Photo: Kate Phellini

All about Atmosphere, with Konrad Urban

I had coffee with Konrad Urban in Warsaw recently. His story goes like this: Konrad fell in love with Blues because of the freedom it offers. When he was a student at Durham University, he co-founded the local student Blues scene there. He put his key insights to work when developing the Open Blues concept with Isabella Larsen. Outside of the Blues bubble, he is an analytic philosopher.

Greg Austin I’m here with Konrad Urban, co-founder of Open Blues, and we’re here to talk about atmosphere. How to create it, how to nurture it, how to let it be… all things related to atmosphere at dance events. So, Konrad, how’s it going?

Konrad Urban I’m good, how are you?

Greg I’m doing excellent. As we begin, if you could tell us a little bit about Open Blues, and how it came to be.

Konrad Open Blues is an event that Isabella Larsen and myself organize. The idea was quite simple. We wanted to take what the community has anyway, namely, a willingness to make things together, and put it all in one place. To give it a platform for exchanging horizontally or peer-to-peer, rather than vertically from instructors. The most important idea was that Blues is not something that is owned by any one person or any group of teachers, but should be something that is organically formed by the community.

Greg Talking about that community, who are the important people that make Open Blues happen and what roles do they fill?

Konrad At Open Blues, every guest is a contributor. Everyone volunteers and it wouldn’t be possible without that input. Some of the most hard working and incredible people are of course the cooks, this past year it was the Agatas from Łódż, who co-organize Willow Blues, another great, atmospheric festival. We have Isabella, the co-organizer. She is the mastermind behind many things, like the workshop exchanges. We’ve got, of course, all of the DJs and bands. I must mention the owners of the venue, and what they let us and don’t let us do. Open Blues is quite special because we are given free reign, and are completely trusted by the owners. It’s their decision to do that and without them Open Blues wouldn’t be what it is.

Greg How much of the atmosphere is the physical place and how much of it is the people that are there?

Konrad Well, I don’t think one can analyze it in those terms, because people will be different people in different places. The special thing about the Palace for Open Blues is that it has raw, unfinished atmosphere. This gives people the freedom to improvise and make mistakes, so that they are not scared of imperfections. I can only imagine a more finished and refined Palace with a gala like atmosphere, where people would be very aware of what they look like, what they do, how they act… much more restricted, by themselves, by their own choice. What expectations people have is crucial. If they expect to be served by, essentially, servants , they will behave completely differently than they do at Open Blues, where we don’t have this kind of division, between servants and people being served.

Greg Gotcha. Can you explain a little bit more about the Palace? For people who might not be familiar with it.

Another Missing Studio Owner

One of our agents has a friend. Let’s just call him Frank. Frank knows his stuff. You should listen to what Frank has to say. You might learn something about Project Pegasus.

Detective Frank Bottom let out a sigh before switching off the studio’s sound system. The player had been stuck on shuffle. Who knew how long the music had been playing. These were dark times if even dance studio owners were disappearing now.

Frank looked around the place. It was as if an entire late night dance party had simply vanished. Drinks lay half-consumed on tables. Dance bags cluttered around the front door. The tip jar was even still full, bills poking out in plain sight.

But no sign of violence. Nothing broken, no blood, no bodies. This was the third time in a little over a month that Frank had been called in on case like this. The thing that was gnawing at him was that he could normally get a feeling if foul play was involved or not. His gut was telling him nothing now, and that bothered him.

He shuffled over towards the back of the studio. It was well kept. He could tell that the owner lived in the place. Built into the studio was a little room with a bed and a desk. Frank felt the bed. It was cold. He went over to the desk and started looking through the drawers. The owner’s wordly possessions were there. A phone, a wallet with some cash and worn business cards in it, and old laptop. Nothing out of place.

