Arts: I sat on a Euro pop jury

Independent rock critic Andy Gill received an invitation to judge a song contest, in Poland. Naturally, he was pleased to accept
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The Independent Culture
THE INVITATION was courteous, if ambiguous. "It would pleasure to meet you on 20 August," wrote Wojciech Trzcinski, Director of the Sopot Festival, "to take part in the works of Jury of International Song Contest".

Blimey, I thought, my reputation must be spreading further and wider than I thought - and for once, to someone who didn't want to punch me. As it transpired, my reputation had only spread as far as Chiswick. My invite had come about through a colleague who had attended the previous year's contest and had put my name forward for this year's. Still, it was quite an offer: the Sopot Festival, now in its 35th year, is the Baltic equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest, and one of the highlights of the Polish television calendar. It's held in the Opera Lesna, a huge alfresco amphitheatre up in the forest behind Sopot, a seaside resort adjacent to Gdansk.

"The Grand Prix," concluded Wojciech's fax enigmatically, "is an Amber Nightingale." Who could resist? Not me. Come 20 August, I was collecting my ID laminate from the festival desk in the hotel lobby, only slightly chastened by the way the name had been hurriedly altered from "Endy Gill".

In the minibus to the amphitheatre, I glance around at my fellow jurors, mostly healthy-looking captains of the European record industry from Austria, Sweden and Poland. A few are not wearing their laminates. I lean over to introduce myself to a chunky, long-haired chap in dark glasses in the seat behind me.

"Hi, I'm Andy," I offer.

"Hello," he smiles, shaking my hand but not proferring his own name.

"And you are...?" I query.

"I am Romuald!" he announces emphatically, as if this is identity enough. For his fellow Poles, it is. Romuald Lipko, I subsequently learn, is the most famous Polish rock star ever, leader of the group Budka Suflera (rough translation: "the all-seeing souffle" - though somebody could have been pulling my leg) and the most successful Polish composer since, oh, Frederic Chopin, with countless hits to his credit.

The other laminate-less jurors turn out to be Eric Levi, a French musician, and Maryla Rodowicz, a blonde Polish chanteuse d'un certain age. Judging by her extraordinary performance the next day, Maryla appears to be a cross between Cilla Black, Suzi Quatro and Diana Dors.

"In Poland," explains my translator, a former Polish beauty queen who once spent three months in Droitwich, "nobody dislikes Maryla!"

Eric, the French juror, used to be in a punk outfit called Shakin' Street, but has recently hit the big time with his pseudo-classical album project Era, sort of a cross between Enigma and the "Carmina Burana" which has sold some 3 million copies around the world.

Three hours later, I am beginning to regret that my reputation has spread as far as Chiswick. There are 12 contestants from around Europe, each of whom, I learn, heart sinking, is performing two songs.

Indeed, the contestants are as motley a crew as you might expect of European pop, ranging from teen popstrels such as Estonia's Maarja and Denmark's Zindy, through an unendurable violin-wielding Latvian prog-rock outfit, Bet Bet, and an Italian operatic-soul balladeer, Alex Baroni, to Holland's Nighthawks At The Diner.

It's interesting, however, how the hegemony of Anglo-American pop styles still holds firm even in the furthest reaches of the continent. Each country, it seems, has its own replica pop artistes: Maarja, for instance, is Estonia's Billie, or Tiffany; Rene Anderson is Norway's Michael Bolton, minus the mullet; and Rene's countrywoman Marianne Antonsen is Norway's Bonnie Tyler. The majority of competitors sing in English, and most of them with greater clarity and conviction than the British entrant, Mariah Carey-wannabe Hinda Hicks, who deals in the kind of ersatz "soul" singing that runs through an entire stave of possibilities for each syllable without ever seeming to alight upon the right note.

Ten seconds after Hinda finishes, I cannot for the life of me manage to hum even a single bar of her songs, so evasive are their melodies. No Amber Nightingale for Hinda, then.

When the jury retires, in time-honoured fashion, to consider its verdict over tea and Twiglets, it seems like a fairly simple task. My suggestion that each of the seven judges nominate their three favourite acts, in order to quickly whittle down the contenders, produces a remarkable unanimity of opinion. Two acts - Alex Baroni, and Germany's Cultured Pearls, a soul trio from Berlin - each glean six of the 21 available votes, and so we decide to choose the winner from these two.

Four of us choose Cultured Pearls, and everybody seems satisfied. Except, of course, for Eric of Era, who with typical Gallic obstinacy chooses this point in the proceedings to object to the voting method. Eventually though, and to no one's great concern, a form of Single Transferable Vote results in Cultured Pearls being deposed by Alex Baroni, with Rene Anderson picking up the third prize. Even Eric seems happy with this outcome, and Alex accepts his Amber Nightingale - and a not-to-be-sniffed-at 70,000 zlotys (pounds 12,000) - with suitably emotional enthusiasm.

The next evening, there is a gala concert at which such icons of Europop as Ace Of Base and Tanita Tikaram (still enormous in Europe) are interspersed with performances by - well, well, well - Maryla, Era and Romuald's all- seeing souffle band. Maryla employs a cast of thousands to accompany her song about a circus, and shoulders her own one-person-band costume with ease. Nobody dislikes her.

The Era performance is more of a presentation, featuring a troupe of dancers daringly dressed as sexy nuns and clerics cavorting in semi-erotic fashion to a playback of the album. Nobody seems to dislike them, either, particularly when the clerics do the classic Buck's Fizz skirt-removal manoeuvre on the nuns. Budka Suflera, Romuald's band, are up last. They make an extraordinary noise, several steps beyond prog-rock.

It's difficult, however, to envisage the music of either Maryla or Romuald making any greater impact upon British musical sensibilities than Mercury believes Eric's all-conquering Era might. There's plenty of skill and artistry in what they do, but there's an indefinable quality missing, as indeed there was from virtually all the participants in the previous night's contest. This feeling is crystallised by, of all people, Chris Rea, who headlines the show with a performance which is relaxed, powerful and unexpectedly captivating.

There's a grain and honesty to Rea's music that clearly comes from a close connection to the blues-rock motherlode of his own inspirations, Little Feat and Ry Cooder. It's not so much a case of copying a style, as of inhabiting the same emotional milieu, from which the style naturally flows.

Which is perhaps one way to explain how the lumpy progressive rock of some East European bands remains utterly indigestible to the English palate yet somehow true to the milieu which gives rise to it. But however long it takes for us to develop a taste for All-Seeing Souffle, it will, in all probability, be sooner than the UK release date of Eric's Era album.