Polka Rockers Push Old World Music For New Generation

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Polka rocks.

There is a growing movement among polka aficionados to infuse the music with rock 'n' roll to convince a new generation that polka is not Old World music played on big accordions by men in polyester suits.

"We're trying to bring to polka a more modern kind of excitement, and to rock we are trying to bring more fun," said Don Hedeker, founder of the Chicago-based Polkaholics.

The Polkaholics' "We Play Polkas on Guitar" is a theme song for both the band and a growing group of rock/polka bands. It is played in the traditional oom-pah oom-pah, two-step polka rhythm -- but faster, louder, and with an electric guitar lead instead of an accordion.

In bow ties and ruffled shirts, the Polkaholics rock through polka favorites like "In Heaven There is No Beer (That's Why We Drink It Here)" and "Beer Barrel Polka."

The music is partly a spoof of polka stereotypes, poking fun at the traditional allegiance of polka, kielbasa and beer. For instance, the Happy Schnapps Combo, based in Manitowac, Wis., leads off its 1999 album Beer Muscle with a surf-party guitar polka called "We Can Get Drunker Than Youse."

But in groups like the Polkaholics, Brave Combo from Denton, Texas, and K!CK from Oshkosh, Wis., it is also a serious effort to broaden the reach of a traditional music that has struggled to grab young audiences.

Brave Combo won a polka Grammy Award for their 1999 album "Polkasonic," which hues closely to traditional polka, but with a heavy electric guitar presence. The last track on the album is a surreal version of Jimi Hendrix' "Purple Haze," with the famous opening guitar riff played on a saxophone.

"We can bring new people in that would under no other circumstances know this music," said Brave Combo founder and guitarist Carl Finch. "We find that there are not a lot of preconceived ideas about polka with the college kids and younger. They haven't had any exposure to it. They don't know what it is."

Polka has traditionally been a niche music market with little broad public exposure. Frankie Yankovic, one of the biggest polka stars, has sold 97,000 albums in U.S. retail stores since 1991, according to Soundscan, a company that tracks U.S. record sales.

Brave Combo sold 74,000 over the same period. By comparison, the Backstreet Boys have sold almost 29 million albums in the U.S. since 1991.

Polka suffers in part because of factionalism that splits fans. There are separate polka halls of fame in Chicago and Cleveland, each featuring stars of the city's unique polka styles. The Chicago sound is descended from Polish polka, while the Cleveland style is rooted in Slovenian traditions.

Outsiders may be hard-pressed to tell the difference, but some fans of each style claim the other isn't really polka.

"There is a tremendous jealousy out there," said Steve Popovich, president of Cleveland International records. "There's this whole blinders thing -- 'If it's not Polish, it doesn't matter' or 'If it's not Slovenian, I won't listen to it.'"

"What I'm trying to do is to not have any barriers," Popovich said.

He has issued albums by polka icons Yankovic and Eddie Blazonczyk, as well as the Grammy-winning Brave Combo album.

In November, Popovich and his son Steve, Jr., started Shotglass Records with a six-song rock/polka collection called "Extreme Polka." Popovich said it is hard to track sales of polka albums because the performers sell more music at concerts than at stores, but he said the compilation is selling well.

"I definitely do see polka on some kind of a rise" said Michelle Jerabek, who plays guitar and saxophone for K!CK. "I see the younger kids getting into it. The college kids around here in Oshkosh are seeing us out there jamming in some public event and saying 'That's weird, but that's really cool.' And they're digging it."

Jerabek and husband Dan, K!ck's accordion player, both grew up playing in traditional polka bands. They plan to start a new group this year called CopperBox to record some of their own, more modern polka-based compositions.

The Jerabeks, both in their 20s, represent the new generation of polka. Finch, 50, has been playing souped-up polka for 20 years.

Richard March, a folk and community arts specialist with the Wisconsin Arts Board, said the traditional polka audience is aging, and younger people want a faster, more eclectic sound.

"In the previous generation, there were musicians and fans that genetically received a particular style -- the style of their ethnic groups or the locality -- and they developed a fierce loyalty to that style," March said. "But now people are growing up in a more diverse culture."

Tony Petkovsek, who has hosted a polka radio show on Cleveland for 40 years, said the new style appeals to the masses.

Still, "Some of the bands are going kind of ultra-modern and it's hard for the traditionalist to accept - and you can see their point because they are trying to preserve their culture," he said.

Linda "Big Lou" Seekins, of Big Lou's Polka Casserole in San Francisco, said the marriage of rock and polka is natural.

"Polka was rock and roll when it started" in Europe in the 1800s, she said.

"It was a dance for the common people, and people were touching," she said. "Parents disapproved of it and there were riots in the streets."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)