What was it about these dance studio owners? Why them? Frank had met a few in his line of work. They always seemed more or less normal. Maybe a tad odd, but nothing more than what you got with your standard artist. Hell, he had even let his daughter date one for a while. Now it was if Gabriel had blown his bloody horn and called them all away.

It was then that Frank noticed a door behind the bed. It looked as if it had been forced open in a hurry. His gut started tingling.

He peered inside. What did studio owners keep hidden in their closets? His eyes slid down towards the floor and fell onto an empty spot there. He let out a small chuckle. So this was the one thing that the studio owners were taking with them. Frank wasn’t a fan of poetry, but even so, he found it a tad charming.

Frank pulled out his phone. He had to call his boss. Favors were going to be needed. The only question that remained was why in God’s good name had all the studio owners decided that now was the time?

Photo: Carl Van Vechten

W. C. Handy – Making Fusion in 1914?

One of the underlying themes of this project is to explore the concept of “fusion” music and dance, as it happens today.

In the dance community, there is this thing we call “fusion.” Nobody has a strong definition for it, but it is a concept that all musicians, organizers, and dancers have to grapple with, in one form or another. I have no pretenses that this little project of mine will solidify such a nebulous concept into a definite form, but I do think it is helpful that we spend some time looking into it. I would argue that one way art forms evolve is through fusion. Let’s look at what happened over a hundred years ago in the United States.

W.C. Handy was an American composer and musician. He began his musical career in the first decade of the 20th century, and penned his first commercial hits in the late 1910s. Today he is known as the Father of the Blues. His is credited with taking the sounds of the Southern African American and putting them to paper using the European musical note system. Incidentally, he was also a huge commercial success. I would say he was an all-American success story, Soul + Structure = Father of the Blues. Taking a few moments to read up on Handy on Wikipedia and listen to his recordings is well worth the time.

Today, in the social dance world, I get the feeling that our fusion equation looks something like this: “Something + Something Else = Fusion.” We intuitively know the end result, but have a hard time figuring out the two things we fused together!

This being said, I don’t think this is necessarily a problem that has to be solved. Maybe it is better that each fusion occasion is a unique offspring of some two, unnamed forces? Maybe if we name the two forces, it will kill off the magic? Why does fusion always come on late at night at dance parties? Does the mood just have to be right?

Of course, these musings come from a Blues, Jazz, and Swing background. I would be very curious to hear the opinions from the Latin side of the dance world. What happens at Latin fusion parties? What about Argentine Tango? Tango has an unbroken lineage of over a hundred years, is it still making new fusion?

All readers feel welcome to pen some thoughts if you want. Send them on to

The Riddle of the Sphinx

One of our agents found a shred of parchment in an antiques dealer in Cairo. Faintly legible, the following may shed some light on Project Pegasus.

One day, Ozymandias was traveling in the desert. He came across a statue, long since worn almost to dust. At its base read the words, “God Save the Queen.”

Ozymandias thought this was an odd thing and carried on his way.

Soon after, he came to a large crevasse. Guarding the path across was the very Sphinx, itself.

“Halt!” cried the Sphinx, its terrible claws drawing sparks from the desert stone, “I will not let you pass unless you answer my riddle.”

Being the wisest king of all the lands, whose feats would be known forever across the sands of time, Ozymandias replied that he was not afraid and that he would answer the riddle.

“Fail to answer correctly, and I will throw you to your death,” warned the Sphinx.

Knowing that his mind had never failed him before, Ozymandias bid the Sphinx to continue.

“What is zero in the morning, full of numbers in the afternoon, and infinity in the night?” asked the Sphinx.

With a smile, Ozymandias told the Sphinx the correct answer. He passed by the Sphinx and over the crevasse, to continue his journey on into the history books.

What did he say?

Photo: Enric Duch

Conversation with Łukasz & Zofia from Poznań

I caught up with two members of the band Crossing Wires. Over coffee and a meal we discussed what it is like to begin a musical career within the dancing community.

