“Have you got your heart? No one comes in without a heart,” says one of hundreds of volunteers outside the Clapham Grand, a concert venue where the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (GOCC) is playing that night.
Why is it Great? Well, for a start it plays in almost eighteen hundred places simultaneously, for free. What is also great is amount of money they collect – more than $25 million (£17.7m) last year, money which pays for much-needed equipment in hospitals across Poland, as well as medical training. It focuses on children and old people, the most vulnerable in society.
The political interest around it is also huge, and so I venture into the concert hall to inquire whether it is adequate to consider the charity in political terms: What motivates artists, some of them very successful commercially, to donate their time, lend their image to the organisation?
Does political will apply to volunteers, so many of them, of diversified background? Is it required to strip the political agenda off the charity to see its motivations clearly, or is the political stir only an attire thrown over the Orchestra, against their intentions?
A flurry of distinctively ginger hair greets me from behind the merchandise counter – where T-shirts celebrate the 26th anniversary of the Orchestra, alongside band albums and posters.
Maude’s name maybe of Irish origin, but she moved to London from Barcelona over three years ago; her Polish boyfriend volunteered for the Orchestra in the past and invited her to join this time around.
She says she was amazed to find out “how many people there are, all over the world, and in hundreds of places in Poland,” something she wasn’t aware of. Previously she’d only been involved with animal welfare charities, she says that now gathering money for hospitals makes her happy.
Her normal job is as a personal assistant, and since she gets her Sundays off, she was able to attend the concert. Does she feel alone, a sole foreigner among Polish volunteers? “There is a second girl, I think,” she says, “but I’ve heard British people, some Hungarian and French coming in, too.”
It’s early, but the venue’s already filling with hundreds of people. Anna Ciecierska, who orchestrated the GOCC in London this year soon arrives accompanied by three or four other members of staff, checking up on things as they pass through the corridor.
The attendance is good, in fact it’s better this year compared with the first event at the Grand; later in the evening, it is confirmed that the record was broken, as they managed to collect £65,000 on the night in this venue alone.
Asked whether it’s true that the Polish embassy has been officially instructed not to lend any support to GOCC this year. “We never cooperated with the embassy per se.” said Anna. “Mr Ambassador was visiting the event that we organise for children, giving a guest speech from the stage, but there has never been an official partnership in that regard. As every year, we have extended our invitation, we invite them every year. The only response we’ve received was from the Consulate. We’ve been very busy and overlooked the communications with them, so truth be told it’s partially our fault.”
The biggest omission is someone from TVP, the Polish national broadcaster, although this is unsurprising given that the TV station banned the coverage of the event.
“We have a strong presence of Polish media from the UK today, and the TVN (a major commercial broadcaster in Poland) took over with the live coverage from the public media,” says Anna. In the past, public television presenters were broadcasting live from several GOCC headquarters throughout the night, but that changed with the arrival of the new government in 2015. Last year, the Orchestra only received 14 seconds of air time in the Polish evening news programmes.
Right-wing politicians often criticise the charity and its outspoken leader, Jerzy Owsiak, accusing him of pro-abortionist views and a misuse of donated funds. For that reason, the Orchestra publishes a full financial statement to the public every year, accounting for every last penny acquired and spent.
Owsiak organises a massive open-air festival in the summer, the Polish Woodstock Festival, “as means of thanking volunteers for their demanding work in the winter.” Between 500,000 and one million people attend every year, but it is financed from sponsors’ direct subsidies, not the charity’s funds.
The charity “was never politically involved, and as a grassroots initiative it relies on volunteer work, and goodwill,” says Ciecierska, quoting almost word by word charity’s official statements.
While a majority of UK-based Polish voters in supported the conservative parties Kukiz ’15 and Law and Justice in the 2015 general elections, with the latter forming the government, the attendance at GOCC has grown despite the political criticism.
Kamil, who posed for pictures with a red heart sticker on his goatee, was responsible for managing volunteers this year. He moved to London four years ago, and a friend talked him into joining the GOCC this time around.
“I had a child that used this equipment. Every single piece of equipment on the ward had a red heart on it,” I ask whether it had ended well. “Unfortunately,” is all he says, and we pause and remain silent for a moment, a moment that seems much, much longer than it was.
“I was registering the people, verifying the data of volunteers, taking their phone numbers,” Kamil says. “Women from the staff were very helpful, but the amount of work was enormous, over a month in total. We ended up with 255 volunteers, that’s even five more than we initially declared. We even have one girl that came for her winter holiday from Poland, and decided to join.”
I ask whether he thinks the GOCC has a future in the face of government and media criticism: “The GOCC has to keep going, I can’t imagine it ever to cease. If it had stopped functioning, that would be a massacre. Polish hospitals would go back to the stone age.”
