History of Immigrants and the Polish Music Scene

We have whole books filled with stories of Poles’ achievements abroad, but we know far less about the foreigners who had input in creating Polish culture. It may seem like everybody was leaving Poland, starting from the Great Emigration in the first half of 19th century and finishing in March 1968. However, the canon of Polish popular music was created not only by Poles and Jews, but also by refugees from neighbouring countries, economic migrants and people who accidentally ended up in Poland and decided to stay. Here are a few of their stories.

“Because it’s a negro playing!”
The history of Polish jazz did not start with underground jam sessions in the period of Stalinism, but on the dancefloors of fashionable clubs in the interwar period, where swing ruled. While some enjoyed the ‘psychosis of dance’, others complained about ‘jazz-banditry’ and ‘wild negro weed’ (specifically Kornel Makuszyński, who hated jazz). Sam Salvano’s success is proof that audiences were not convinced by what the conservative critics said. Salvano was primarily a drummer, but he also tap-danced and sang in five languages – no wonder that at the opening of the renowned Adria club in Warsaw, he was the star of the show. But even though he was from Congo, the posters said ‘straight from New York’.

Salvano performed with Karasiński’s and Kataszek’s orchestra, considered the first true Polish jazz band because they did not strictly play music from the US but rather focused on improvisation. The orchestra launched their career at Warsaw’s clubs, then went on the road and conquered Polish dancefloors and resorts. They then went on an international tour, first to Europe, then the Middle East, before going all the way to India. Their popularity becomes clear when we remember the fact that they were hired for a campaign to promote Indian, the American motorcycle brand.Foreigners performing with the orchestra also included Hungarian guitarist Imre Berta, American saxophonist Henry Nattan, and multi-instrumentalist Georg Scott, who was formerly a part of another pioneer ensemble founded by Henryk Gold. Scott was born in Tbilisi to a leading African-American oilman and a Pole from Sweden. He was also active as a musician during the war. He had American citizenship so German orders and decrees were not applicable to him. For example, he was allowed to have a radio, which was used by his colleagues from the Home Army and jazz enthusiasts.nother black musician who settled by the Vistula river before the war was August Agbola O’Brown. He was born in Nigeria and came to Poland in 1922 from London through the Free City of Danzig. He was a drummer in bars, first in Kraków before he decided to move to Warsaw. During the war he was part of the resistance: he helped people escape from the ghetto, distributed underground press, and took part in the Warsaw Uprising as part of the ‘Iwo’ battalion (his alias was Ali). After the Second World War, he continued to play music. The band he played with would promote themselves as a ‘black orchestra’.