Greg Austin I’m here in Poznań with the lovely Łukasz and Zofia, it is at the end of September, just starting to be October. Cold weather has rolled in, the summer music season has passed us by. Hi, how are you doing?

Zofia Good.

Great, actually. We’re feeling really, really optimistic for the fall.

G Fantastic, and y’all just finished up with Berlin Bear Blues and before that you had Hummingbird Blues in Krakow, and before that lots of other local gigs here in Poznań –

Ł In Łódż actually, Willow Blues in Łódż.

G Ahhh, cool. Before we get to that, talking about gigs that is, if you could give a little introduction about how you became musicians, where you are from, that sort of thing.

Z Ok, so we met six years ago at a music camp for teenagers, something like this, and we started to play with each other at this camp, After a year, we became a couple and we started working our own material. In 2016 or 2017 we joined the Blues community in Poznań, where we met Michał Dziedziniewicz, the violin from our band, and the story is that our Blues community organized a Blues party and they needed some musicians, so we decided to perform together with Michał. That’s how we started.

G So you started as musicians though, not as dancers?

Z Yes.

Ł No, I remember it differently. For me it was dancing first. I mean as musicians, we had played music before we started dancing, but as for playing Blues music, dancing is definitely first.

G Ok.

Ł But we were playing music together since we were like thirteen or fourteen years old.

G And that was classical training?

Ł I’ve had lessons with a classical musician and classical guitarist since I was eight years old. Since then I’ve started to get interested in Jazz, Blues music, and before that maybe Rock music, something like that.

Z I was just singing on my own, ever since I can remember.

Ł Right now we are working on material with Crossing Wires, our band, and we will probably do something like take songs already written, like old songs, and just arrange them.

G And I did want to ask about how you find songs, but before we get to that, tell us a little bit more about what finding the Blues dance community did to your career as musicians. How did it impact it?

Ł It did impact it a lot, actually. Thinking about right now, it was very important, because without it we were not getting many gigs. We were performing sometimes, but not really. When we started dancing, the first opportunity came Hanna, from Poznań. She was organizing a Blues party with a jam session and we went there and performed a few pieces together with Michał, actually. We didn’t know each other at first.

G Hannah is the organizer here in Poznań?

Ł Yeah.

Z The first time we played at the jam session for Blues dancers, we found the experience of playing for people, and connecting with them. Playing for dancers is quite unusual, because when you play for people, they just listen to it. But when we play for dancers, we need to make them want to dance.

G So it is an extra level of challenge?

Ł When you play normally, you play for people and they sit there and listen. When you play for dancers, the experience is amazing, because you are not only playing for people who are listening to you, but you’re playing for people who listen and care about what you do, because they are connected to it, and they feel what you are doing. It’s a completely different level, emotionally.

G Is there an experience as a musician where you looked out across the audience and you had that specialness of connecting with the dancers?

Z Ok, so I know.

It was in Łódż at Willow Blues last year, not this year, but the previous one. We played at the end of the party. It was quite unexpected. Łukasz had his guitar and the organizer Agata just proposed, “Oh, do you want to play at the end of the party?” And we were like, “Ok, we have a few songs.” We came onto the stage and people started dancing, and… applauding!

Ł Yes, I felt it too. It was really hard work, because it was completely spontaneous and we just stood there and played together. After the dance, people were actually saying that… I don’t want to say that we saved the party… but they said that it was really an amazing experience to dance to what we were playing. That means that we had that connection, inside ourselves. That connection to the music and the dancing.

G You used the word spontaneous, how do you think spontaneity helps build that connection?


G As opposed to just playing before an audience that sits there and listens?

Ł It’s actually much bigger than just being expected to play a gig. Being spontaneous is also not having everything practiced perfectly. Like, not having a strict form that you have to keep. Improvising a lot, all the time. It’s, I think, it’s super important when you are playing for dancers, because through the feedback you get from the audience, you can feel how you are playing. How good the experience is for them. The dance experience. And based on what you feel from the audience, you can modulate the way you play, and what you play… and actually everything.

