Festival All-Star: The Polish Ambassador

Article by: Graham Berry|@Festival_Writer

Fri May 15, 2015 | 00:00 AM

Every so often, there comes an artist who reaches into our very core and shakes the essence of our humanity. For me, that artist was the almighty jump-suited one, David Sugalski, better known as the Polish Ambassador. He's used his diplomacy to become a household name among electronic musicians and artists alike for his funk-infused, feel-good jams and powerful message of environmental reform through community action. And for the record, he's in no way linked to the Polish government.

Just like a real official diplomat, however, the Polish Ambassador exudes an unmistakable magnetism; his is often attributed to the bright yellow jumpsuit he wears while performing, his uplifting lessons shared through song, and his deep compassion for alternative progress. He doesn't just preach from the turntables, however. He leads by example through his Permaculture Action Tour, an effective platform for community education and enrichment going strong in more than 30 major cities in the country.

To learn more about what fuels this musical and innovative man, we talked with Sugalski about the origins of the sacred jumpsuit, the impact of the Permaculture Action Tour and the future of music festivals.

The Origin of the Jumpsuit

Polish Ambassador Jumpsuit Erica Nelson

The infamous jumpsuit. Photo by Erica Nelson

As a symbol, the jumpsuit has come to represent a fun-filled force to be reckoned with. Ultimately, it's just a retro women’s one-piece ski suit from a thrift store in Chicago, yet there is something mysterious and alluring about it. Part of me wondered if it held the source of his powers, so I cut right to the chase.

He harkened back to the traits that defined his early persona. “If you listen to my first album, Diplomatic Immunity, it’s part video game, part '80s music. It was kind of this dorky, slightly techy '80s vibe.” Sugalski used that vibe to create a visual expression of this new identity.

"I was in the thrift store in Chicago in 2004 and I saw this ghastly women’s yellow one piece ski suit,” he remembered. "I talked them down from $15 to $2.50 for the jumpsuit because I was like, 'Look at this, who is going to buy this? It’s ridiculous.'"

It managed to take on a life of its own, even before his first album release. "Back then,” he said, “I wasn’t considering music as a career for myself at all; it was more of a big joke to me. It was a question of, 'How can I make the dorkiest music that is kind of catchy that my friends will listen to?'"

He thought for a second and digressed. “I guess the reason I still wear it is because when you see somebody dancing in front of thousands of people in a ridiculous way wearing this bright yellow jumpsuit, it cuts through the idea of the cool kid. Immediately everybody is like 'look at how much fun he’s having!' and they let their guard down. People see it and they get goofy, they get loose and that’s a good thing for everybody.”

A Permaculture Action Figure

Having spread his all-around good vibes via 9 albums and countless festival and club appearances, Sugalski decided to add another fest-related feather to his cap. In 2014, Sugalski embarked on a tour unlike any other before in history: The Permaculture Action Tour, which is meant to harness the energy of groups of people coming to club events or festivals and use it to take action. Every single date of the tour (across 33 major cities) spawns different Action Days, when people can get their hands dirty.

“Action Days ranged from taking over abandoned lots and creating food forests in them to planting fruit trees at elementary schools, to having grey-water demonstrations, the list goes on and on," says Sugalski. "Basically anything in the realm of giving back to the earth, giving back to communities we had an event in.

Through this spirit of giving back, Sugalski intends to make a lasting impact in the same communities through which his music flows. In the past, a large show or festival usually meant large-scale cleanup efforts and possibly destroyed property – but here was a guy in a yellow jumpsuit channeling that same fest energy, instead, into constructive efforts. It's forward-thinking and transformative for everyone involved.

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The Action Day in Costa Rica at Envision Festival. Photo by Art Gimbel

“I’m excited about this idea of using the arts to be a catalyst for change,” he said. “That’s what that tour was all about, it was a big experiment. None of us knew what we were getting into. There was nothing we could look to in the past to see how it was done. It was this giant experiment in how to get peoples' attention and let them know it’s cool to give back to your own community and make long-lasting change through events.”

Sugalski regularly invites fans, leaders and members of the surrounding community to the Action Days of the tour through social media and online newsletters. With a consistently strong turnout, Sugalski explains one key may be that “we are actually working hand in hand with the festival to create an Action Day that is of value to the [local] community.” Ultimately, he hopes that the Action Days are “an amazing learning experience for the people that are coming out to that festival, or are part of that town and just want to participate.”

