Posted on 15.06.2011 in People's Voices

Jacek Ostaszewski

“The West gave us a sense of diversity and calmness, and that was precious to us. We knew that nobody would break the door to our house down, as happened once when we were living in Warsaw: the State Police broke in one night. (…) While we were in the West we fell into all kinds of circles, as we gave concerts in all kinds of places.”

He is considered to be one of the forerunners of World Music. As a jazz musician he cooperated with many well known musicians in Poland, including Tomasz Stańko, Andrzej Trzaskowski, and Krzysztof Komeda. He was also a member of Osjan and Anawa, alongside Marek Grechuta. Currently, he mainly composes music for theatre and teaches at the State Higher School of Theatre in Krakow.

The music group you co-created – Osjan – was quite well known and quite well received in the West. Poland was in the Soviet Block back then. How did musicians from behind the Iron Curtain build their careers abroad?

Jacek Ostaszewski

Jacek Ostaszewski

I started to travel to the West quite early on for in the sixties. I used to travel with Polish jazz groups then. The first time I crossed the border into the West was when I went to Nuremberg. I went there with Andrzej Trzaskowski to play at a jazz festival. In those days jazz musicians had a somewhat privileged position in Poland: we were allowed to leave the country to play. When I was very young, jazz was considered by the authorities to be base capitalist music but this changed somewhat later on as they discovered that jazz was derived from the tradition of poor, oppressed Afro-Americans and that somehow fitted well with communist propaganda that stressed capitalist exploitation in America. Therefore, jazz was not glamorised by the communist authorities but was tolerated. And thus jazz festivals started to be held in communist Poland too.

During the seventies I used to travel with Osjan – primarily to Germany – but our first trip to the West was to Italy. Osjan was operating within the realities of communist Poland in a very specific way. One day we received an invitation to play in Opole, at a large official Polish music festival. Olga Lipińska orchestrated this. Lipińska had to appear before many a decision maker to explain why we were to play there. We did not fit in with the so-called socialist culture but then we were not artists singing protest songs – like Jacek Kaczmarski or Przemysław Gintrowski – either. We were at the forefront of what was latterly known as the Orange Alternative that was prone to make fun of communist Poland and its realities rather than to go in for the martyrdom as it were. We were considered a bit mad; it would be better not to invite them because one never knows what will happen. We did not have problems with travelling abroad until Martial Law was imposed (in 1981), apart from some typical problems such as with the obtainment of a visa or a passport.

Was it an ordeal for you dealing with bureaucratic formalities?

It is easier for me to talk about the seventies when I was travelling with Osjan. Back in the days of communist Poland, an artist could only leave the country with the help of the Polish Artists’ Agency “PAGART” i.e. the institution responsible, among other things, for arranging passports for artists. To travel we had to have an official passport. It was likely that the staff of this institution performed simultaneously two functions: they were to deal with issues relating to culture, on the one hand, and to cooperate closely with the secret service, on the other. PAGARTwas also responsible for booking our performances in the West and yet throughout all the years of our cooperation with them they never booked us anywhere. However we had to pay them a large percentage of all the royalties we received for performing in the West only because PAGART was involved in obtaining our passports and visas. How long did one have to wait for a visa? The procedures were lengthy and therefore one had to plan one’s trip well in advance – one had to wait at least three months. Sometimes it was easier to get a passport – which one could not keep at home, in a drawer, but was stored at PAGART – than to obtain a visa. Upon return, one had to surrender one’s passport forthwith to PAGART. There was a specific time limit for this: three months. The countries we were to perform in were also running their own checks on us. In those days there was mutual distrust.

Which Western European countries were involved? What was this lack of trust about? What did these checks on prospective visitors from the Soviet Block involve?

Though our luggage was rarely checked, when it did happen we were “questioned” thoroughly. And then the attitude of customs officers towards us… I also remember our visit to a labour office in Switzerland where we had to appear in person to receive a work permit: a huge queue, primarily made up of newcomers from Africa and Asia, some humiliating enquires and questions. Nobody, though, could compete with customs officers from East Germany and it was impossible to travel to the West without crossing that border.

