October 16, 2010

Ostatni List - The Last Letter

I have been watching some videos on my special feature Polish Culture of the music of Poland and find myself always drawn to the same song. There is one Polish music video that stands out far above the others -  a ballad by Lech Makowiecki, lead guitarist of the folk-rock band Zayazd. The song entitled, Ostatni List (translated as The Last Letter) tells of the last letter written by a Polish Officer to his family during World War II - before he and 20,000 other Polish Officers were arrested and executed by the Soviet NKVD in Smolensk, Russia.  Segments of this video are taken from the Polish film "Katyn" directed by famous Polish Director Andrzej Wajda. The film premiered on September 17, 2007 on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 80th Academy Awards.  

This ballad is tragic and heart wrenching. Like many Polish songs it reveals the unhealed scars that the Polish nation still bears so many years after the war - their country and people virtually destroyed by the Soviet and German invaders. For decades the Soviet regime denied responsibility for the Katyn Massacre insisting that the Germans were the perpetrators. For decades the West believed this lie, and only recently has the Soviet government admitted that the massacre was ordered by Stalin. 

Whatever efforts the Soviets have made at rapprochement with Poland now seem to be suspended since the catastrophic airplane crash in April 2010 which carried Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of key Polish government officials. They all perished when the plane crashed coming in for a landing at Smolensk, Russia. They were to attend the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre.

President Lech Kaczynski
Though official reports indicate that the crash was accidental, it has not dispersed the general eerie feeling among many Poles that it might be another Soviet conspiracy in a long line of tragedies inflicted on Poland by Soviet Russia.

It should not seem strange that I mention politics in a blog about Polish Culture, since the two are closely intertwined. The political history of Poland is as much a part of the Polish soul as is the music of Frederic Chopin and Maria Szymanowska. In fact there was even a Polish Commander, Michał Kazimierz Ogiński in the 18th century, who was also a famous classical composer.

Modern Polish music is strongly influenced by the tragic events of World War II and the post war oppression suffered by Poles under the Communist regime. The "memory" still lives among the young generation of today, and so it should.  What I found most intriguing are the biographies of some of the Polish rock bands of the 80s and the harassment and censorship they experienced from Communist officials who disapproved of their music.

There is a great depth to Polish music. Even from behind the Iron Curtain, musicians payed close attention to what was happening in the West, and their music is a reflection of these changes.  Polish music is not just classical music, or protest songs, or even the polka.

Polish music has embraced every genre: cool and hot jazz, country, pop, rock, jazz, hip hop, rap, punk, ska.  But the exciting part is that they have made it entirely their own. It's not just jazz, it's Polish Jazz. It's not just rock, it's Polish Rock. Do you see where I'm going with this?  Polish music is a fusion of different styles, whose combination is unique and very exciting.  Poland has always resisted the imposition of restrictions...and so Polish music cannot easily be defined.  Pick any genre, and you will find much more to it!   I am not a music expert. I just know what I like and I think Polish music Rocks!!