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volume 3
november 2000

Gypsies are here to stay

Index of the journal Tracking  

  An introduction to the Gypsy influence on Polish popular music
by Barbara J. Kwiatkowska Spring, 1991
  Brandon University
  Ewa Demarczyk — Black Lady of Polish song (Photo: Andrzej M. Kobos, 1976)

Ewa Demarczyk's performance of the "Gypsy Woman" song has been the symbol of the artistically touching representation of the Gypsy without being one. Demarczyk sings most expressively, capturing the audience with her Gypsy like dark, large and piercing eyes framed in contrasting white light complexion, oval face, and long straight hair. Her black simple dress adds to the mystery of the performance. In this short essay Barbara J. Kwiatkowska explores the history of Gypsy music and its relationship with Poland, highlighting some examples of the influences of Gypsy music on the popular music of the sixties and seventies.

1 Long awaited visit to Warsaw, Poland. The plane touches the Okecie Airport turf. Few formalities, and soon you are, in fact, in the city whose bravery in 1939, and most recently in 1980-81 and 1989 has been influencing the wheels of world history.
2 If you choose Victoria, Europejski or Forum Hotels you are bound to see the Gypsy women even before you enter the building. They walk in small groups dressed in an easily distinguishable mixture of the Gypsy and modern clothing. Their dark large eyes, dark straight long hair, dark brownish skin accompanied by their Roma language and lack of timidity make them easily recognizable. The Gypsy women come up to you speaking mainly in accented Polish wanting to foretell your destiny for an unspecified fee.
3 They talk to you while you are walking. Before you have a chance to agree or disagree with their invitation to their fortune telling the Gypsy women acquaint you with it. They hide playing cards in the palms of their hands. They offer you, however, a choice between the cards, the palm of your own hand, or a single hair pulled from your skull. The Varsavians are used to the scene, and they manage to ignore the Gypsies. The tourists will most likely learn about their future in spite of themselves due to the Gypsy's insistence.
4 Almost 40 years ago Jerzy Ficowski, the distinguished expert on Gypsy history and lore said:
  "The road along which the Gypsies are progressing is the only one leading civilization, work a full human life. Protection of the Gypsy orchestras, today slight, will soon improve. Several groups of artists are tainted by bad restaurant traditions. Small wonder — these are the results of many years during which the 'social command' of the bourgeois public formed or, rather, deformed the musical folklore of the Gypsies. Methodological teaching will clear away these noxious deposits. Again, we shall have one day a Gypsy theatre on the model of the Romen Gypsy theater in Moscow. The actors will represent the life of the Gypsies of the past, who wandered over the countryside making their fires in the forest and suffering from cold and hunger. Those who regret that there will no longer be any romantic nomads do not realize the injustice and the ignorance that were inseparably bound up with the so called 'romantic' way of life. They do not realize that in our struggle against ignorance and illiteracy we cannot leave out a single citizen, nor can we dream of reservations when we are dealing with men and not bison. It is a good thing that in the future we shall see the Gypsy fires only in the Gypsy theatre" (Ficowski 1952, 37-38).
5 There is no Gypsy theatre in Poland and there never has been. In the years that followed, Ficowski and the government had to accept the persistence of ancient Gypsy nomadic life style. Let's bear in mind that it was the Stalinist era in Eastern Europe. Ficowski conformed to the dominant Polish ideology. In time he has diametrically altered his views which he proves in his 1974 and 1986 publications.
6 In the minds of the post World War II generations the Gypsies in the broadest sense have been associated with traveling horse-pulled wagons which appeared and vanished to and from the outskirts of towns. They are recognized for the young boys' street corner trade of metal pans, fortune telling Gypsy women, pickpocketing and stealing by both genders, singing and playing, strong family ties, and overall separatism from traditional Polish culture and life style. All of the above in spite of the 1948 state-imposed end to their ever-lasting nomadic way of living. In the arts the Gypsies are equated with singing and dancing in their traditional colorful clothing with the absence of painting, sculpture or literature. Papusza, the Gypsy woman, is the exception — she is a poet who was heralded by the father of Polish post-war literature Julian Tuwim for the exceptional value of her poetic skill.
