Polka: A new anthem?

Official polka on legislators' dance card

by Jim Bessman - Billboard

CLEVELAND - Polka music has its legends, of course, but it also has a number of exciting young artists ready and willing to take their place.

With Chicago's Polish push style of polka showing the most robust health, it's no surprise that many of these bands follow the lead - in one form or another - of the style's key players, Eddie Blazonczyk and Lenny Gomulka. Among them are Toledo Polkamotion, Eddie Biegaj's Crusade, Energy, Frankie Liska & the Brass Connection, Polka Family, John Gora & Gorale, Steel City Brass, Polka Country Musicians, and Henny & the Versa J's, featuring incredible 11- year old fiddler Ryan Ogrodney.

But young polka players are faced with many of the same challenges as their elders - and a few new ones brought about by changing tastes and technologies. The first is overcoming the stigma attached to all polka musicians.

"Everyone thinks of polka music as 'Roll Out The Barrel,' 'She's too Fat For Me,' or 'Just Because' and dancing with fat Polish Girls," says Eddie Blazonczyk Jr., who plays concertina in his father's band, "but it's nothing to do with that anymore. Today, its more closely related to country music - like Polka Country Musicians. Young fans may be worried about telling their friends, but once you see it, there's no turning back, and once you hear it, you're hooked!"

Henry Guzevich, trumpet player in Pennsylvania's Polka Family, shares Blazonczyk's experience. "Polka carries such a stigma, but people don't understand that these are aggressive sounding polka bands," says Guzevich, who moved east with his family band in 1988 from Riverside, Calif., where they were a Tex-Mex conjunto outfit. "I'll take college friends to gigs, and they'll go, 'I had no idea!' They dance more than I do and drink more than I do, and I can't keep up with them."

Energy's Randy Koslosky further notes that the push polka style, being the "most progressive and exciting" type of the multiformat genre, has the greatest appeal to young players and audiences. Evidence of this, he says, is the fact that half the crowd at Blazonczyk's recent Polka Fireworks festival at Seven Springs Resort in Champion, Pa., was under 50.

"The grandson remembers what the father fortets," adds Mark Kohan, 36 year old leader of the "Buffalo" polka band Steel City Brass, reciting an adage that explains why younger bands and fans are gravitating back to polka. (The Buffalso style tinges the Chicago with the quicker Eastern big-band polka style.)

"There's a generation of kids who didn't want to be associated with polka because they wanted assimilation," continues Kohan. "But we played a festival yesterday, and there were a lot of kids, and there are other bands, like Brave Combo, which plays polka at college bars, who plant a seed in young people who might otherwise not be interested in polka."

Joey Tomsick, who has recorded with Walter Ostanek and heads the Cleveland-based Joey Tomsick Orchestra, is among the young generation of Slovenian-style bandleaders that includes Don Wojtila, Alex Meixner, Bob Kravos, Ed Sumrada, and Mike Wojtila. He notes that Cleveland-style polka bands have had a harder time attracting younger crowds than have their young Polish Polka counterparts.

Tomsick, a button box player who plays keyboard during the ban's top 40 and blues stets at nightspots along the hot Cleveland downtown riverbank area known as the Flats, says, "We have to play all kings of music, especially when we play in the Flats, but our last set is always polka, and the place goes crazy!"

In Chicago, the younger Blazonczyk, who plays in alternative rock cover bands when not working with his father, observes differences between young polka bands and their legendary predecessors. "The new bands don't have the longevity that the older ones have," he says, noting that many Chicago polka band mainstays, including his father's Versatones and the Ampol-Aires, have been active for decades.

"Also, there used to be a lot of variation years ago from band to band, but today, everybody goes for the same sound and plays the same songs," he adds. "Years ago in Chicago, a band would cancel a job if their accordionist couldn't make it, but today, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can fill in, because they all play the same songs. So we have a lot of terrific sounding bands, but they only last a couple of years, because there's nowhere to go with it. So they break up and reassemble."

One direction for polka musicians of the younger Blazonczyk's generation (he's 29) had been laid out by eclectic Texas rock band Brave Combo. "We want to do something alternative," says Blazonczyk. "Brave Combo has a guitar in the band, bongos, and congas, and can do anything they want with this music."

"They're doing things that a lot of guys would love to do," seconds Guzevich. "They get up and play 20 songs in a set without any sounding alike, and they play all of them well. I've talked with a lot of musicians, and {Brave Combo is} the cutting edge in polka."

Koslosky thinks Brave Combo could be a "breakthrough band" for the polka category. "They're from the 'outside' so they don't have to appeal to our traditional audience and can enjoy greater freedom; They'll do things, like Hendrix, that you'd never expect could be polka - and it rocks! Or they'll dig up polkas from the '40s and breathe life into them like you just can't believe. But it doesn't matter - people who aren't at all into the polka scene eat it up!"

If brave Combo provides a musical role model for young groups, Nancy Hlad is there to offer technical support. The 22 year old Cleveland Slovenian style button box player, who studied for five years with button box king Frank Novak, recently applied skills from her day job at a computer software company in putting polka on the Internet.

"I'm trying to give our music another venue," says Hlad, "and the Internet's the way to go, because everybody seems to think polka's only for older generation people, and it's really not. There are a lot of younger generation people in the field, and I want to make the market wider for all of us."

Hlad's polka site has been up since December and has received responses from Europe, including a Dutch distributor who was seeking Novak-style product and put out a compilation of Hlad's recording after hearing her samples on the Net.

She has created soundbites, pictures, home pages, and billboards for 10 polka artists (including, besoides herself, Milwaukee's Vern Meisner and son Steve, Frankie Yankovic accordionist Eric Noltkamper, and Eddie Blazonczyk) and the National Cleveland Style Polka Hall of Fame (http://www.clevelandstyle.com). "I get requests from across the country for songs for weddings," she says, adding, "Probably a lot more people are looking for this kind of music."

Like Kohan, Hlad feels that young people who grew up with polka may have moved away from it but may be trying to come back. As Koslosky, 33, explains, "When I was young, polka wasn't cool. Maybe people are ready to listen to polka now for what it is, rather than something their parents liked."

But the younger Blazonczyk, like Kohan, senses a potential acceptance by young audiences from outside the polka tradition of polka as alternative music.

"We opened for Brave Combo in Chicago at Fitzgerald's, where there were young people who came to see them because they're alternative," says Blazonczyk. "They got exposed to our hardcore polka, and they certainly accepted us with open arms. Buring the Week, I play BoDeans and Gin Blossoms, but how much more alternative can you get than polka music?"

Alternative? Maybe. But as Hlad underscores in saying why she has chosen to carry on the ethnic music style of her heritage, "It's happy music that nobody should miss out on!"

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