How do you say “dotted panties” in Chinese? And why would it matter? Well, it does if you are a Polish musician hoping to conquer the Chinese market.
That Poland is largely unknown in China and easily confused with Holland is something anybody could guess. Until recently, the ignorance worked both ways: Your average Polish person would shrug at the idea of trying to promote Polish music in China. Yet, with most of the world – even old-fashioned Europe – coming to terms with the fact that People’s Republic of China is a world power and a stunningly strong market, even people in Poland took to studying Mandarin and pondering what can be sold behind the Great Wall. Hopefully, it is not only business but also (or primarily?) fun – the fun of realizing that some people from a distant civilization may love rock or punk music as vehemently as the Poles do.
Last year, some of the veterans of the Polish rock scene tried to drop a few musical bombs on the Chinese scene. Muniek Staszczyk (known, among others, for being the leader of a popular band called T.Love) and Mietall Walluś (the leader of another band, Negatyw) together with a few other musicians got together to form the Warsaw Bombs and undertook a tour that included venues in Beijing, Guiyang, Chongqing and other places. The idea of the tour came as a follow-up to Negatyw’s earlier tour in China, which the band clearly enjoyed. Warsaw Bombs reportedly played mostly the classics of 1980s Polish rock. It is hard to establish the actual impact of this adventure on the Chinese musical scene.
The fascinating and challenging part of the entire enterprise is that in uncharted waters with a different market and culture, the original popularity of the band does not have to be reflected in the same degree and the original stakes may even be reversed. While Muniek Staszczyk, a household name in Polish popular music, embarked on a humble and self-made adventure tour travelling on trains across China, another rock band, Roan, unknown to many Poles and completely incomparable in its popularity in Poland to Staszczyk and his band, T.Love, has been touring China for the past 10 years and receives a VIP welcome in some places, being accompanied by police cars and treated in the best hotels.
Roan was established in the middle-sized city of Bydgoszcz. It was a partnership between Bydgoszcz and the Chinese port city of Ningbo that became a springboard for their overseas career. Their first adventure was being invited to an annual student carnival in Ningbo. On discovering how warmly they were being welcomed by the crowds in Ningbo, the veteran musicians were in tears, admitted one of its members. From there, Roan has eventually attained the status of a celebrity band in Ningbo, where nowadays their concerts can attract audiences of up to 13,000.
The band is now trying to make headway in cities like Shanghai. During their 2016 tour, it was suggested that Roan may also arrange a charity concert next year. The event will be a part of a Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy), the biggest charity event in Poland, which is also linked to rock music culture and which every year collects donations for Polish hospitals and for children with serious medical problems. The idea, therefore, is that in January 2017, for the first time one of the concerts of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity will be played in Shanghai with Roan as the main protagonist.
Most of the other mainstream Polish bands, however, are so far finding it hard to catch up with Roan. Another band, Pectus, peformed in Hangzhou in 2015. Yet another, Budka Suflera (“The Prompt Box”), once vastly popular but now fading, found one of its main hit songs, Takie Tango (“This Kind of Tango”), covered by a Chinese group (and seemingly with no Polish prompter). Apart from the case of Roan these are admittedly only scattered incidents and on the whole both Polish rock and pop bands have yet to conquer the Chinese musical scene. Another success story, however, is that of the disco polo group called Bayer Full.
To explain the phenomenon of a Polish musical genre called disco polo one could try to compare it with American country music. Disco polo, a genre with a simple musical line and with lyrics nearly always focused on the theme of love, is what you tend to hear in Poland at small-town concerts or during weddings in more rural areas. Disco polo stars usually can’t introduce their songs to the charts of the mainstream TV stations and are unfashionable among big city teenagers, but they are still able to attract a broad following of fans and considerable popularity. The best instance of this is a band called Bayer Full, whose biggest hit so far has been a song titled Majteczki w kropeczki. The translator’s responsibility forces me to admit that the title means “Dotted Panties” in English. The song itself is as musically and intellectually as simple as the title implies.
In the course of the last few years Bayer Full went through a careful rebranding campaign that resulted in its soaring popularity in China. The band presents itself as Bai Fui to the Chinese audience, translated its 15 hits to Chinese, and is apparently now able to sing them in this language. Yes, this includes the famous “Dotted Panties” which – would this be an act of political correctness? – have been rendered as “Red Panties” (watch it here, if you dare). Another cunning solution was to translate another of the band’s biggest hits, Wszyscy Polacy to jedna rodzina (“All Poles Are One Family”) as The Poles and the Chinese are one family.
The part of the Polish audience that hates to hear disco polo even in their own country may be perplexed to know that Bayer Full is popular in China (or perhaps they wish that the band will just choose to settle there). Yet, on second thoughts, the popularity is not especially surprising. Disco polo may be regarded as a genre that continues some of the traditions of Polish folk music. However simple, it has a taste of something very Polish and therefore is more original to the Chinese ear than rock or pop music. Moreover, contrary to the modern rock (not the classical rock and roll), one can easily dance to its tune. You may not hear it in a students’ club but it is hard not to hear at a wedding party. Bands like Roan and Bayer Full are possibly just catering to different kinds of Chinese audiences, just like they do in Poland.
Folk music and its hybrids with other brands will always find some audience. A Polish band called DAGADANA that “links the elements of Ukrainian and Polish culture with the use of jazz, electronic and world music” visited Beijing in 2013 and then came again for a tour of China, adding the Jeju island of South Korea for good measure. (Mazowsze – “Masovia” – a Polish professional and genuinely folk dance group is a different story: Always promoted by the government, they had first visited China already a few decades ago). My assumption is that the two reasons for Bayer Full’s popularity in China is this feeling of being a Polish “folk” band and – even if this sounds contradictory – their well-conceived rebranding for the Chinese market. Instead of remaining mentally centred on Europe or one’s own country and thinking that one can be a musical bomber in a Chinese sky, by dropping one’s genre on a ground with no contact with it (and hence no compromise with ground realities) groups like Bayer Full learned to adapt to new realities. Perhaps this is the way forward for many musical groups, not only those from Poland. Yesterday, we were refusing to learn Chinese, today we are studying it, and from tomorrow we will start to sing in it.
This feeling of something “exotic” works both ways. While watching the documentaries of Polish bands touring China or listening to their interviews in Polish media it is hard not to note that they are describing them as they were exploratory journeys to strange lands. They show off the kind of food they have tried; they speak of Chinese cities as if they have suddenly discovered that even the regional ones can be more developed and populous than the big cities of Poland. On TVN, a private and popular TV station the hosts, while talking to the leader of Bayer Full, spoke with a clearly mocking tone of the Chinese, “for whom swine ass is the main delicacy” and asked the star to “spread the Good Gospel” of democracy in the authoritarian country. If Poles still have a tendency to think of China as some strange, less modern country that is striving to catch up with global processes (while the fact is that this is much more true of Poland), and still seek the “exotic,” rather than the real, they should accept the fact that some of the Chinese audiences may look at Polish music in the same way.