Later, on a crowded patch of a pavement, fenced from the street to serve as a smoking area, I spot someone familiar – Pablopavo, or Pawel Soltys, is a singer-songwriter and a member of one of the classic Polish reggae bands, Vavamuffin.
He’s wearing a hat and a hoodie, and apparently enjoys a minute of anonymity before their show, headlining the Orchestra in London. “Don’t worry, I won’t blow your cover. Would you mind?” I say, pulling out an audio recorder from my pocket. He smiles, shaking my hand momentarily. We discuss his experience with the GOCC: Vavamuffin has supported the Orchestra in Warsaw in the last two years, and many times before that.
“You know, I would go back to the words of the bible where it’s written ‘Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them’. I have a small child and I’ve spent much time in a hospital, and I’ve seen loads of equipment with the GOCC stickers. I think that’s the answer,” he tells me.
“This is a movement of people who want to do good, even if they have very diverse political views, the outlook on the world. This is the day they want to give money to make it more bearable for someone – whether it is a child or an older person. If someone has ideological issues with the Orchestra, they can donate to the Caritas instead.”
“If you had an offer of playing a well-paid gig, or the GOCC instead, what would you chose?”, I ask. The Orchestra‘s statute is clear that bands should only be reimbursed for travel costs and catering: “We’ve supported them since we started 15 years ago. This is the time when we do not enrich our wallets, we enrich our karma,” Pablopavo answers.
This is a common theme to all the conversations I have that night. A grassroots engagement, a goodwill, providing for others and not at their expense.
“I had first seen the Orchestra when I was a kid, a huge scene laid out on a Baltic beach. The Acid Drinkers (a Polish metal band) were playing, and I’ve dreamt of being in their position someday. Now, I’m on the big stage,” says Marty Jupiter, a drummer with the thrash metal band Unitra, who come from Kettering, Northamptonshire. “But politics? I wouldn’t even be considering it in terms of politics. This is the GOCC, this is about making good.”
The event also serves as a stage for a strange reunion. Mariusz “Nosek” Noskowiak, now a music producer, and Glenn Meyer, an American MC, and funk musician, were both members of the group Blenders, which enjoyed something of a cult status in Poland.
It was like a cheesy, funky, at times a (more) ‘pervy’ take on the Bloodhound Gang. They’ve split several times, and the last time Meyer shared several harsh words with the media about the direction in which Nosek was leading the band.
“With the Blenders, we’ve played a lot of Wielka Orkiestra (the GOCC’s name in Polish), we’ve played the Woodstock. As a partially public figure, I don’t want to say certain things, because I don’t want to piss people off,” they tell me.
“In general, I’m very idealistic. In my life, I usually didn’t separate my political, personal and artistic sides. Now things have gotten to the point where it’s too polarised, and I don’t want to be a part of the polarisation thing.”
I ask whether Glenn would even regard playing at the Orchestra as a political statement. “Well, if it gets that bad, then I will have to react cause I’m not gonna give up things like that.”
Nosek agrees: “I was playing in the Orchestra like 20 times. I don’t know how can you consider it in political categories. But then, it is a political category now, how else to look at it?” While he moved to London only a year ago, he made sure he invited some of his British friends to this latest event.
The clearest statement of the night was the choice of a host: Maciej Orłoś is a journalist, a former news presenter on TVP Channel 1, the Polish national broadcaster. His was an anchor between 1991 and 2016, and to me, he was always “a man from the telly”.
Orłoś endured every change of government the country has witnessed, many phone calls into the newsroom with politically motivated requests. Yet, the “Good Change”, as the right-wing Polish government tends to label their actions, was too much to put up with.
Following his departure, he was quoted as saying “I always made an effort not to reveal my views, even with my face, as a journalistic professionalism requires.”
In February 2016, when all Polish media published an official account of the GOCC’s fundraiser that year, not a single word in Orłoś’s script mentioned it, despite TVP’s long-time practice to cover it in detail. He recalls the situation was a wake-up call, and by the end of August that year, he quit.
The Orchestra keeps playing late into the night, one startling performance after the other. Even the lesser-known acts perform as if filled with fresh air, floating over the stage.
The political controversy around the organisation does not earn many mentions; sporadic ones are veiled with humour. The GOCC puts on a solid fight to separate itself from the toxic air, laughing and waving arms in joy.
From what I see, it well might be standing in the right place to claim such impartiality. Whatever a founder’s personal politics, the whole family does not deserve to be tarred with the same brush.
And after all that, the Orchestra is also hundreds and hundreds of decibels louder than even the most vocal criticism it receives.
All images by Bartosz Kielak