How Poland’s radical DIY club scene became an international rave haven
From more inclusive dancefloors to world-confronting techno festivals, DJ Mag’s Anna Cafolla speaks to the collectives, crews, and scene stalwarts pushing Poland as a radical clubber’s paradise for both local and international ravers
From countries and regions marred by fraught political and social systems, rises a frenetic counter-cultural scene. A post-Troubles Belfast birthed raging punks and clanging industrial techno, the English countryside raved to acid in a glorious ‘90s revolt against the Tories, drag balls and voguing were a political statement in the era of Regan and the AIDS epidemic under the guise of a transcendent party, while Russia’s queer underground currently pulsates despite the anti-LGBTQ laws.
When Communism in Poland collapsed, an avant-garde electronic music scene phoenixed from the ashes of Soviet rule. Behind the Iron Curtain from as far back as the 1950s, the Studio Eksperymentalne Polskiego Radia was one of the few places for electronic music to thrive, but usually in the confines of scoring film, dance and theatre, before Stockholm and even Berlin became electronic stalwarts. As censorship waned and Poland’s political autonomy grew through the decades, local artists and composers began pushing their own standalone electronic tracks, innovative tapes, and a new outpost for non-classical music previously rebuked by government. In the 1970s, portable synths and personal computers empowered a new wave that created the synthy, dreamy ‘el-muzyka’ genre and the melodic Italo disco-adjacent disco polo, while post-punk bands like Bexa Lala defined the ‘80s with ambient-soaked sounds. By the ‘90s, with a new youthful generation free from the Communist regime, Poland was enraptured in Europe’s love of Detroit techno and Chicago house, its pioneering artists beginning to build on those giant sounds to cultivate an infant scene. Iconic club nights Blue Velvet and Filtry were born, while Jacek Sienkiewicz founded one of the country’s first techno labels, Recognition Recordings, in 1999. Across the ‘90s and early ‘00s, collectives like Boogie Mafia galvanised a burgeoning club scene in Warsaw, Wrocław’s Skalpel signed to Ninja Tune with their sample-driven, jazzy beats, and Novika pushed for more pop-confronting electronic music, representing Poland on a worldwide scale.
Fast forward to the present day, and a new vanguard is shaping a unified yet dappled Polish voice in the wider global industry, across techno, house, electro, gabber, and leftfield indie pop. Outside of the main towns and cities, dance music is broadening its scope, with Dym Records’ Dym Festival finding its home in western Poland’s Gorzów Wielkopolski, dominated by homegrown acts like avant-electronic artist FOQL and genre-dissolving DJ Morgiana. While you can find every tastemaker headlining local spaces, from Honey Dijon to Amelie Lens, there’s also a real drive for grassroots talent. And this week, monumentally, sees the second edition of Instytut Festival, a techno-led festival taking place in the 19th-century Modlin Garrison near Warsaw, run by local heroes Iwona Korzybska and Joanna Wielkopolan.
“The goal was always to provide the momentum for others to shine, without joining forces with a music industry that's offering a superficial access to inclusivity but at a certain cost” — Brutaż founder Rrrkrta
The hulking fort housing Instytut, the Modlin Garrison, is the longest building in Europe, an expansive fortress sitting between two Polish rivers, the Vistula and Narew, and surrounded by a sandy beach and ancient forests. What was once a place of conflict, where Napoleon did battle, is now a place of hedonistic siege for ravers, with Ellen Alien, Ancient Methods, Olivia, DJ Bone, and Richie Hawtin leading the charge.
“Our euphoric Polish party crowd always make the performing artists feel very special here,” says Iwona. “The attitude, the style of raving always surprises our foreign guests — smiling faces, cuddling with strangers, being positive and warm. Love is in the air!”
Iwona and Joanna have been what they describe as “authors of Warsaw as ‘the next big thing’” in raving since the early ‘00s. Starting their club night, and acting as bookers, promoters, and events managers as Groove Control with Gerhard Derksen in 1999, they relied on word-of-mouth and flyer drops to garner the crowds that eventually came in droves. Inspired by nights in Warsaw’s Stereo Club, the Swedish clubbing circuit, and one particularly banging Awakenings party in Amsterdam’s Westehaas Fabrik, the trio held their first Instytut club night in 2000, at Warsaw powerstation Instytut Energetyki with Claude Young as their headliner. “We were a milestone in the fundamental development of the techno scene in our country,” says Iwona. “These raves were happening twice a year... always as a celebration for the techno society in our country”. In 2016, the next step was creating the festival.
“Instytut wanted to create its own festival with an exciting line-up, unique location, huge visual artistic input, and great party crowd, which stays true to all Instytut’s parties,” adds Iwona. “Our event connects the generations of old-school ravers with the young ones.” The festival champions both local sound and visual artists, this year with the longest street art gallery on the wall of the festival fortress.