7 In the sixties Michaj Burano, a full-blooded Gypsy, became the popular singer, widely adored for his vocal abilities. The exoticism of his look, his singing in Roma language to the trendy tunes of the time, composed just for him, generated the adoration of many Poles. Burano immigrated to the United States in the early seventies but has not been forgotten even though his whereabouts are currently unknown. Present popularity among the Westerners of the French all-male Gypsies group can be compared to Burano's fame in Poland in his time. Randia, a Gypsy woman, was popular in Poland concurrently with Burano. Her repertoire, however, was more traditional. It consisted of folk Gypsy songs performed by Randia and her instrumental group. The ensemble was the only element similar to the pop groups. Gypsy tradition did not permit sharing of their music with outsiders. Hence Randia, who disagreed with this formula, encountered prosecution from tribesmen. In the seventies she had to have body guards. While such is common practice among America's famous personalities, it has not been so in Poland. Randia's desire to share her music with everybody took the mystery veil away from the Gypsy sound.
8 While Michaj Burano and Randia gained their popularity through their ethnicity and its cultural context, so Ewa Demarczyk's performance of the "Gypsy Woman" song has been the symbol of the artistically touching representation of the Gypsy without being one. Demarczyk sings most expressively, capturing the audience with her Gypsy like dark, large and piercing eyes framed in contrasting white light complexion, oval face, and long straight hair. Her black simple dress adds to the mystery of the performance. Occasionally she sounds a bit like Juliette Greco and Edith Piaf. Ewa Demarczyk is known as a Black Lady of Polish song. Her performance of the "Gypsy Woman" is full of drama. The musical material of the song finds it Gypsiness in the use of tambourines and violin in unison with the singer. Here one tends to reminisce about the Hungarian Gypsies and their violin-playing style.
9 The image of the Gypsy woman returns in "A Gypsy Woman — Fortune Teller". This song reaches to the Gypsy tradition of fortune telling. In fact the entire text of the song is the Gypsy woman's vision of the young man's life. Musical material and the performing style of the singer Jacek Lech have no association with Gypsy mannerism. Rather, his even, relaxed, voice is indicative of the sixties Czerwono Czarni group singing style comparable with the early Beatles. "Big Beatland" exemplifies the early Polish version of pop music style. Today it is perceived as naivete to long for anything of English background. It contrasts sharply with the "Gypsy Woman" and "Rebeka" also performed by Ewa Demarczyk.
10 The lyricist of "Rebeka" is Jewish. It is worth noting the female name in the title is also Jewish, and the song carries influences of both Jewish and Gypsy elements. Again, we hear a single violin with Gypsy melodic passages intertwined with the Jewish ones. Ewa Demarczyk's singing style oscillates between the Gypsy and Jewish ones with added quick, sharp, and brief upward and downward glissandos. The Gypsy tambourine is here replaced by an Arabic style drum.
11 From densely Gypsy music, through Gypsy lore we arrive at the sophisticated composition of Marek Grechuta who like Ewa Demarczyk was educated and resides in Cracow in the south of Poland. In appreciating music of his 1974 "The Hour of Loving" one finds multi-textures of contemporary eclectic guitar and multi-percussive instruments loosely fitting the jazz fusion style which accompanies his singing. The single electric violin reappears in the refrain with the Gypsy reminiscences. The melodic violin oscillates between the Gypsy style and the sophisticated contemporary improvisation.
12 From Michaj Burano and Randia, by way of Jacek Lech to Ewa Demarczyk and Marek Grechuta: these examples highlight the influences of Gypsy music in Polish popular music of the sixties and seventies. The value of this impact has far reaching consequences extending to other areas of cultural life in Poland.
  • Ficowski, Jerzy (1985), Cyganie na polskich drogach. Wroclaw: Wydawnictwo Literackie Krakow, 1985, 427.
  • Ficowski, Jerzy (1986), Demony cudzedo strachu. Warszawa: Ludowa Spoldzielnia Wydawnicza, 1986, 263.
  • Ficowski, Jerzy (1986), "The Gypsy in the Polish People's Republic." In: Journal of the Gypsy Lore, 1986, XXXVII, 28-38.
  This essay was published in: Tracking: Popular Music Studies,
vol. 3, no. 2 (Spring, 1991)
  1997 © IASPM / USA