Tue | Oct 23, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | From vodka to ganja In Poland

Published:Sunday | September 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM

T`hat's the power of Jamaican culture. Since the 1970s, reggae and Rastafari have had a far-reaching influence on Poland. For some 'conscious' Poles, the holy herb became a substitute for vodka.

Tomasz Lipinski, a pioneer of Polish punk rock and reggae, stated in a BBC interview in April, "Smoking ganja in the late '70s and early '80s was also a form of, maybe, not protesting, but rebellion. Cause everybody else drank vodka. So we stopped drinking vodka and we started to smoke ganja. Later on, it changed, you know. People who smoked ganja returned to vodka in many instances. Tradition!"

I was lucky to catch the interview on the BBC World Service. Chris Salewicz, a British music journalist whose father was Polish, presented the programme, Get Up, Stand Up: Reggae in Poland. Salewicz is the author of Bob Marley: The Untold Story. That definitive subtitle does make you wonder. How could Salewicz's story be entirely 'untold' when there are so many versions of Marley's biography here, there and everywhere? Written and oral!

By contrast, the BBC radio programme does tell a relatively untold story about the role of reggae as a political force in Poland's anti-communist struggles. Salewicz observes that, "When the legendary Jamaican singer and songwriter Bob Marley wrote and recorded this song [Get Up, Stand Up] in the early 1970s, it's unlikely he was thinking about the authoritarian communist regimes in Eastern Europe. But there was something about Marley's critique of what he called Babylon that struck a chord here in Poland."




Reggae did take root in Poland and has gone through a series of transformations. From the music of resistance that helped inspire the radical politics of the Solidarity movement, reggae in Poland has now become a pacifist expression of 'One Love'. This watered-down version of Marley's fiery message is manifested in new music that is supported by the conservative Law and Justice ruling party.

Lipinski is sceptical about the new generation of Christian reggae musicians: "Some of Poland's most prominent reggae bands are strictly Catholic. But it's funny because when I read that they carry on Marley's message, well, they don't. They are not doing it; because his message was the Catholic Church, the Vatican is Babylon." Lipinski is right that the new Catholic message is not Marley's. But reggae is not only the message. It's the riddim and the beat.

In Jamaica, we have had our own debates about the relationship between reggae and the Christian religion, whether Catholic or Protestant. The issue here is whether or not 'secular' reggae and dancehall can be appropriate for spreading the sacred Gospel. There was a time when reggae could not be played on the radio on Sunday, the holy day for most Christians. Even now, some fundamentalist Christians simply cannot hear the gospel message in reggae and dancehall music. The beat and the riddim get in the way.




Hearing this fascinating documentary reminded me that in January, at Rebel Salute, I had met Miroslaw 'Maken' Dzieciolowski, music journalist, DJ, promoter and the main organiser of Poland's Ostroda Reggae Festival, now in its 18th year. And it's not the only reggae festival in Poland! Maken had told me about the Reggae University forum, an essential component of the festival. The educational focus helps the organisers to get state funding. He wanted me to participate.

So I followed up. Last month, I gave a talk at the festival on 'Global Reggae: Jamaican Culture At Large'. In the question-and-answer period, an animated man asked how come Poland wasn't mentioned in the Global Reggae book I'd edited. He wanted to know if I was going to do a new edition and include them. I told him it wasn't just Poland that wasn't given full coverage. The book did not take into account many countries where reggae and dancehall are now flourishing, such as India and China. Most of the chapters in the book were organised around continents rather than individual countries.

And it's not true that Poland wasn't in the book. Dr Bartosz WeÛjcik, the erudite moderator of the panel discussion, reminded me and informed the audience that Poland was actually included in the chapter on reggae in Europe. But my interrogator obviously wanted a much higher profile. Understandably so! As I soon discovered he was Jarek Wardawy, the organiser of one of Poland's five major reggae festivals. And Poland is the biggest market for reggae in Europe.

I reassured this passionate reggae promoter that a Brazilian professor, Dr Leo Vidigal, and I are editing a special issue of the British journal Interactions on 'Reggae Studies In a Global Context'. We're including some of the countries that are not in the Global Reggae book. Regrettably, not Poland this time.

The Ostroda Reggae Festival is held on the grounds of a former army camp. It was once a base for the Soviet Red Army, and in the 19th century, Napoleon's troops were stationed there on the way to attack Russia. I suppose the festival venue is a kind of rebellious 'One Love' repurposing of a war zone. As I watched thousands of excited fans celebrating both home-grown reggae and the Jamaican original, I couldn't tell if the high was from vodka or ganja. And it really didn't matter.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.