“Our public is like a techno republic!” says Iwona, describing Polish ravers as “friendly, open minded and oriented on hospitality”. “We are sensitive to music and open for the new individual freedom that it gives,” Joanna affirms. The techno scene, they both agree, is “booming”, from clubs like Tama Sfines, Prozak 2.0, and Szpitalna 1 that meld local and international acts, with Laurent Garnier and Jeff Mills and Polish livewires Olivia, Catz N Dogz, and An On Bast.
Like many burgeoning creative scenes, Poland’s musical landscape is in a state of flux, pondering how it can evolve to be better, more diverse, and inclusive of all voices and identities. Last March, Iwona and Joanna took over an old Warsaw cinema for International Women’s Day to champion Polish producers and DJs like Anja Kraft, Carla Roca, and Mia Twin, in what was very much a “political statement in the rave”, made even more poignant as Poland celebrated the 100th anniversary of womens’ right to vote. “We are putting motherly love into creating our own global techno family,” Iwona says, tongue-in-cheek.
More recently, the duo kickstarted the ‘Techno is a Lady’ project, a special party with emerging Polish women headliners. “The scene is growing fast, and more and more talented female DJs in Poland deserve attention,” Joanna concludes. Right now, she’s excited about young newcomer VTSS, who played Instytut Festival’s debut with her heady mix of industrial techno, EBM, and hardcore. With a spot on the Discwoman roster and thundering sets, Iwona and Joana tout her as one to watch. They’re also raving over An on Bast, who’s amorphous live act uses hardware in pioneering new ways to push more melodic techno and experimental ambient sounds — “the deep relationship between Anna and her machines is instantly apparent during her performances, as she glides effortlessly from modular synthesizer to drum machine via effects units,” says Joanna.
It’s clear that the most marginalised and sidelined groups in dance music are moulding the Polish scene in their image right now. Oramics is one of the country’s most urgent, scene-shaking collectives — founded in 2017, the crew seek to empower women, LGBTQ+, and non-binary people in electronic music from Central and Eastern Europe. Founders FOQL and ISNT, Monster, Mala Herba, dogheadsurigeri, Olivia, and Avtomat make up the group of promoters, DJs, producers, bookers, and activists. As well as multi-city club nights, they run a booking agency, co-curate festivals, and hold free sound and DJing workshops. A major mission of Oramics has been establishing safe space policies in Polish clubs, and monitoring their progress.
Monster cites her city of Poznań as an example of clubbing industry growth, with four underground music clubs presenting weekly international bookings. “One aspect of this growth has been the emergence of DJ and promoter crews that are focused on political aspects of the clubbing scene,” Monster explains. “There’s more organising and taking part in fundraising events for different issues — feminist, LGBTQ+, refugee aid. Finally, we are able to talk to clubs to address the issues of safer space, they’re open to organising events connected to political demonstrations.
“It didn’t use to be like this, everything was very hedonistic, and ‘all about music’, now the ‘more than music’ approach seems to be getting more popular.” Avtomat agrees, “It’s attracting a wide variety of people and teaching them about the importance of equality, cooperation and lack of judgement.” The collective believes promoters have a responsibility to provide an environment that “accomplishes a sense of freedom without sacrificing anyone’s safety.”
ISNT highlights that now, rather than gleaning from the music trends of Detroit or Berlin, Poland is cultivating its own culture. “We are creating a history of Polish techno and club music,” ISNT says. “We’re not only inspired by the Western scene anymore but we also create it. There are many new Polish artists, labels, and festivals. At the moment we’re more visible in the world, Polish artists very often play at clubs abroad, they are represented by international booking agencies, more international artists play here, and at the same time the local scene is thriving.”
Brutaż, a multi-city Polish party and record label now in its eighth year, is about creating safer, politically anarchic, accessible spaces for a new generation of ravers, and has gained a passionate local fanbase because of its radical ideals.
“The goal of Brutaż was to simply let the going out, DJing, and party organising become an extension of every-day struggles, worries, and friendships of a group of changelings,” says Rrrkrta, the party’s founder and label boss. “We're aware of the overarching need for inclusivity, but we were keen to let it grow naturally, to perceive it as a pillar rather than a ceiling. The goal was always to provide the momentum for others to shine, which is something that can be achieved without joining forces with Western-based booking agencies and a music industry that's offering a superficial access to inclusivity but at a certain cost.”
With that as Brutaż’s core mission, the parties and label bolster an expansive sonic outlook that disregards hype — experimental, juddering techno of Mchy i porosty on ‘Brutaż-03’, up to the wonky electronica on ‘Brutaż-08’ by Mazewski, the yearning lo-fi of Jules Venturini's ‘No Reference’, the bubbling, chaotic, and synth-banger ‘Xeroxer’ by Draveng that in its vocal conclusion simply states, “Well, that was dirty”. Working alongside Rrrkrta includes VTSS, Wiktor Milczarek, and Ania R, all making urgent, scene-emulsifying music themselves.