And that spontaneity is something I aim for in most of my work, as performing musician.

Z Yes, we have a form, but we also have a lot of space for each member of the band, and we observe the people dancing and we try to catch the energy and just… go through it.

G Alright, on the flip side, has there been an experience where you have been playing and you can tell that the dancers are not enjoying it?

Ł It happens all the time. You have a piece of music that maybe you perform on rehearsals and it is great, but you just feel that dancers don’t get it. Don’t get the energy and it’s not working. And it happens every time, actually. There is always something that is not perfect. It’s not only when something bad happens, it happens every time.

G You are both very young, and a lot of the music that you play is from many years, many decades ago. How do you go about learning about the song that you’re playing, finding the song, picking the music that you feel speaks to you?

Z I think it’s not really a complicated story, we just try to find pieces that we listen to on a regular basis, and on the rehearsal, we go through the ideas and decide which one can be good for dancers. And then we dance to them.

G You dance at your rehearsals?

Z Yes, that’s a really special thing about our band, because all of the members dance Blues, and that is why we can try new songs and just dance to it.

Ł Yeah, there are two things a song has to have. There are two requirements. First one is for us playing it, it has to be a joy. We have to be joyful playing it. And the second one, we have to be able to dance to this music. And to feel good when dancing to this music.

G So it goes through a dancing filter?

Ł & Z Yeah!

Z Usually it happens that a song is too fast for dancing Blues, and it is like, Boogie Woogie, and people will not dance to that when they come to a Blues party. They expect something to dance to.

G One question that gets asked a lot in the Blues dancing community is, “What is fusion?” I’m trying to ask everyone that I interview that question. What is your personal definition of fusion?

Ł It’s not that easy to answer this question. With fusion, I mean from the definition you know, it is something mixed with something.

So basically what fusion can be, you can mix two genres together. For example, Fusion-Jazz just came out. It was a fusion of Rock and Jazz, and it helped musicians to be more popular. Because more people wanted to listen to it. And dance… fusion can be… anything, everything can be fusion. Everything can be fusion because –

Z You start from the point of –

Ł We are learning something, but we can apply it to different dances and different music, and it is all fusion. And playing music, like for Blues dancers, generally it is considered fusion. It means that they are not playing typical, straight Blues. They are playing pieces that you can dance Blues to, but they are not typical Blues pieces of music.

That’s what people think fusion is, but for me, fusion is actually almost everything you play, if you add something from yourself. To the piece of music you’re performing. That’s already fusion. And when I’m playing strict Blues, I’m never playing strict Blues.

G Do you think strict Blues even exists?

Ł I think that maybe it does, there are many musicians who are playing on great Blues parties. They are typical Blues musicians who are playing a Blues form throughout almost all the pieces, and it’s a thing. It’s great, they are doing their job, people want to listen, dance, it’s great. I’m not doing this because –

Z When they are playing, traditional Blues, they don’t have much space to show their own view of the music, show their own ideas. They are too much concerned about what Blues was in the past. But I think fusion is something that comes from the original Blues, but it is a variation, connected with the evolution of the music.

G Do you have an idea of where you would like your band to help the music evolve to? Perhaps as a lead in to this question, Zofia, at Hummingbird Blues, some of the dancing audience was very surprised at your “trumpet” voice. Can you explain how you came up with that?

Z This is a skill from a vocal camp. I participated last year in a beat-box workshop and the teacher showed us how to do a voice trumpet. I was really interested in that. I really, really wanted to be able to do that this way. I was exploring myself, and trying to find the perfect way to do it, because there are many ways to do this, do this sound. Also, my piano teacher does a trumpet voice, a trumpet sound.

So I mixed these two schools of trumpet voice. And I explored it, and after a year of practicing, I was able to perform it. And I think now it is really easy to do, it’s really natural for me.

