned the story of naturalized Cuban-born volleyball player Wilfredo Leon – one of the world’s best  – who expressed desire to play for the Polish national team in spite of resistance from nationalists who cannot accept the idea of a black man on the team.

“He had to try so hard to show that he was more in love with Poland than Poles themselves,” he commented. “It’s like if you are an immigrant you have to become even more Polish than those born in the country.”

I was briefly given the floor and told the group about the kebab story, and  Bzdyl responded that the situation is very conflicted. “Many of these nationalist protesters go on rallies and then go to kebab restaurants because they’re not only everywhere but also the food is cheap and tasty,” he said. “Later on, they go out and complain about how Polish culture is being hurt by them –it just makes no sense.”

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Monika Brodka: My 2017 Polish Music Discovery

By Ernest Barteldes

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Brodka (publicity)

Shortly before my last trip to Poland last September (where I attended a wedding and spent a few days exploring Chelm, I had a chat with one of my students and told her how much I admired the work of singers like Anna Maria Jopek and Ania Dąbrowska, and she recommended I check out Monika Brodka, who she described as “really innovative.”

I looked her up and learned that like Dąbrowska, she was an alumna of the popular “Idol” franchise, having won the competition during the 2004 season. She was quickly signed by Sony/BMG and made two very pop-friendly  discs (Album and Moje Piosenki, released in 2004 and 2006) under the production of Bogdan Kondracki (who also produced Dąbrowska’s first three albums).

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“Album” and “Moje Piosenki”

I found both albums at Chelm’s Empik in a two-in-one package labeled “Made in Poland,” apparently part of a series meant to promote the country’s pop-rock artists. Among my favorite tracks from those are a mellow cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Let Me Make It through the Night” (from “Album) and “Glock” (from “Moje Piosenki”), which showcase her vocal potential and also her ability to make a song her own.

Although very enjoyable, neither album stands out – possibly because of Kondracki’s very mainstream sounding production that made them sound almost undistinguishable from Dąbrowska’s first two discs or anything else he touched during that era. Brodka’s albums were nevertheless well received and are still on regular rotation on Polish radio stations like RMF and Eska.

Brodka took a considerable break from making studio recordings and re-emerged in 2010 with Granda, (“Brawl”), an 11-song masterpiece which is incredibly different from anything she’d done before, with nods to electronica and jazz without losing touch with a more pop-rock feel. It is quite adventurous and goes into various directions. The title track is a punk-ish rocker with a pounding bass and some extraneous background sounds, while “Saute” seems to revisit the psychedelic era without sounding dated.

In between albums she released the EP LAX” (which is simply a reference to Los Angeles, where the tracks were recorded), which contained “Varsovie,” a haunting English-language ode to her adopted hometown.

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Clashes

2016’s “Clashes” took things to an even more experimental direction – since she is now signed to an independent label, she has more freedom to do what she wants without having to compromise to whatever the suits might want her to do.  I believe that she is aware of the shock value of the music and of course her looks – like performing with a shaved head.

“Clashes” is not easy listening – there are clear influences from Bjὄrk, the post-punk sounds of Patti Smith and others I have not been able to identify – it’s a disc that has to grow on you after repeated hearings.

Check out “Clashes” here

 

Album reviews: Putumayo’s “Cuba Cuba,” Hendrik Meurkens & Roger Davidson’s “Oração Para Amanhã,” MUH Trio’s “Prague After Dark” and Anna Maria Jopek’s “Haiku”

by Ernest Barteldes

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On this Putumayo release, contemporary and more traditional Cuban music come together to form this comprehensive collection of the music of the country whose music has been a global reference in spite of the controversial political issues that have kept  both countries at odds for so long.

The collection opens with Soneros de Verdad’s “A Buena Vista,” a lively tribute to the success of the collective that has had reached global success, and sets the tone for the rest of the album. We delve in the past a bit with Al Valdes’ “Guajira,” an uptempo instrumental recorded in Peru in the mid-sixties that has since become legendary, showing strains of American jazz and other sounds that would later be explored by  groups like Irakere, which at one time featured Arturo Sandoval, Chucho Valdes and Paquito D’ Rivera (which sadly are not featured on this compilation, in band form or solo). Other highlights include a new rendition of “Chan Chan” – arguably Buena Vista Social Club’s best-known tune, and Jose Conde’s “Puente a Mi Gente,” a 2004 tune that reached out to his people on the island (he was born in Miami), hoping for a better connection between the US and his ancestral land.