Both Instytut, Oramics, and Brutaż highlight the economic barriers that constrict the Polish scene. Right now, young people in precarious work, on temporary or zero-hour contracts, are in some of the highest numbers in Poland. “What has to be said is that Poland is a young democracy still yearning for income and recognition,” says Rrrkrta. Oramics’ Monster emphasises that, despite the Polish minimum wage being four times lower than Germany’s, international agents still demand the same fees. “The enormous economic gap between Poland and Western Europe hits us really hard when we’re deciding on the prices of tickets,” says Oramics’ dogheadsurigeri.
“It’s really discouraging,” adds Monster, “but then we invest a lot in local artists. We think they’re as good or maybe even more interesting than the international headliners.”
“The Polish audience is demanding. Techno has its peak time, but it doesn’t mean that people are not looking for new musical experiences” — Chino
Rrrkrta also highlights the lack of cultural diversity and the current strain of far-right, conservative politics — in the last year, the Law and Justice party have made gains and abortion rights have been threatened. “The vast majority of us are white, and are coming from a small-town Catholic environment,” he adds. “In the present socio political mindframe, it's a must for a party to offer a third choice. Inclusivity must not be bought, it should be fostered.”
That means helping others throwing parties across Poland — from the huge commercial juggernauts to youthful DIY nights — shape their spaces, with “consistent club policies” on women’s safety on the dancefloor and soundsystems, and “cleverer ways of obtaining funds” that doesn’t always mean bending to corporate sponsorship. Brutaż, Rrrkrta says, won’t yield to the namechecking of Western artists on their line-ups for the sake of it, or the intersection of the mafia and drug gangs that attempt to get in with Poland’s underground club culture, and ensuing gentrification. Rrrkrta also draws our attention to one Polish dance music phenomenon in recent years — the ironic, meme-based donk parties that have become overshadowing brands themselves, then co-opted by corporate brands, that kill off indie promoters and any room for cross-genre spontaneity.
Ultimately, Rrrkrta believes there’s still some way to go in building “a sense of trust” in Poland’s electronic music landscape, but champions the likes of Earth Trax, We Will Fail, and Mazewski as purveyors of fresh takes on Polish dance music, as well as DJs like Olivia, Charlie, and Chino. Big room techno and donk dominate a lot of the current club space, and Rrrkrta says more needs to be done collectively to elevate the artists he mentions and their more leftfield sounds. “We need to mobilise country-wide, and focus on creating new, specific spaces,” he asserts.
Łukasz Warna-Wiesławski, the co-curator of Unsound Festival, remains hopeful despite the “dreary” political and social landscape, with a government that allows violence towards other LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, feminists, and activists. “While xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia are on the rise, the number of collectives that try to oppose this is also growing in numbers,” Łukasz says. Łukasz shouts out the expressive, expansive work of the aforementioned Brutaż crew, as well as Mestiço and vogue ballers Bożna Milan, who hold voguing workshops in between club nights. There’s also Warsaw collective Flauta, who run nights to support NGOs that help immigrants across Europe. This all comes despite venues shutting (like the recent closure of iconic queer venue Le Madame), the lack of any local dance music media, and the weak Polish zloty that makes booking international artists difficult for smaller nights. “This community-based approach pushes the music forward here, no matter if it’s the hardware acid/electro scene, deconstructed global club, the recent reclaiming of hardstyle and wixa or a 100% leftfield vinyl collector's night,” he adds.
Another of those steadfast community pillars is the We Are Radar party, a crew in Krakow powered by Olivia, Chino, and Kinzo Chrome, each with their own love of techno, Italo, brutalist machine music, and raw, experimental sonics — ”never without a spark of human soul,” Olivia describes astutely.
Radar’s parties focus, they say, “on promoting the more adventurous than four-to-the-floor music”. “Our main goal is to show musicians to our audience that we really admire, not only in a musical way, but also as valuable personalities,” she adds. Years of curating parties and stellar crossovers with other local collectives like Brutaż and Shtum has given them the power to make riskier, more experimental booking choices.
Unlike other ‘techno destinations’ like Germany and the Netherlands, Chino believes that commercialisation has yet to decimate DIY promoters to the same extent, and with Poland’s Communist and post-regime musical history of jazz, punk, rock, and new wave, it’s a melting pot for textured, undoubtedly Polish sounds. “It’s still not oversaturated, and not as professionalised like behind our western border.”
Radar has uninhibited faith in Polish ravers: “The Polish audience is demanding and open for novelty,” Chino says. “Techno has its peak time, but it doesn’t mean that people are not looking for new musical experiences.” Each collective DJ Mag speaks to is passionate about creating a space for both local and international ravers to enjoy, and building an inclusive, diverse scene from its skeleton, sinewy muscles, and tough skin out to withstand gentrification, conservative politics, and over-commercialisation. The DIY spirit is fervent, and as Chino asserts: “the Polish scene is sizzling right now.”