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What this music revival means for Polish cultural identity


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Young musicians in Poland are reviving what they are calling the country's golden era, which was cut short by the Nazi invasion and Second World War.

1930s dances such as the fox-trot and tango are making a comeback, as people of all ages flock to listen to a number of ensembles playing songs that died, along with many of those who used to perform them.

Once known as the Paris of the East, the Polish capital, Warsaw, is pulsating again, as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Malcolm Brabant: In the courtyard of a trendy Warsaw bar, the small dance orchestra is starting to swing, as is its leader, Noam Zylberberg.

Noam Zylberberg: It's an interesting time. It's the beginning of pop music. It's influenced by early jazz. But, at the same time, all the musicians who were working at the time were classically trained musicians.

So, it's a very classical sound on the one hand. On the other hand, it's this sound looking for itself, looking for its identity.

Malcolm Brabant: Family identity is at the core of this revival.

Zylberberg moved to Warsaw four years ago after studying conducting in Israel. His grandparents were Polish, but left before the Germans invaded. After their deaths, Zylberberg became curious about their past, and this led to a fascination with the pre-war music scene in Warsaw.

Noam Zylberberg: We don't play so much concerts. We play for dancing, because we care about also preserving the original meaning of this music. This was music for dancing.

When we play, people enjoy, and this is the reaction that we get. And so we enjoy. It's just a lot of fun.

We're honoring the musicians, the composers, the arrangers, band leaders, all of those people who were involved in creating this very unique scene in Warsaw in the 1930s.

Malcolm Brabant: Many of the musicians who made Warsaw such a vibrant place in the 1930s were Jews. Some of them escaped the Holocaust. But others perished inside the Warsaw ghetto or in the death camps, and their music died with them.

The scars of war are plain to see in Warsaw. The Germans flattened the city before retreating from the Soviet Red Army. Arches containing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are all that remain of a fabulous palace.

The Polish capital was stunning before the war, but the Germans systematically destroyed it in revenge for the Warsaw uprising in 1944. This area, Warsaw Old Town, is anything but. It was meticulously reconstructed after the war.

There's nothing left of the old Jewish quarter, just a pastiche of a neighborhood street and the museum of the history of Polish Jews, and an original recording of a song called "Abdul Bey."

And this is jazz band Mlynarski-Masecki version of "Abdul Bey," a crazy Polish-Jewish-Palestinian fox-trot about a chieftain with four wives and a camel.

Marcin Masecki started learning the piano when he was 3 years old. He's a multitalented classical and avant-garde pianist.

Jan Emil Mlynarski trained as a drummer, but he also plays the banjo mandolin and sings.

Marcin Masecki: For us, there's a feeling, definite feeling of something that was developing, brutally cut, you know? The American jazz standards is like a classic -- classical music in the States.

For us, it was cut by the war and then covered by 50 years of communism. So, we never had a chance to build a relationship with that epoch. And it seems to me that we're doing this now.

Jan Emil Mlynarski: My family comes from Warsaw. I heard stories about the old days. The Warsaw scene was huge.

It's a beautiful, very complex music. I always wanted to be one of these guys from the, you know, black-and-white photograph. This is a very important part of my life. Of course, I'm a traditionalist. I love to wear a tuxedo and just be in that time.

Marcin Masecki: Just how important is history? History creates your identity.

So, for me, it's a way of discovering our national identity. I'm not trying to sound nationalist. It's not any better than any other, but it's just something that we have been denied for quite some time as a nation. So, it's kind of fascinating that we had this huge thing going on that is kind of forgotten.

We love this kind of music, and we love music from the '20s and '30s from every country, actually. But, for us, it has added value of developing our classical reference, you know, our golden era. So, it's kind of a building some kind of legend almost.

Anna Wypijewska: It's very enjoyable, very powerful, sensual. I really, really enjoy dancing with my friends. And I like the atmosphere and music and everything around.

Bogdan Popescu: It's beautiful. It's the best thing I could do on a Saturday evening, basically. They're all young, and they're basically playing music from the '40s, from the '30s.

So, that's a really nice approach to it, basically. I mean, no one would expect a young orchestra to play such music. So, it's ideal. I love it. It's really nice.

Malcolm Brabant: This band is well-versed in American swing, but they had to unlearn that style to give this music its unique Polish accent, which heavily features the tango.

Noam Zylberberg: The Polish tango is based on the Argentinean tango. It is a sexy dance. It is a passionate dance, but in a more Central Eastern European manner. This means it's more polite.

Malcolm Brabant: Despite trying to faithfully reproduce the sound of the '30s, Zylberberg says he's not turning back the clock.

Noam Zylberberg: It's similar in the sense that people come to enjoy this music and dance together with this music. On the other hand, we live in a different world. It's not going to be the same, and we don't want it to be the same. We just want to keep this music alive, you know? Just keep it alive.

Malcolm Brabant: For the moment, they're certainly succeeding.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Warsaw.

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