It’s the most important Polish song festival, which aims to celebrate Polish music by showing off the biggest hits of the past year.
But now Krajowy Festiwal Piosenki Polskiej w Opolu (the National Festival of Polish Song in Opole) finds itself gripped in its biggest controversy ever, leading a number of Eurovision stars — including Michal Szpak (2016), Blue Cafe (2004) and Andrzej Piaseczny (2001) — to pull out of the event.
Described by Poland’s Head of Delegation as the Polish Sanremo, the extravaganza captures the spirit of the Italian festival but without the competitive aspect. Big-time artists perform the greatest hits of today alongside some of the biggest hits fans remember from their childhood. Amid the controversy, the festival won’t be happening in June as it always has in the past. In fact, it’s not happening at all.
The disaster stems from the country’s ongoing culture wars, which reflect a divide between its very conservative government and its more progressive performers.
The brouhaha kicked off when Maryla Rodowicz, a legendary pop singer who has been described as a mix of Madonna, Shakira and Lady Gaga, invited Kayah, the Polish Cher, to perform at the festival to help celebrate Maryla’s 50 years in the business. (Kayah is pictured at right in the top photo, and Maryla is on the left).
According to Polish media, Jacek Kurski — the president of Poland’s broadcaster TVP — said “Over my dead body!”, expressly forbidding Kayah from making an appearance.
TVP is run by the Law and Justice Party (abbreviated as PiS) — the ruling political party known for its conservative stance and rightward leanings. They’re at odds with Kayah, an outspoken woman who isn’t afraid of voicing her concerns about the conservative swing taking place. When the party proposed an outright ban on abortion last year, she was a leading voice in the so-called black protests against the legislation.
That’s not fitting with TVP’s apparent values. In the past they cut off the performance of the singer Natalia Przybysz (who had publicly confessed that she once had an abortion). But rather than taking that step at Opole, TVP simply undid Kayah’s invitation.
Maryla, a singer with a huge fan base, wasn’t feeling it. She she spoke with TVP president Kurski to set the record straight.
The pair recorded a video, stating that everything was fine, and he suggested that Kayah’s ban was just a rumour. TVP would never interfere with the list of artists invited to celebrate Maryla’s 50th anniversary, he said.
Kayah refused to accept his words, suggesting that she may be the most high-profile victim of state censorship, but she certainly isn’t the only one. She did so in this explosive statement.
It’s the very first time I speak about this, because so far it was only about me, without me… but dearest ladies and gentlemen I won’t let anyone tell me that black is white and white is black. I won’t perform at this year’s festival in Opole. And this is my decision — in the name of solidarity with those who were banned and remained banned because there wasn’t such a storm about them. I am thanking everyone for all the public and private support. It means a lot to us as Poles.
That set off an avalanche.
Just a few hours after the meeting, Maryla took back her words and cancelled her 50-year celebration at Opole. A flurry of artists then turned their backs on the festival as well. At the same time the band Dr Misio was thrown out for an anti-clerical music video. As more and more artists voiced their concerns by withdrawing, the Polish media gave breathless updates about each and every one of them.
The list of artists withdrawing from the festival include the following. You’ll recognise several names from Eurovision and Poland’s Eurovision selections.
They are: Audiofeels, Kasia Popowska, Katarzyna Nosowska, band Pectus, Grzegorz Hyzy, Urszula, Kombi, Katarzyna Cerekwicka (Polish NF 2006 runner-up), Andrzej Piaseczny (Poland 2001), Lanberry (Polish NF 2017), Blue Cafe (Poland 2004), Kasia Kowalska (Poland 1996) and many, many more!
Even Michal Szpak — Poland’s Eurovision 2016 singer, who has won a series of competitions connected with Opole — decided to bow out.
A number of lesser-known acts — including one of my favourites Swiernalis — also stepped away.
Organisers sought to stop the bleeding. One idea was to shorten the festival and substitute the Maryla celebrations with a show from Polish pop music queen Doda (who you’ll recognise as a guest from Poland’s Eurovision 2017 national final) and a concert from Zenon Martyniuk — the “king of disco polo”.
The festival is organised by TVP but the city of Opole holds great sway as well. The president of Opole said he broke off the deal with TVP as they couldn’t provide Maryla Rodowicz, which was one of the main points in their agreement. Unable to use the city’s amphitheatre, TVP would have to delay the event or find a new location.
One idea was to move the festival from Opole to the city of Kielce. But it would be rather peculiar to stage the Opole 2017 festival in Kilece. Surprisingly, even Artur Orzech — Poland’s Eurovision commentator who was meant to host one of the concerts — resigned. Everything fell apart.
And so the 54th edition of the National Festival of Polish Song in Opole will not take place. Everything has been cancelled. The festival won’t take place for the second time in its history — the first cancellation coming in 1982 while the nation was under martial law as a result of Soviet pressure. Back then Poles had tanks on their streets and no one could leave their house between 10pm to 6am.
It’s eerie to think about, but once again there will be no music in Opole. It’s sad. But it also shows the great strength and unity Poles demonstrate during difficult times. The singers who walked out are fighting against a government keen to silence them. Their actions have cost Poland a festival — for now. But the goal of restoring freedom and fighting censorship makes the burden worth it.