The Music of the Polish Diaspora

Article excerpt

IT was the night of the assassination of Itzakh Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel. I recall the occasion on 4 November 1995 in much the same way as one recalls the assassination of President Kennedy: I know what I was doing at the time. I was playing a borrowed bass guitar with 'Domino', the dance band that had been at the epicentre of the Polish emigre scene in London in the 1960s and '70s. We were doing what many of the rock bands of that era were doing then: a Reunion Gig. It was an excuse for four middle-aged friends--aided and abetted by a couple of hundred equally middle-aged former fans--to get together in a spirit of unbridled nostalgia; to relive for a few hours those heady days when we were able to play till the early hours, and still have the energy to go to a party afterwards. A little more creased about the face, looser about the jowls and with bellies belying years of good eating and drinking without the antidote of exercise, we still managed to give a passable evening of Domino entertainment. The function was organised by some members of the Old Polish Crowd to raise money for Medical Aid to Poland, and took place at the Hall of the Windsor Road Polish Church in Ealing, the London suburb taken over in the 1950s by Poles fleeing Earl's Court before the invasion of the Australians.

I formed my first band in 1958, with two fellow Polish teenagers, guitarist Marek Sikorski and drummer Boleslaw Gas. I myself played piano and clarinet. Marek could play three chords on his nylon-stringed guitar, and Bolek had a sense of rhythm, so we reckoned our chances of a stab at fame and fortune. The band was called the Tonny Russell Trio--I borrowed the surname of my girl friend at the time. Bolek borrowed a pair of drum-sticks and a certain Mrs Narzymska, who did a lot of social work for Polish youth, lugged an ancient bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat to Marek's house near Ealing Common, and we set about the process of becoming rich and famous. We almost immediately got our first booking, a smallscale deb dance in a basement somewhere behind Knightsbridge. We got away with the gig not discreditably, especially as the party was on the bohemian side, unlike most deb dances, which were far more conventional, at which real dance bands, dressed in tuxedos and using music stands with logos were hired. Our second gig was Near Year's Eve 1958 at the Allied Circle in Green Street, off Park Lane. A dynamic young Dutchman by the name of Jim Meester ran a controversial youth programme at this smart Mayfair club to foster understanding and friendship between the young of London's displaced nationalities after the Second World War. Poles featured prominently in Meester's vision. In 1921 the Polish nation had celebrated God's reply to the century-old plea contained in the hymn, 'Boze Cos Polske': 'Restore to us our fair fatherland'. God had answered Poland's plea, and Marshal Pilsudski had stood at the apex of the new, independent, united and free Polish state. It only lasted 18 years, before that freedom was snuffed out on 1 September 1939. For a whole generation the loss of a fatherland that had cost the prayers and blood of millions to restore was too much to bear. Some never recovered--the horrors of what they had gone through could not be exorcised.

There were various social schemes and youth organisations to help Polish youth get on its feet at the time. Immediately after the War, as Polish refugees arrived in the United Kingdom, myself and my mother among them, many shell-shocked and mentally scarred, camps, clubs and organisations sprang up to help them to come to terms with the trauma and to help them to rebuild their lives in a strange new land. It was not easy. An unqualified Polish Jewish psychiatrist by the name of Dr Bram set up a Polish Rehabilitation Institute at Mabledon Park, a turreted castle in its own grounds just outside Tonbridge, in Kent. It was there that my mother, who had run the family hotel business in Poland before the War, got a job as catering officer. …