Thursday, June 4, 2009

Polka, Polka, Polka!

I received some terrible news today. The Grammy Awards have eliminated "best polka album" as a category. Some of you make think I am joking about this, but I am totally friggin serious. This pisses me off! I grew up on polka, and while I hated it as a youth, it now holds a dear place in my heart. Those of us with Czech, Polish, German, Lithuanian, or other Central and Eastern European heritages have danced many a polka at family weddings and other festivals. My folks used to make me dance with their friend's sons at gatherings. I will out-polka you any day!

Polka has a long and glorious history, and modern polka even extends to a Mexican sub genre called conjunto. Our friends at Wikipedia have an extensive section on Modern Polka. I prefer the Slovenian-American or "Cleveland Style"of polka, which features accordion and saxophone or clarinet, popularized by the late Frankie Yankovic (no relation to Weird Al).

One of Frankie Yankovic's devotee's is Walter Ostanek, the polka king of Canada. Ostanek has been nominated for more than 20 Grammy awards, and swept the Grammies for polka album in '92, '93, and '94. Ostanek, currently 74-years-young, has been playing piano accordion since age 12, and has recorded over 80 albums. In 1999 he received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award presented by the government of Canada, for "His steadfast and unwavering dedication to his music, to his fans and to his community."

Ostanek was nominated for a Grammy in 2008 for his collaboration with Brian Sklar on Dueling Polkas. Unfortunately, the Juno Awards have never acknowledged the polka category, much less given Ostanek a lifetime achievement award (hint, hint). In 2006 Bravo made a documentary about Ostanek called The Cult of Walt: Canada’s Polka King. I caught this doc on TV one night and it was fantastic! At various points you can see Ostanek jamming with Canadian rock musicians like Sam Roberts and Sloan. He shows these young punks how its done!

Look at Walter, sporting the Order of Canada pin on his lapel. Is he not the happiest dude in the world? How can you not smile when listening to polka! Take some lessons emo punks!

I got to see Ostanek in action at the horrendous Kitchener Oktoberfest a few years ago. This guy knows how to have a good time! I don't think he is capable of frowning.

Other artists to rock the polka in recent years include Brave Combo, Those Darn Accordions, and Polkacide. All three of these acts combine polka with elements of rock, punk rock, and even zydeco and jazz. Brave Combo has won two polka Grammy Awards. I caught Brave Combo about a decade ago in St. Louis and they were so much fun. How many bands tour with a glockenspiel these days? That's what I thought.

I am still dismayed as to why the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences dropped polka from their awards roster, yet kept Hawaiian, Zydeco, Native American, Historical Album, Packaging (?), Album Notes, and Surround Sound. I hope this decision makes we polka fans a stronger, more united group, and will hopefully, some day, get these great artists the recognition that they deserve.

Sorry, I don't have any Walter Ostanek albums. I just ordered a few from here.

Frankie Yankovic - Just Because.mp3
Frankie Yankovic - In Heaven There is no Beer.mp3
Buy (MP3 only): The Best of Frankie Yankovic (2004)

Brave Combo - The Denton Polka.mp3
Buy (MP3 only): Polka's Revenge (2007)


PKL said...

I went to college in Milwaukee, and one of the ways we used to let off Sixties steam was to go down to the South Side to the great Polka shows and dances you could find in abundance on the weekends.
Truly amazing dance music! Shame on the Grammy Awards! But then again, they are so immersed in shame and the influence of sales volumes that this is about par for the course. Haven't watched an awards show in ages...

Rockstar Aimz said...

Ha! You probably met my parents at one of those polka shows. They went to UW-Whitewater in the 60s. I know that Milwaukee and Chicago, and I am guessing Detroit and Cleveland, still have bars and halls that have polka dancing on weekends. I will investigate this for Toronto.

Growing up in Wisconsin we would always go to the folk festival in Milwaukee for a high school trip. The MECCA, now US Cellular Arena I guess, where the Bucks once played, was the center of the ethnic dancing. But when the polka band took the stage, everyone danced. Even us self-conscious high school idiots!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments about polka music having also grown up in Wisconsin. You listed some great bands that have fused the polka sound with other genre but you might want to check out a band called Freeze Dried out of Chicago. They started their recent set at PolishFest with the Tide is High and rolled on through Dancin in the Streets, Lean on Me and a Metallica ballad. They include 3 female African-American singers known as the Icicles that sound great with the band. Thanks for the post.