As I have already said, I used to travel with jazz groups to West Germany during the sixties. We used to also play in Belgium. With Osjan I went to Italy – in the first half of the seventies. Then there was Switzerland. We used to hitchhike there – every member of the group by himself – because we did not have enough money for a ticket. People in the West had no understanding whatsoever of the strange realities behind the Iron Curtain; they could not comprehend that a professional musician was not able to afford a bus or train fare.

Were there any instances where you felt that you were treated inhumanely in the West?

There is one such instance and here I see some analogy with the way Ukrainian citizens are treated today. Our agent did not expect that after giving a concert in Germany we would not be able to arrive at the border crossing on time. The concert was in the evening and the border crossing was quite far. We did not get to this crossing on time yet out visas were valid only until midnight of that day. We arrived there approximately one hour late. At the border, German officers kicked up a tremendous row. We were kept at gunpoint as if we were some criminals. We were ordered to put our hands up. We were informed that we were in Germany illegally because our visas had expired.

How did it end? Did anyone apologise once the matter was clarified?

Please, don’t joke with me…

Did anyone in the West made you feel that you were inferior, that you were “these poor Poles”?

First, we did not suffer from an inferiority complex of any kind. Goods available in the West were not seductive to me: they did not arouse any passion or fascination in me. I was already well advanced in Buddhist training. Of course, we knew that we were invited to the West as Osjan to perform as a group from a poor part of Europe – perhaps a little bit out of compassion – but we did not buy into this. We spoke English. We did not have a problem with communication. We knew Western literature and music. We did not consider ourselves to be culturally that different. It’s true that life was a little bit more difficult for us than for Westerners: we could not afford to sleep in a hotel thus we used to be put up by friends. We were not travelling with technicians but instead we had to carry our loudspeakers ourselves. We felt though that physical labour is the right path, rather than building up a myth of an artist.

Did these travels to the West help you in your career?

First of all, the West gave us a sense of diversity and calmness, and that was precious to us. We knew that nobody would break the door to our house down, as happened once when we were living in Warsaw: the State Police (Militia) broke in one night. My wife Małgosia was in an advanced stage of pregnancy then. They blinded us with their flashlights… It happened because we were living in Warsaw illegally i.e. without being registered as new tenants as required by the authorities. I knew that in the West something like that could not have happened without a  seriously good reason. While we were in the West we fell into all kinds of circles, as we gave concerts in all kinds of places.

Did your travels help you to acquaint yourself with the rules of democracy and the free market?

We did not take any courses in the West. We simply observed that world. We saw that their economy – not being based on planning but on a free market – was functioning completely differently than ours, that it was much, much better, that people had a different mentality. After giving a few concerts we had some western currencies in our pockets. It wasn’t a lot, though for us it seemed to be a fortune because back in Poland this money had enormous value. The West used to appreciate us more than our countrymen. Osjan was going through a period when indeed it was more popular in the West than in Poland.

Was your first contact with the West shocking?

Of course it was. When I used to leave for the West I was given an extensive list of things to buy. Thus I knew the sizes of shoes, clothes, and underwear of my entire family. I remember that once – returning from a concert tour – I even brought a full can of soy oil on my back. I had bought it for my family but then my wife shared it with our friends, in many small bottles.

Once you crossed the border you left behind the socialist-realist greyness and entered fireworks of lights and advertisements. Shops were filled to the brim with goods while in Poland they were completely empty. I was running around with a shopping list trying to buy everything as cheaply as possible – it was quite tiring. I would return to Poland with these spoils from the West and knew that I would be welcomed with an explosion of happiness at home, the intensity of which I have never seen since. My children could savour real chocolate or bananas for the very first time. Once I even brought – from Greece – oranges and a barrel of olives. After each trip to the West it was as if I was Santa Claus. Money would disappear quite soon. We were always on this financial seesaw. One day we had money and the next, there were none.

Did the friendships established in those days still survive until today?

I am in contact with the people that I met then. We meet from time to time.

And what about professional contacts?

Professional contacts were severed due to Martial Law. These days I travel to the West as a composer of theatre music. Sometimes I give concerts with Zbigniew Preisner. The truth is also that our outlook on the West is now different. This is the result of the democratic changes in Poland.