Renata Lewandowska - the Soul Voice of the 70s Polish music Photo: Wojciech Suchocki

Renata Lewandowska - the Soul Voice of the 70s Polish music

January 25, 20217 minutes read

Written by:

Kornelia Binicewicz

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The recent rediscovery of the Polish music scene by enthusiasts of vintage music (especially record collectors and adventurers in sound from the era of the 60s and 70s) got recognition through a global fascination in the forgotten music and international (and outernational) musical worlds.

Due to its location and geopolitical context, Poland was usually explored as a part of a Soviet social and cultural reality. Even though Poland was never a part of the Soviet Union, its music is understood and analyzed as the country experiencing the hardships and limitations imposed by the Iron Curtain and communism, because like other Eastern Bloc countries (East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania), Poland was regarded as a satellite state in the Soviet sphere of interest.

Behind the Soviet bloc

Photo: Wojciech Suchocki
Photo: Wojciech Suchocki
The music industry in the Soviet bloc countries never had a chance to work independently; up until the 1980s, there were no private record labels in Poland. With state-owned record labels, politically controlled radio and television, festivals and music competition, every music genre in Poland was subjected to centralized decisions of the Ministry of Art and Culture. An authoritarian communistic system could work only thanks to the powerful machinery of oppression, bureaucracy, and censorship, so nothing went unnoticed by the state. Still, music and culture somehow thrived within the officially marked boundaries of art. The People's Republic of Poland was even in a far better position than other countries from the Soviet bloc. Polish artists and the audience still had some opportunities to obtain cultural products created in the West.

The state-owned radio – Polskie Radio, with its local departments in all major cities of Poland (Łodź, Katowice, Poznań) – hired some of the best musicians, arrangers, composers and performers, creating a unique artistic environment. The circle of artists received a space to work under the supervision of the state. Similar to other countries, the national radio was a hub for the most creative musicians.

The Entertainment Orchestra of Polish Radio and Television (Orkiestra Rozrywkowa PR i TV), with a steady income and secure state subventions led by people such as Henryk Debich, Jerzy Milan or Zbigniew Górny, had a chance to push Polish music to another level. Their broad musical activity, which included recordings for the radio sessions, festivals, movie scores and other commercial recordings such as LPs and singles, allowed them to cooperate with the crème de la crème of the Polish music composers and arrangers - Jan Ptaszyn Wróbleski, Juliusz Lorenc, Waldemar Parzyński, Jerzy Suchocki and Wojciech Tarczyński; choirs and vocal groups – Alibabki and Novi Singers; and lyricists such as Marek Groński, Agnieszka Osiecka, and Jonasz Kofta to name a few. All of them had stunning skills of satisfying the censors and feeding the state-controlled music market, while crossing the borders and experimenting with music styles and genres.

The Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES), led by Józef Patkowski, was also established under the auspices of Poland's official state broadcaster. It was a unique space for avant-garde musical exploration and production in communist Poland and it provided access for many contemporary Polish composers to state-of-the-art equipment, in order to produce their unique electroacoustic pieces.

The context of the National Polish Radio with its recording entity – Wifon and other state-owned record labels such as Polskie Nagrania, Tonpress and PolJazz – created the sonic universe of Polish music from the era of socialism. Most of the music pressed on vinyl only in those few record companies remained accessible until today. The most significant soloists such as Czesław Niemen, Ewa Bem, Krystyna Prońko, Mira Kubasińska, and bands like Breakout, Czerwono-Czarni, Skaldowie or Bemibem, also got recognition in contemporary times through record and Youtube digging. Among those names, it could hardly be found the name of one of the most exciting voices of the Polish music scene, Renata Lewandowska. In the summer of 2020, Astigmatic Records and The Very Polish Cut-Outs labels announced the vinyl release of the very first LP of the artist.
Photo: Wojciech Suchocki
Photo: Wojciech Suchocki

Lost and found

Renata Lewandowska – an authentic soul voice of Polish music from the '70s – worked with some of the best musicians, producers, arrangers, orchestras, lyricists and choirs of her time, such as Juliusz Lorenc, Waldemar Parzyński, Marek Groński, Agnieszka Osiecka, Jonasz Kofta, Alibabki, Novi Singers, Quorum.

She started singing in 1964 and finished her music career in 1980. The end was sudden and irrevocable. Renata Lewandowska vanished without being recognized enough throughout her career. She left Poland at the beginning of the '80s, after facing difficulties with the album release, and left behind only one single pressed in a small number of copies in 1978 and known by very few Polish music experts.

In 2015, a 14-years-old boy, Krystian Zieliński, discovered some archive footage of Renata Lewandowska on YouTube. The video was a short extract from the archives of the Opole Festival from 1977. The song "Nie myśl kochanie jak mogło być" appeared on YouTube out of nowhere. He started to search for any information about the artist and his mission proved to be more like a detective story – not only he got in touch with all the reachable artists and possible collaborators of Renata Lewandowska from the 70s, but he also followed any possible hint from her biography to find her. Krystian thoroughly browsed a phone book and checked any women's identity with the same name and surname in the whole Poland. He wrote numerous announcements in local newspapers and reached the city council where she was born, the art school she studied. For nearly two years, he had no evidence that Renata Lewandowska was alive.

