The multicultural musical landscape of Poland: from Afro-Polish folk to Polish jazz from Peru

By Zula Rabikowska

Poland is often described as an ethnically homogeneous country, and in some ways it is. Contemporary Polish identity, however, is more complex and diverse than often depicted in the media, and the markers of Polishness are changing.

Historically, Poland was a multicultural country, with a third of its population made up of minorities. This rich heritage is still reflected in contemporary culture, from gastronomy to literature and art.

Although the death, destruction and displacement of World War II put an end to this ethnic diversity, the post-war period was marked by migrations from other communist countries, particularly Vietnam. And in recent years, Poland has had one of the highest immigration rates in Europe.

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This mixed cultural heritage is reflected in all areas of society, but is particularly visible in the rapidly evolving Polish music scene.

We spoke with five musicians of color about what it’s like to be a Polish musician in the 21st century. They talked about their relationship with their country of origin, their sense of Polish identity and their perception of diversity in Poland and its music scene.

Anja Pham: Polish R’n’B

Anja Pham is a musical artist with a Vietnamese father and a Polish mother originally from Nysa, in the south-west of Poland, and currently based in Warsaw. Anja describes her style of music as “urban”, mixing R’n’B influences with pop.

She admits that her Vietnamese origin is not reflected in her music as she does not feel connected to Vietnamese culture as she grew up in Poland. Anja identifies as Polish and emphasizes the importance of the Polish language, tradition and history in her upbringing.

When she was younger, she says, she was embarrassed by her background because her peers made fun of her. Although she was bullied at school, she highlights how much Poland has changed since then.

With the arrival of more migrants, Poland is becoming a more multicultural country and people are more accepting of differences, says Anja. She also notes that “the Polish music scene is very diverse in terms of style, and it’s really exciting to see more and more women in the music industry. For me, one of the most important things is to support each other.

Anja sings in Polish and her inspiration comes from her daily life and the experiences of her friends and family. Her most recent single, Flat Earth (Płaska Ziemia), explores the cosmic experience of romantic love, change and regret. The song appeared on Radio Eska’s music chart of most popular new releases.

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Ifi Ude: Afro-Polish folk

Ifi Ude is an independent Polish music artist of Nigerian descent, describing her music as Afro-electro folk. Ifi sings mainly in Polish and her music combines Slavic and Nigerian folk traditions.

“In interviews, I am always asked first about my origins. During my performance, the audience first notices my skin color, and only then sees me as a professional music performer,” she says of the difficulty of being a Polish musician of color in Poland.

According to her, there is still not enough diversity in the Polish music scene, with “people of color in Poland creating and performing contemporary afrobeat, neosoul, Latin gospel or hip hop”.

His recent album Ludevo (a pun on the Polish term ludowo, meaning “in the folk style”) brings Slavic influences and rhythms. She stresses, however, that incorporating Nigerian songs into her music is a way for her to preserve her personal connection to this country, echoing the multiplicity of her identity.

The 35-year-old singer began her music career singing in alternative bands and venues in Warsaw, and in 2014 her debut album, Ifi Ude, was nominated for the Fryderyk – Poland’s main annual music award – in the beginning of the year category. .

Although she now lives in Warsaw, her songs mix various stories of daily hardships in Polish villages, addressing a number of contemporary social issues like alcoholism and strained family relationships.

At the end of last year, Ifi was nominated for the prestigious Passport Prize awarded by the Polityka weekly for outstanding cultural creators in Poland.

Marita Alban Juarez Quartet: Polish Jazz from Peru

Both Marita and José Manuel were born in Poland, while their father is from Peru, and their music was largely shaped by their upbringing, which was imbued with the spirit of Latin American culture while they lived. Poland.

The Marita Albán Juárez Quartet is a group founded in 2011 by two Peruvian-Polish brothers, singer Marita and drummer José Manuel. They teamed up with Dominik Wania (on piano) and Andrzej Święs (on bass) to combine the sounds of tropicalism and Afro-Peru with Latin Jazz.

For Marita, it was Peruvian music and her father’s heritage that influenced them both more than any school of Polish music. Asked about her dual identity, Marita said that for her the idea of ​​a single nationality is absurd: “I see myself as Polish as I see myself Peruvian”.

She emphasizes the importance of Latin America in the quartet’s music, but adds that it subconsciously finds its way into their songs. The group is more concerned with connecting and inspiring audiences, rather than focusing on their background.

Marita admits that the beginnings of diversity can be seen in the Polish music scene, but for her it is still not enough to call it multicultural.

Wassim Ibrahim: cclassical music with Middle Eastern influences

Wassim Ibrahim is a Syrian composer who has lived in Krakow for nine years and feels both Polish and Syrian. Even though Wassim’s professional work started in engineering, he explains that this music is his life: “I compose music, I teach, I play with ensembles, I direct the choir and I organize concerts. .”

Wassim started his music career composing children’s songs, but now his music and style is diverse, mixing classical music with Middle Eastern influences and Syrian melodies. “Poles really love it and are committed to it,” he says. A member of the Union of Polish Composers, he is waiting to obtain his Polish nationality.

In 2015, Wassim founded a choir in Krakow, which today has almost 100 members from different backgrounds, who sing in many languages ​​from all over the world. In 2019, the choir was awarded the title of Ambassadors of Multiculturalism of the City of Krakow.

Besides performing solo, teaching and composing, he also plays the oud and sings in the Nasmeh Trio with Mexican percussionist Tomas Celis Sanchez and Polish singer Aleksandra Zawłocka.

“I consider myself first and foremost as a musician. I see people as belonging to a shared humanity rather than separate groups,” explains Wassim. “I share my feelings with Poland and with the Poles. I feel their concerns, their joys and their sorrows, especially since I currently live here and speak Polish.

Have fen: pop that is neither Chinese nor Polish

Ai fen is a Polish-Chinese musical artist currently living and working in Prague. She was born in Poland as Ewelina Chiu to a second-generation Chinese immigrant father and a Polish mother. His family moved to Canada in 1989 to escape communist rule in Poland and then to the United States.

However, she feels neither Chinese nor Polish: “Growing up, I had a hard time identifying with one or the other. Because I’m half Chinese, I don’t look Polish, and that always seemed like an obstacle to claiming that identity.

She also often felt disconnected from her Chinese roots because her father had grown up in Poland, and so the language of their home and the culture they celebrated was Polish. “Yet every time I said I was Polish, I was met with disbelief and probing questions.”

Polish was his mother tongue and the language of his childhood. “For many years, hearing Polish gave me this sense of belonging.” However, she adds that she is saddened to see “that the politics of present-day Poland are constantly moving in a retrograde direction”.

Ai fen started making music in 2014 when she created the duo ba:zel with her husband, which strikes a delicate balance between fragility and dark undertones. Post-grime rhythms mingle with neo-classical, connected by a soprano.

“The Polish scene is not diverse when it comes to showcasing a range of ethnicities or races,” she observes. “Poland itself is ethnically very homogeneous, just like the Czech Republic. However, both countries have interesting alternative and underground music scenes featuring a variety of genres.

Recently, she launched her own solo project and her new album, Deep Grief, will be released soon. In it, she explores her struggle to come to terms with the loss of multiple identities, mourn their loss, and emerge confused but hopeful.

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All images courtesy of the artists

Zula Rabikowska is a London-based Polish-British visual artist whose work explores themes of identity and belonging. You can see more of her work on her website and on her instagram.

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