AIDS truth silences music festival

Published: 6 June 2002 0:00 CET

John Sparrow in Krajenka, Poland

The truth about AIDS brought a popular Polish music festival to a standstill. In the western village of Krajenka, the audience broke the darkness of an outdoor amphitheatre by lighting candles in memory of Poles who have died of AIDS, and in symbolic support of a Red Cross Red Crescent campaign against the stigma and discrimination related to it.

Concert-goers filed through the woodland of the festival site and laid the candles in the form of a ribbon. As they stood in silence, Polish Red Cross Youth president, Michal Mikolajczyk, told them: "Take the spirit of these flames home with you, and into your schools and workplaces."

His message came from the global campaign with the signature The truth about AIDS. PASS IT ON... A key reason for the spread of HIV/AIDS around the world is the stigma attached to it. People living with the virus are discriminated against and driven underground. People who might have it are unwilling to consider it. Stigma has to end, to ensure care and respect for victims and increase individuals' willingness to be tested. Until it does, perceptions, attitudes and behaviour will not change.

A more appropriate location than Krajenka to increase the momentum of a campaign launched on 8 May, World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, would be hard to imagine. Every year, the village is turned over, and tuned in, to an international festival which, until 2002, was known as the All-Polish Red Cross Song Competition. Having pulled bands, singers and song writers from all over the country for years, its reputation has spread beyond its borders. Guest artists have appeared before, from Eastern Europe and from Africa. This year Red Cross Youth brought music from Lithuania and Slovakia, and 2003 promises an event of European proportions.

The aim of Krajenka, which is months in the making, is to promote humanitarian values among children and teenagers, and to sensitize them to the lives of others. Krajenka also rocks. Some 17 bands and 45 singers this year presented 124 original songs about love, friendship, human dignity and social issues. Among them, cueing the Red Cross campaign, was Virus, a Polish hard-rock band which travelled 600 kilometres from close to the Ukrainian border to blast its way to the audience award with a song about social exclusion. The country's popular Greek-born singer, Eleni, interrupted her set to pass on the AIDS message.

For Krajenka's founder, retired local maths teacher and former Polish Red Cross executive board member, Maria Polanska, the festival has grown beyond her wildest dreams. The first, in 1987, featured five songs from Red Cross youngsters presented in a school dormitory. She did not intend another but the pupils insisted. Today the attendance almost exceeds the 3,700 population of the village and may soon need a larger site. Bands from as far away as Britain are lining up for 2003.

"Every year it gets bigger and better," she said. "The standards get higher, the lyrics and the arrangements more extraordinary. Such beautiful songs are presented, beautiful for the values they represent as well as for the music." This can be explained in part by the platform Krajenka presents, and to a lesser extent by the prize money. More important is the fact that the core element has remained the same – humanity. Michal Mikolajczyk said: "Tolerance, compassion and the humanitarian spirit still inspire young people."

Next year's festival will retain the HIV/AIDS campaign theme. "How many more candles will we need to light as we count, and remember, people who have died of AIDS?" Mikolajczyk challenged festival-goers. "How many more will we have to light to symbolize the growing number stigma threatens?"

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