Popular music '
Paweł Gzyl
Reading time: approx. 7 minutes

All Shades of Kraków’s Pop

Rain or shine, Kraków resounds with popular music. Poland’s leading pop and rock musicians flock to the Wianki and Juwenalia festivals and the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Great events such as Unsound and EthnoKrakow/Crossroads attract fans of the latest electronica and traditional music from all over the globe. The outdoor Kraków Live Festival showcases some of the greatest stars working today, with past guests including Lana Del Ray and Kanye West. And the local music scene fizzles with punk, alternative, techno… Just dip into Kraków’s many clubs and cellars to find out for yourself!

Serenades

Kraków was the home of Nobel laureate poets Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. It’s no surprise, then, that it has long been a favourite city of singer-songwriters. The literary cabaret Piwnica Pod Baranami was a hub for many generations of singers performing poetry, including Ewa Demarczyk and Marek Grechuta. For many years their songs were a significant reference point for other Cracovian artists, who either chose to continue the tradition or distance themselves from it.

 

When Demarczyk and Grechuta sang at Piwnica Pod Baranami, Kraków was also home to a major big-beat scene. One of its most important representatives was Zbigniew Wodecki – classically trained violinist and a great proponent and performer of popular music. When he debuted in the 1970s, his delightful songs, somewhat reminiscent of Burt Bacharach’s style, were a breath of fresh air on Kraków’s music scene. Sadly, Wodecki passed away before his time in 2017. His life and music are commemorated with the Wodecki Twist Festival – an event bringing together artists from all over Poland to perform some of his most popular hits. Held in June, the event has been growing rapidly, and in 2019 we heard Polish artists Kayah, Anna Maria Jopek and Urszula Dudziak alongside guests from abroad Matt Dusk and Chris Botti.

From the underground to the streets

As well as pop, Kraków has also long been home to underground music. It all started with the psychedelic group Zdrój Jana (Poland’s response to The Velvet Underground), followed by bristly punks. The scene is still thriving today with bands such as Inkwizycja and Chupacabras, and various post-punk formations such as the sardonic Püdelsi and the lyrical Świetliki. The versatile artist Maciej Maleńczuk started off busking on the streets of Kraków; he went on to perform with several local bands, and he is currently focusing on performing pop standards.

 

Cracovian underground also forms the foundations of the local alternative scene. Its representatives regularly perform at the Wianki – Fête de la Musique, the annual event held in June at several club and outdoor stages throughout the city. The scene has myriad facets: there are singer-songwriters such as Limboski and Patrick The Pan, indie-rock bands Bad Light District and Rycerzyki, and female vocalists Renata Przemyk and Paulina Bisztyga.

Wianki and Juwenalia

As well as local performers, the Wianki Music Festival showcases stars of ambitious Polish pop, such as Monika Brodka, Mela Koteluk, Dawid Podsiadło and The Dumplings. The huge popularity of hip-hop in Poland is reflected there by artists such as Fisz and O.S.T.R. The municipal celebrations of New Year’s Eve are another great opportunity to hear live music at several stages throughout the city, featuring a range of genres aimed at listeners of all ages.

 

And of course favourite rock and pop bands perform in Kraków throughout the year at the city’s many popular clubs: the largest, Studio, is in the heart of the AGH University of Science and Technology campus, with Kwadrat, Żaczek, Alchemia and ZetPeTe hosting leading performers in many genres. Re, Baza, Warsztat and Świetlica focus on alternative music, while hipsters flock to Forum Przestrzenie at the former hotel which first opened right at the end of the communist era. The student Juwenalia Festival draws scores of home-grown pop and rock stars every May.

Dancing at Szeroka Street

Kraków has always been a magnet for visitors from all over the globe, some of whom decide to make the city their home. Many of them are musicians who perform and record here. Some are evanescent, making a brief appearance before disappearing without trace, but some have become an indelible part of the local music scene. They include Eluktrick – described as “Poland’s Radiohead” for intertwining electronics with alternative rock – and the vibrant folk band Vladimirska.

World music has been an important element of the Cracovian scene for a long time. Kraków was once home to a large Jewish community; even though it fell victim to the tragedy of the Holocaust during the Second World War, the culture has endured, mainly in the Kazimierz district. Since 1989, many Cracovian musicians have been working to preserve Jewish culture; Kroke and the Cracow Klezmer Band – now operating as the Bester Quartet – have since become stars on the global stage.

Every July, Kazimierz embraces the Jewish Culture Festival, founded thirty years ago by Janusz Makuch and Krzysztof Gierat. The festival offers a far-reaching review of Jewish music, featuring klezmers and cantors performing traditional songs in Kraków’s synagogues as well as rappers and DJs intertwining elements of Jewish folklore in their rhythms and dance beats. Events culminate with the outdoor concert “Shalom on Szeroka Street”, with Cracovians and visitors joining the performers for a great street party.

Slavic melodies

Kraków is also home to other music traditions, with local bands offering creative exploration of many genres. Hańba! intertwines urban folk from before the Second World War with punk energy, Kapela Hanki Wójciak imbues tunes from the Tatras with psychedelic trance sounds, while the Sokół Orkestar explores Slavic melodies from the Balkan region.

World music resounds everywhere in Kraków: from cosy clubs and cellars to the great EthnoKrakow/Crossroads festival held every July and featuring musicians from Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia. Gigs are held at many concert venues and in beautiful outdoor settings, such as Wolnica Square. Performances are accompanied by workshops in arts and crafts and dance. EthnoKrakow/Crossroads was conceived by Joanna Słowińska and Jan Słowiński – leading performers and popularisers of music.

The latest sounds

On the other end of the spectrum, Kraków is also home to a thriving electronic scene. In recent years, we have seen a real boom in the popularity of DJs and producers creating techno, house, electro and dubstep sounds. Their main home is Szpitalna 1 club, where every weekend they perform alongside guests from abroad. Some local producers have broken out onto the international scene, including Eltron John specialising in hypnotic deep house and the dark electro duo Olivia & Chino. Another important club specialising in the genre is Prozak 2.0.

The Unsound Festival is an annual celebration of electronic and other contemporary music. It started in the early 21st century as a modest club event, and over the years it has grown into a week-long festival of the latest trends in experimental music. Featuring artists such as James Blake and Arca, Unsound attracts devoted audiences from all over the globe, with tickets selling out long before the line-up for the October concerts is announced.

Festival season finale

The Kraków Live Festival focuses on more commercial pop and electronic music. Launched in 2006, the outdoor event has always aimed to bring leading pop stars from all over the globe to Kraków. In previous years, the festival has hosted American rappers Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Jay-Z, representatives of new electronica such as Faithless, Massive Attack and The Chemical Brothers, and acclaimed rockers such as Muse and Interpol.

The Kraków Live Festival, serving as a symbolic culmination of the festival season, draws crowds of young people from all over Poland every August. The event also attracts many visitors from abroad, mainly countries in Eastern Europe which don’t host similar events. The festival also plays an important role in stimulating the local music scene: when young Cracovians watch and listen to great musicians from all over the globe, they are inspired to reach for a guitar or microphone. All this has brought a breath of fresh air to Kraków’s music scene!

Paweł Gzyl

Music and film journalist, he started out at the “Non Stop” and “Rock’n’Roll” monthlies during the 1980s , later moving to “Music Globe” and “Kaktus”. He currently writes for the “Gazeta Krakowska” and “Dziennik Polski” dailies and for the Nowa Muzyka website.

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