G What was the experience the first time you used it at a gig? When you were playing for dancers?

Z It was surprising for them, because they didn’t know from where this sound came from. The first time when I was performing it, it was at Hummingbird Blues, and it was kind of an experiment.

G And Hummingbird Blues was the gig where you didn’t know that you would be playing until the day before. So it was spontaneous, not only to play, but to try this trumpet voice for the first time?

Z Yes, but I felt this really nice atmosphere, good vibes, at this party. I felt that I was able to do it and I felt really comfortable. And it worked. Really well.

Ł Hummingbird Blues was a great, great party.

Z And we also had a great sound engineer.

Ł Yeah, the sound engineer was great. He recorded us actually and sent us recordings.

G Will they be released?

Ł They might be, they are on Youtube, private, we don’t know what to do with them. But they’re uploaded, so just in case we have them.

But the amount of positive feedback on that party was so great that I felt like I don’t have to do anything more than what I just usually do, and what is natural for me, for this music to resonate with people. It was an amazing experience.

G What was it like having a lot of friends and friendly faces in the audience? Did that help or did it bother you?

Z It makes you feel more comfortable.

Ł Yeah, it makes you feel more comfortable.

Z You don’t have to be stressed out, that something will not go right, because people will give you –

Ł You don’t have to prove that many things.

Z Yes.

Ł Because when the audience is completely new, you have to at least prove that you are good musicians and play good music. And you can do that by just playing good music. But when they are already your friends, you don’t have to prove anything. You just have to chill out and play. It’s great.

But it is also very interesting to play for completely new people, because the feedback they give. I mean you have to kind of… develop… a relationship with them. So it is starting small, and it is growing with every piece of music you perform.

G Talking about developing relationships, if you had the chance to tell a dancer who has never tried to be a musician before, what bit of advice would you give them? A question for all those strictly dancers out there.

Ł Advice if they want to be a musician?

G For example, I’ll flip it around. As a dancer, sometimes I want to yell at the musicians, “Don’t play 8 minute songs!”


Is there anything you would like to tell dancers?

Ł I think there is. I would say my advice to people who are not musicians and are trying to dance… maybe this is a completely different concept from what you want… but for me it is, “Listen to the music.” I mean, really listen to what is going on on the stage. Because when people are really into it, and listening to the things we play, they are able to give the feedback. Feedback is not only just people coming up to you after the concert and saying, “It was great.” The most important feedback you can get is from people feeling the music. And to do that, they have to really listen to the music. So, that’s my advice.

Zofia But that’s for all musicians… To listen to? That’s quite obvious.

Łukasz It’s obvious, yeah! But sometimes obvious things are… if you go to a place where there a lot of musicians and you ask them the question, “In three words, what do you advise musicians to do?” They will say, “Practice, practice, practice.” It is super obvious, but sometimes the obvious things are the good ones.

G So now, let’s talk about what’s coming next. The exciting, fun things coming up in your musical career.

Z We have one event in Poznań coming up, which will be in December. It is going to be a Christmas party, like a fusion, slow Lindy, Blues party. We really would like to combine… It’s going to be music for which people who dance Lindy Hop and Blues can dance together.

Ł That’s the idea. And it’s also Christmas, everyone loves Christmas!

G Ok, and finally, for the historical record, is there anything you’d like to tell your future selves? If you find this interview on a dusty shelf in twenty, twenty five years, is there anything you’d like to say to your future self?

Z That’s a hard question. I don’t know what to say.

Ł Keep it joyful and keep the spontaneity, I think that is what I would say. Cause that is the way I’m playing right now and that is the philosophy of my playing.

Z I would agree, yeah, keep it joyful.

G Awesome, well thank you so much and your food just arrived, so “Smacznego!”

Z & Ł Thank you.

Keep up with what Łukasz, Zofia and the rest of Crossing Wires is up to through their band page, Crossing Wires.