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Pianist  Roger Davidson and German-born harmonica player/vibist Hendrik Meurkens both have a close relationship with the music of Brazil, and it’s a thrill to hear them coming together for “Oração Para Amanhã (Soundbrush), a live recording made at New York’s Zinc Bar featuring all-original music by Davidson. Backed by Eduardo Belo (bass) and Adriano Santos (drums), the disc kicks off with “September Samba,” an uptempo tune featuring Muerkens on vibes. Muerkens then goes to his harmonica to lead on “Sonho da Tarde,” a complex tune with a low-key feel .  “Oração Para Amanhã” is definitely a love letter to Brazil, and both musicians treat the music with the respect it deserves, using American jazz tendencies to enhance the sound, but never to take it away from where it belongs.

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“Prague After Dark” (JMood Records) came to me all the way from Italy via Facebook friend and pianist Roberto Magris. Recorded in The Czech Republic with his MUH Trio (Magris, Frantisek Uhlir: bass; Jaromir Helesic: drums), it is a highly enjoyable straight-ahead album featuring mostly original music penned by all three members of the trio. I particularly enjoyed “Nenazvana,” an uptempo tune by Uhlir with a samba feel that features an extended solo from its writer. Also notable are “Iraqi Blues,” which takes a more serious tone in what is mostly an upbeat album, and the inspired cover of “Love in Vain.” Make sure to check it out, it’s rare when music like this reaches the other side of the pond.

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Also hailing from Central Europe is Polish singer Anna Maria Jopek, whose Japanese-inspired “Haiku” (independently released) finally got to my hands. Originally released in 2013 alongside her Luso-inspired “Sobremesa” and her Polish folk song dedicated “Polanna” (it could be purchased as a box set as well, but I have never seen it in stores – and I looked hard during my last visit to Poland), it is a collaboration with pianist Makoto Ozone that delves both in more traditional music and pretty hard jazz.  It closes the trilogy well – it is a well-thought record that explores a lot of nuances between Polish and Japanese music – including the kind of jazz played in both countries these days. On an interview I conducted with her a few years back, she stated that “We recorded the “Haiku” album with a Polish-Japanese band lineup in just four hours, as if we were spirited.” Quite impressive results, I should say.

Prosecutor Szacki’s Last Stand?

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Book Review: Rage by Zygmunt Miłozewski

(Amazon Crossing)

translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

review by Ernest Barteldes

On the final part of his Prosecutor Szacki trilogy that began with Entanglement (Bitter Lemon) , Zygmunt Miłozewski takes us to Olsztyn, where he transferred following the events from Grain of Truth (Bitter Lemon).

Szacki’s life has changed considerably – his teenage daughter is now living with him while his ex-wife is traveling around Asia with her new husband, and he is also in a lasting relationship with a local woman – which prompted him to leave Warsaw for good for this former German city, where he lives in an apartment just across the boulevard from the prosecution service.

But Szacki has not lost his usual bitterness. When he is called at a construction site below a hospital when a skeleton of what is believed to be a “German” (old remains are always – according to the novel – considered to be of Germans who previously lived there), he mutters to himself about hoping to have a “real” case that he can really investigate, not the usual drunken college student brawls that he routinely deals with. Further studies of the remains shows that the bones are actually much newer than previously thought, and that the deceased – a travel agent – had a gruesome death, dissolved while still alive using hydrocloric acid – the kind sold in any supermarket for unclogging household drains.

Rage has plenty of colorful characters – among them a doctor that assists with the investigation – a Dr. Frankenstein, who is also a professor who has alcohol-fueled parties with his students in a his campus lab. He is clearly an eccentric, but he seems to get along well with the prosecutor thanks to his dry personality and detail-focused demeanor. As the story progresses, we find that anger is central to all the main characters, going from the prosecutor himself to the surprising perpetrator.

Miłozewski does no favors to the town of Olsztyn (where he – as of this writing – resides), and describes it as a dark, uninteresting place to be with lousy weather and ugly streets: “Some sort of Warmian crap was coming out of the sky, neither rain, nor snow, nor hail. The stuff froze as soon as it hit the windshield, and even on the fastest setting the wipers couldn’t scrape off this mysterious substance. The windshield washer fluid did nothing but smear it around.”

The story line is extremely engaging all the way to its anti-climatic twist ending. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation (she works closely with the author) flows nicely, without leaving the reader with any feeling of being lost in translation at any moment.

In the backdrop of the narrative are the news stories of the day: the political crisis in Ukraine and the the civil war in Syria and minor news headlines from around Poland. There are many other pop culture references, which might make the novel seem dated in a few years – I mean, will anyone remember reruns of the American sitcom Friends in, say, two or three decades?