The Artist's Opportunity

Envision Festival 2014 Daniel Zetterstrom   13

Photo by Daniel Zetterstrom

Part of this hopeful, pedagogical spirit comes not from an artist's responsibility toward the environment, but from “a huge opportunity to do something that feels meaningful to them.” When I asked him to explain that opportunity he said, “When you’re a music artist, or any artist with a public profile, people listen to you. I can talk about taking a shit in a compost toilet and suddenly there’s a thousand people talking about it and a bunch of people asking what a compost toilet is."

With all this influence, I wondered if the weight of it all didn’t feel like a bit of responsibility or obligation. But Sugalski had a different way of looking at it.

“I don’t like the word 'responsibility' because that creates expectations, and I don’t think expectations have ever done anybody any good.” In other words, give someone an expectation and they’ll do a minimum, offer someone an opportunity and they’ll redefine their own potential. Holding Action Days as opportunities is paramount so that when those efforts are channeled through the community via festivals, a bigger impact is possible.

“Festivals have perhaps even more of an opportunity than artists because they are the curators of these ten-thousand person gatherings. The artists can help get people there but the festival organizers are the ones ushering people through various different experiences so I think there is a lot of power and a lot of opportunity in festival organization.” When a festival tells a story, teaches a lesson or helps to enrich the lives of others, not only is it more powerful than the message of any single artist alone, but it also brings people together through the experiences they share.

Within the festival community, Sugalski talked about a transformation that is occurring: “I think that a big flowering is happening right now… artists, as well as fans, and humans in general, are starting to realize that the things they choose to put their energy into, the things they choose to put money into, are the things that they want to see more of in the world."

The Role of the Festival in Future Communities

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Sugalski at a recent Action Day in Costa Rica at Envision Festival. Photo by Art Gimbel

The growing interest in Action Days isn’t limited to festival-goers. Many festival organizers are hopping on board with the trend by requesting an Action Day along with a performance. According to Sugalski many are making additional efforts. “The signs that I look for are options for recycling and composting, limiting trash, steps towards becoming a zero waste event.” Here are just a few ideas he had for helping festivals become more sustainable in the future.

Composting Toilets

Aside from generally reducing waste, working on land rejuvenation is key. "Check out the Humanure Handbook," says Sugalski. "It’s been done for as long as human beings have been around, but for some reason we’ve decided that it’s a good idea to eliminate [it] in our water, which I still haven’t really wrapped my head around."

Composting toilets are an amazing way – if the fest owns the land or is working with someone who owns that land – to help beautify the land. Throw a half gallon of worms into the humanure, and by the time the next festival comes around you'll have black gold to plant with and whatever you plant is going thrive. "There’s a lot of human waste coming through those festivals, let’s do something with it.

Building Things Out of Trash

Sugalski also offered up what could be a better solution than dumping waste in landfills: bottle bricks, or trash bricks. “I’ve been living on this farm for a year now and not a single piece of trash has left," he says. "It’s not that hard. I have three giant plastic bottles and put my trash into them. I compact the trash down with rebar and they become very dense. Once we have enough of them we’re going to create a cob seating area and use the trash bricks as the mass. We need mass for things like seats, and why not use packed-up trash instead of sending that trash across the world in barges that eat up fossil fuels? Festivals can be doing the same thing.”

Permanent Improvements

Some festivals actually own land and that affords them some additional opportunities. “What you have is a blank canvas to create with," he says. "[They] can choose to build a stage that is permanent because [they're] going to be on this land doing this festival for the next ten years. Instead of tearing this all down and taking it to the dump let’s build permanent structures. Let’s build paradise on these places where we are wanting to celebrate because [then] we’re only going to want to come celebrate in them more.” This also leaves a legacy that physically exists someplace, so that those who were inspired at the festival can return to remember those moments.

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A scene from an Action Day in Costa Rica at Envision Festival. Photo by Art Gimbel

As our conversation came to a close I realized that it wasn’t Sugalski’s past accomplishments, his awesome music nor his iconic jumpsuit that made him the legendary Polish Ambassador. It was his vision, his idea that applying the power of music to marshal change could really manifest a better world.

“It’s like anything," he muses. "The more energy you give to something the more you are going to see that thing in the world. I’m stoked to see festivals flower into this beautiful regenerative landscape where curators are owning the land or working with people that own land and are creating learning experiences for the attendees as well as opportunities for those attendees to give back. These types of things build real community, real camaraderie.

And for all the challenges humanity faces in the world these days, a little more community and camaraderie may go a long way. In the end, will it work? I’m not sure, but it’s a heck of a lot more admirable than trashing one town after the next and it sure is refreshing to see an artist actually giving the concept of "change" an honest try.