Nov 29th, 2008
Chicago, St. Louis, The Delta… Krakow? It turns out Polish blues is pretty awesome. But first, some background:
Smoking, Drinking, and Bathroom Line Lurkery
Thursday was Thanksgiving and Poland doesn’t give a shit about Thanksgiving. I was feeling mopey, missing my friends and family, Street Fighter II Turbo marathons, and going out back home for relatively awkward conversation with people from high school I don’t know very well. I decided the best thing to do would be to get out of the apartment, go see some music, and have relatively awkward conversations with people I don’t know at all!
There’s a cozy little underground bar with live music close to my apartment. This is part of it:
You walk down a narrow set of stairs from the sidewalk to the entrance, push past a black velvet curtain, and enter a series of curved brick-ceiling rooms connected by narrow corridors. Bars like this are common in Poland and seem to frequently lack even a modicum of ventilation, which is unfortunate for non-smokers because I have decided that Poland is a nation of balls-out, unapologetic chain-smokers. You can smoke almost anywhere here and people do. With reckless abandon. My jeans smell like a strange mix of Polish bar and dog kibble right now.
I found this particular spot last week after going to an Irish pub called “The Irish Embassy,” which is right next to the actual American Embassy in Krakow. America has a consulate, Ireland has a bar. Surprise. There I met a middle-aged car mechanic from the island of Jersey between France and England. He was in Krakow pissing away part of a big settlement he got in his divorce. He explained at length to me why his wife cheating on him three years ago was the best thing that’d ever happened to him as he now finds himself buying cars, going where he wants, and seeing his kids on the weekends.
From the Irish Embassy, I moved on to the aforementioned underground music bar. I had a quite an enjoyable time at this bar last week stationing myself outside the bathroom and talking to everyone in the place while I had them cornered with nowhere to go as they waited to pee. I was a bathroom line lurker. Everyone understandably thought I was waiting to go myself, would ask about it in Polish, and then I would ask if they speak English. Instant conversation! They’ve got nowhere to go and I’ve got nobody better to talk to. Perfect. I gallantly ushered them in front of me as I sized up my next victim.
The Blues? In Poland? Yup.
On Thanksgiving, I returned to the underground music bar. One might expect such a bar in the heart of Poland to have a healthy dose of Mazurka or Klezmer music. (Will anyone other than Ryan Hertz even know what these are? Did anyone other than Ryan Hertz major in Ethnomusicology?) Probably wouldn’t expect blues, though. And if there was blues, it probably wouldn’t be worth your time.
Enter Joanna Pilarska (pictured right) and Arek. She’s a Polish blues singer and guitar player who had a gig at the bar on Thanksgiving night. And sing, she did. Arek played guitar. It was the Dr. Pepper of Polish Thansgivings. No need for line-lurking this time around.
I met a Norwegian oil rig worker who bought all my drinks for me. His wife was sick at the hotel but he had to come see the blues. Loose on cheap Polish beer, this man eventually stumbled back to his hotel to go “wake up the missus – sick or not!” Sorry, lady. It’s not my fault. Thanks for the drinks, though, buddy.
After a set break, I moved closer to the stage with the below-mentioned group of guys. Given my handle on the English language and obvious enjoyment of the show, Joanna handed me the microphone at one point during Tracey Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason.” I tried not to think about my awful Rock Band vocal performances and shamelessly belted it out without hesitation. The people cheered and the band didn’t need to activate Overdrive and save me. Great success!
The crappy audio from my point-and-shoot Canon doesn’t do this justice, but here’s a video sampling from the four hour show. The What’s Up closer by 4 Non Blondes was a big hit:
Joanna and Arek are part of bigger band called “Joanna Pilarska & Na Drodze.” Their MySpace page is here, for the curious.
Bartek Busts a Flow
After the show, I hung out with a group of guys which included Bartek. Like me, Bartek loves hiphop. Upon mention of Wu-Tang’s “Triumph,” the trans-Atlantic gap between Polish and American cultures was instantly bridged. Bartek mostly kept up with me as we recited Inspectah Deck’s part, “I bomb atomically, Socrates’ philosophies and hypothesis can’t define how I be droppin’ these – mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery,” etc. Thanks to 36 Chambers and to gangster rap in general. You’re still bringing people together.
Bartek then went in to a 2 or 3 minute freestyle session with his friend beat boxing for him. Here’s a clip. Anyone know Polish and want to translate this for me? I’d love to subtitle it.
The GZA? In Poland? Yes.
Speaking of Wu-Tang, GZA is playing in Krakow tomorrow. This promises to be interesting. Hopefully the show isn’t sold out. I’m trying to get in touch with Bartek to see if he wants to go.
More soon, people! I’ve got some decisions to make about where I’m going next. It’s looking like Turkey, but Latvia / Lithuania are also options. Or Belarus. And then it’s on to India which, if you have any idea of what’s going on with the news at the moment, looks, to say the least, interesting.