Łukasz Wojciechowski from the imprint Astigmatic Records remembers that "the breakthrough came in early 2017. One of the calls was read by Renata's daughter-in-law, who passed the message to her. It was a huge surprise for Renata Lewandowska, or Renata Roberts – a positive one, but treated with a considerable amount of caution, as it's been nearly 40 years since the artist gave up her musical career”.

Based in Washington, the artist agreed to support the young Polish boy's efforts to find the lost recordings from the ‘70s in the Polish Radio archive. Krystian managed to upload the music to SoundCloud and start Renata Lewandowska's website with all the confirmed biographic information and archive photos. Renata Lewandowska’ voice slowly began to be (re)discovered by new audiences, with the two songs uploaded to YouTube in 2015 changing the Polish music history. More and more archive footage appeared, followed with ecstatic comments full of admiration of Renata Lewandowska's voice, but also full of sorrow after she vanished from the music business. Some people still remembered her.

The Polish Radio owned most of Ranata Lewandowska’s unreleased songs. Still, there was no interest in making any use of them – they were hidden in the vast archives of the radio, however luckily available as digital files due to the Polish Ministry of Culture's digitization program in 2007.



In 2018, Polish music labels Astigmatic Records and The Very Polish Cut-Outs, simultaneously and independently approached the radio to release the music of Renata Lewandowska. They found common ground and, together with the artist, started working on the compilation of songs. Maciej Zambon and Norbert Borzym from The Very Polish Cut-Outs and Łukasz Wojciechowski from Astigmatic Records come from a record-digging environment. As record collectors, DJs and producers recognized the massive potential of Lewandowska's music. "After browsing through the archives of this institution and adding a piece from Tonpress catalogue, nine songs from the period 1974-1978 were selected, and this is how the album Dotyk came into being”, says Łukasz Wojciechowski. The Polish Radio also finally recognized the value of the recordings. It was obvious now that they have had a real gem in their hands for so long.

Freedom

Renata Lewandowska’s unique, multi-octave vocal was attracting the attention of the best musicians and producers of the era, such as the arranger and producer Juliusz Lorenc. She worked with Waldemar Parzyński – the Novi Singers leader – and performed with the female choir Alibabki. Her music was hugely influenced by American and British blues and soul, with Aretha Franklin and Julie Driscoll as music idols. Her style was not compatible with the fashionable those days' big beat; she never dreamt of becoming a commercial singer. She often rejected the idea of singing more pleasant and straightforward songs. Her singing was always based on freedom in terms of composition as well as vocalization.

Lewandowska was educated in visual arts; music was one way of her artistic expression, next to design and art activities. While working on the songs written for her by Juliusz Lorenc, she recalls the playful and experimental process of adopting pieces to her vocal abilities. She was not interested in the conventional singing of a song. Instead, she wanted to stretch and push the tune forward. The paths of her musical career are mysterious. From a professional perspective, Renata Lewandowska had everything she needed to become the most recognized Polish female artist, such as Krystyna Prońko or Ewa Bem. She had a fantastic voice, worked with professionals and even appeared at some significant music festivals. But things didn't move forward for so long.

Between 1974 and 1977, Renata Lewandowska recorded around 20 songs. In most of her recordings, her style is stable and coherent. Nearly all songs sound like they were created during one recording session, like a ready-to-release album. "Dotyk" was supposed to tell the story of a young summer love with the best, most soulful songs of Mrs. Renata. The curators needed to respect Renata Lewandowska's decision to quit her musical career more than 40 years ago. She started a new life in the USA and worked as an interior designer, with a family and children who didn't know of their mother's musical experiences back in Poland. Her “comeback” was possible only by giving full attention to her unique style from the past and letting her vanish again. When asked about the past, Renata doesn’t feel any remorse or sorrow after the unfulfilled dreams of her youth. She focuses on what she managed to achieve and how lucky she was back then to work with some of the giants of Polish music. "Renata Lewandowska is not here anymore," the singer says.

"Dotyk" (“Touch” in Polish), the first album of the female soul singer from the '70s, was released in October 2020 by Astigmatic Records, The Very Polish Cut-Outs and The Polish Radio. The vinyl was sold out in presale mode, so a repress is expected in the near future, aiming to shine a new light on the forgotten Polish music archives. Meanwhile, you can find the album on Spotify.
About the Author

Kornelia Binicewicz

Polish DJ, record collector, music writer, curator, compiler and anthropologist, residing between Kraków and Istanbul. She is the founder of Ladies on Records – Female music from 60s and 70s project, exploring women music from Middle East and beyond. She is living in Istanbul since September 2015.

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