According to some news reports, this is where we say goodbye to Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, and the ending makes us pretty certain of that – but given that the series has been so successful since its inception (the first two books were adapted into movies), will this really be goodbye? As a fan of the series myself, I sincerely hope not.

Music Review: Ania Dąbrowska’s Dla Naiwnych Marzycieli

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by Ernest Barteldes

 

As I have written in earlier posts, I stumbled into the music of Polish pop singer Ania Dąbrowska quite by accident – I was looking into something I can’t even remember and her name sort of popped up. I got curious and found out she is from Chełm, , the southern Polish city my wife also comes from.

During our recent visit to my wife’s homeland, we visited several stores looking for music to bring back home (sure, I could have used iTunes for some titles but prices for regular CDs are much better there), so during a stop at the local Empik  I picked up a few of Dabrowska’s first few releases and proceeded to check them out. I was impressed with how she seems to want to surprise listeners from time to time with interesting arrangements that include bass solos (she does play the instrument, but the liners don’t give us much information on that matter),  flutes and other instruments that you don’t often come across in pop albums.

After we came back home I purchased the MP3 version of her sixth release, Dla Naiwnych Marzycieli, and gave it a few spins.  Though I haven’t heard all of her albums yet, I can say this is arguably her best album yet. She has veered a bit from the retro feel of earlier efforts and embraced a more contemporary direction – that can be felt immediately on the opening track, “Nieprawda,” a keyboard-led reggae with a catchy hook that gets you moving from the start, and also on “Gdy Nic Nie Muszę,” a jazz-inflected tune led by brush drums, keyboards and woodwinds.

Other notable tracks include “Bez Chiebe,” an R&B-inspired ballad with multi-layered vocals and a nice guitar-centered arrangement and “I’m Trying to Fight It,” the sole English-language track on the disc, whose lyrics speak about the hardships of moving on after the end of a breakup. The piano-based title track has poignant vocals, and “Nie Patrzę” sounds like something that could be played in American Top 40 radio – but good.

The lead single on the album is the power ballad “W Głowie” – its accompanying video plays as  a short action movie in which she escapes a couple of assassins inside what seems to be a shopping mall parking lot with the help of a mysterious black man – most of her videos play like that, telling the story in an almost cinematic manner.

Dąbrowska is a singer worth checking out. She has clearly evolved since her early Polish Idol days (I read somewhere that she has appeared on her country’s version of The Voice as a judge, but I didn’t have a chance to see an episode while I was there). Her music is smart and quite engaging – even if like me, you don’t have a clue what she is singing about.

My Polish Music Loot

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The vinyl section at Krakow’s Empik

By Ernest Barteldes

Anyone who knows me well is aware that I am a big music scavenger – give me enough time around a store and I’ll unearth some gems. I did that during all our trips to Brazil and also anywhere else we have enough time to stop and shop a bit. That of course happened when we started planning our latest trip to Poland. There are a handful of artists I follow, but imports are way too expensive, and for some reason neither iTunes nor Amazon carry mp3 albums by  artists I am interested in.

This time around it was not just about music.  Shortly before we left for Poland I had finished reading Zygmunt Miloszewski’s “A Grain of Truth” and learned that the movie version had been released on DVD. I had no way to find out if the film (which turned out to be superb – more on that in the future) had been popular in Poland, so I wasn’t sure I’d find it on shelves. Renata and I talked and decided to order a copy of the movie from Empik, a large retailer of music and books that has stores all over Poland (think Barnes & Noble when it was still cool) and ship it to Renata’s parents’ home.

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Secret by Anna Maria Jopek

When we arrived, the DVD was there waiting for us – and a couple of other orders Renata made to the same store. A few days later, I went out to look for music, but found the local store to be a bit scarce. They barely had any music from Anna Maria Jopek  – one of my all-time favorite Polish singers – in stock, and the titles they did have were already part of my collection. I bought Jopek’s Secret, her sole English-language album to date and browsed through their Polish music shelf, and found some albums by Chelm native Ania Dąbrowska.  I stumbled into her name while doing research for an unrelated article and found out she’d covered a Queen song during her participation on the Polish version of Pop Idol. I heard some of her music online and was quite impressed.  When I saw W spodniach czy w sukience? I immediately picked it up. The disc turned out to be a fun, retro-70s feel collection of songs with great arrangements, and I made a mental note to look for more of her music.

I was still a bit frustrated that I hadn’t found all the titles I needed, but then I had the idea of looking them up online and ordering in-store delivery and found her fantastic Id (featuring guest appearances of Branford Marsalis, Minu Cinelu, Richard Bona and Christian McBride) and one of her latest, the independently released Polanna, which she showcased during her recent US tour.  When I picked up the package, I again browsed through the music section and decided to pick up Dąbrowska’s  debut album Samotność po zmierzchu, which I found to be even more interesting than the previous one I got – plenty of clever basslines and jazz-inspired grooves with an uncompromising pop drive that is both radio-friendly and intriguing.

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Ania Dabrowka’s debut CD

As we moved on to Warsaw, Zakopane and Krakow, we kept on stopping at Empik stores – our hotels were all walking distance to local malls, and since we were walking by we would browse around. Renata was interested in health and fitness books and had been looking at some  written by Anna Lewandowska, the wife of Polish soccer star Robert Lewandowski.  While she decided which title to pick one, I noticed that there was a bargain bin, and among music I had no idea about was Bossa So Nice, a compilation of Brazilian music. I usually ignore those because most have tracks I already own, but this one was different – sure, there were those obvious Stan Getz recordings, but there were also a bunch of tunes I had never heard before – at least in those voices. The price was very low for a 2-disc set, so I picked it up – the first time I had ever seen or purchased Brazilian music in Poland.

 

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Bossa So Nice 

 

I am still working on listening to the stuff, so a more elaborate comment on them will come in due time. So far I have enjoyed most of them but have not formed much of an opinion for a proper review. But do check this music out if you can.

Book Review: A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Milosewski

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By Ernest Barteldes

 

A naked woman is found murdered outside a former synagogue in the provincial town of Sandormierz, in Southeastern Poland. It is a weird crime scene, since not only is she exsanguinated, but the murder weapon – a shehita (used in Kosher slaughters) – is found next to the body.

Called to the crime scene is prosecutor Teodor Szacki, who just transferred to the area following the events from Entanglement. His marriage ended following his involvement with Monika Grzelka, an attractive but inquisitive journalist he met during the first novel. That affair came to an end in a way the omniscient narrator doesn’t seem to care to address – he takes no more than a few lines to say it ran its course and then Szacki was on his way out of town, trading high-profile crimes to small-town cases he feels are below his expertise, such as stolen cellphones or drunken brawls created by white supremacists fueled by the recent events in Europe.

This monotony of sorts comes to an end as he is assigned to the strange murder that brings together Sandomierz’s reputation of anti-Semitism during and after World War II:  St. Paul’s Church – the largest in town –  has frescoes depicting blood libel  committed by Jews against local Catholics. One of the worst – which can be seen by anyone who visits the city – depicts Jews purchasing young children and then ritually murdering them and finally offering the remains to rabid dogs.

The frescoes intrigue Szacki – who is not in any way an anti-Semite – and since he is an outsider, he is both the best and the worst person to investigate this crime: since he is new in town, he is not exactly trusted by locals who have been there all their lives, but he is also not one to be biased by old friendships – the other local prosecutor, Basia Sobieraj, was a longtime friend of the victim and is clearly way too involved with the city’s life to properly investigate the case.

As I have written previously, criminal investigations in Poland are conducted in a completely different manner than they are in the US. In this country, the judiciary only gets involved once the police end their investigation and ultimately turn it over to the judiciary. In that country, they get involved right at the crime scene, and fully participate in the proceedings until a verdict is rendered – so Szacki gets to see the crime scene and works together with the police almost to the very last page.

Like in the previous tome, we get to see a lot of the prosecutor’s private life. Though remorseful for ruining his marriage back in the capital, he doesn’t mind fucking any woman that makes herself available – even if that might jeopardize his professional position in this tight-knit community.

It is not an easy investigation as the prosecutor might have thought would be – within the first 50 pages it seems like it is going to be open-and-shut, but twists come along that complicate things.

The author has a very sarcastic tone about his fellow Poles – through Szacki he is very critical of the nation’s pessimism (“Maybe the Law and Order Party will win the next election,” the prosecutor snaps at a conservative co-worker after an uncomfortable exchange – how right was he in hindsight?) and Catholic values, but he does so in a satirical – and not disrespectful way.

A Grain of Truth was – like its predecessor – adapted into a movie, but this time Szacki is played by a male. I have seen the trailer but sadly not the film, since (again) it has not been released Stateside in spite of the success of the novels here.  For those who enjoy an intelligently written potboiler, this is the book for you for sure – and a sequel is on the way.

A Grain of Truth

Zygmunt Milozewski

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Bitter Lemon Press

Available in various formats