Spies in the House of Polka

Polkamaniacs Brave Combo are the genre's unlikely saviors

by Heather Henderson

A blast of heavy electric guitars grabs your attention, then beautiful horns come soaring out and you're whirled into a cheery yet hard-charging version of "Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie". On the same record lives a cover of Hendrix's "Purple Haze", polkafied with brilliant saxophone flourishes. Is it rock or is it polka? Who knows? It's that subversive genrebending thing that Brave Combo does so well.

BC has never been a household word, in spite of their loyal cult following. But with the album Polkasonic, their odd brand of polka-power-pop suddenly shot into the mainstream, winning a Grammy for best polka album of 1999. Nobody was more surprised than they were. "Well, it totally blew us away, to say the least," says Carl Finch, the band's founder and a mainstay on guitar/keyboards/accordion. "We were not expecting it. We figured that, as in many years in the past, it would go to Jimmy Sturr. It was pretty wild."

The band has always been determinedly offbeat, finding their inspiration in the least hip sources imaginable. Their twenty-odd albums have included cha-cha, mambo, waltz, tango, lounge (long before it was trendy), hora, schottische, Mexican ballads and Japanese ondo. They've done a Christmas album and a collaboration with Tiny Tim.

But Brave Combo's heart beats in polka time. Finch is a born-again polkamaniac who had his epiphany many years ago while listening to some old bargain-basement records. Since then he's plunged himself into the music with the passion of the converted. "We don't think polka is a square thing at all," he says. "It's been an easy thing to make a joke of, because people have not understood the power of the music, and in the mainstream it's been presented over and over as just a goofy party music. Our goal is to interpret it for non-polka people and show them, look, this is a cool music. It's a music that restores a sense of fun while you're here. It gives you a sense of perspective. I think it's a great healing thing. So that's our loftiest goal, I guess. That's what makes us the most proud - that we can do that without compromising the music."

The band chose to do Polkasonic with Cleveland International, a label with a lot of polka connections. "I think all the elements just came together right," Finch says. "We decided to jump off of Rounder to do that record, just to see if we could do better in terms of our polka awareness within the country, to be on a small label that focused all of their attention on one genre. The idea at the time was to try to get more airplay on polka shows on radio stations around the country."

Not only did they get airplay, they got a Grammy - an instant passport into the polka establishment. "We were invited immediately to play a lot of different festivals," Finch explained. "We played our first serious Polish events, that were almost 100% focused on that community, in Chicago and Pennsylvania, and some of our first Slovenian polka events. So we now pride ourselves on knowing the difference in all of these styles and being able to play for these specific audiences. We're kind of like ignorant, nondescript outsiders, so we can go into the scene and be nonthreatening, in a way. The most threatening aspect is that we are outsiders - we're not Polish, we're not German, we're not Slovenian, we're not Czech. There can be, maybe, a threatening aspect to that - like, why are these guys coming into our world and taking our Grammy? On the other hand, because we aren't ethnically specific along those lines, and because we kinda don't know anything, like these people might, about what's proper and what's improper within a certain culture, we're embraced for that as well."

While they're considered a little weird in the rock world for playing polkas, they don't really fit in the polka world, either. "The guy at our record label was at one of these very hardcore Polish festivals where we were playing," Finch recalls, "and he pulled me aside and said, 'You know Carl, you've gotta understand, this is the most rightwing audience you will ever play for.' He was so tickled that there was this bunch of ragtag misfits up there playing this music for these people - you know, the most controversial term they can come up with is that we're hippies! But it's endearing too, it makes me care a lot about everybody in a way. I really do care about them not feeling threatened. I don't want to barge into this thing and be like a thorn in anybody's side. I just want to have them accept the music and listen, and see that it can be interpreted in a different way - but with respect. It's so important to the polka culture that you respect them, because they've been maligned and made fun of for so long. That's really become a major thing for us to combat, to try to push back the other way."

Polka music is wrapped up in ethnic pride to a huge degree. Polish polka events, for example, are more than just music. They're likely to include Polish food, Polish beer, even Polish folk dancers dressed in ethnic costumes. Isn't there some resistance to the idea of opening up this tightly-knit scene and bringing the music to other audiences? "Oh, there certainly is," Finch says. "Some people see it as, you know, like we're infiltrating and we're kind of spoiling it. But the number of those people is definitely diminishing as our profile increases. We did get our fair share of hate mail about how we went in and stole this Grammy from the 'real people'. But I think what they don't understand is, the band's been around twenty years. We've been doing this a long time, and we do love and respect the music. And over the past year, I think we were able to prove that. We were able to play events that showed that skeptical audience that we are very dedicated to this, and we do know what we're doing, and we are very excited about the music. And we want to see the music progress, as well. We want to help define a scene that can transcend its underground status in a healthy way - not just become a music that has to accompany the new Kielbasaburger at McDonald's or something. We want it to reach beyond the attachments of beer and lederhosen and national spirit and food and stuff. We would like to see polka liberated from those chains. And maybe an 'outsider' band is the only way that can happen."

Does Brave Combo tone down their tunes for their more conservative audiences? Finch laughs. "No, we make 'em even more raunchy!" He quotes from their rewrite of "In Heaven There is No Beer": "'In heaven there is no sex, so let's do that next/And when our muscles no longer flex, someone else will be having sex/In heaven there are no drugs, that's why we hang with thugs/And when the Lord pulls the plug, all the thugs will still be selling drugs!' We're just kind of messing with the song and exploring these different vices. Our friend who was at that festival, who told us it was a rightwing crowd, he said, 'Man, if you even say the word drugs, even if you're puttin' it down, it freaks these people out!'

"But we love the music, we're not being disrespectful," Finch continues. "And I'm not into filthy language or trying to freak people out or pull the rug out from under people. At the same time, you know, we're kind of raucous, rambunctious, and we push that envelope, because we believe that there's power in the music from that perspective."

The Brave Combo approach is not to be too tightly constrained by the expectations of the audience. In the words of one of Finch's songs, they like to "Do Something Different". They're known for doing covers of familiar tunes in unexpected styles. This is more than just a joke. Hearing these songs transmogrified - for example, the klezmer-inspired version of "People Are Strange", which sounds like something by Kurt Weill - is like seeing them through a different lens. You discover aspects you never knew existed. Of course, this can lead to some extremely funny stuff. And, most importantly, you can dance to it. At a First Avenue gig a couple of years ago, the band had the crowd dancing deliriously with a set that included a hard-rocking "Hokey Pokey", a sizzling Latin version of "Sixteen Tons", and the Habanera from Carmen turned into a twist. Their philosophy appears to be that there's a groove in every piece of music, no matter how corny, and they're going to find it.

With this kind of humor and energy, the band has made many new fans for polka, even in the rock clubs. Finch says young people come up to him after gigs and ask him how they can get more of this music. "It's snowballing. It's incredible. There's a whole generation of kids now who don't even know what polka is. They're fresh and they're new, they're an open book."

Jimmy Sturr won the Grammy this year, unseating Brave Combo as reigning polka kings. "We had our brief liberating moment, and a liberating moment for the polka category too," says Finch, proudly and a little wistfully. "We didn't release a polka record this year so we weren't even eligible. But we're a force to be reckoned with. We're gonna do this music, we're gonna push it as hard as we can. We're working on a new album that we think is the best thing we've done yet. We hope it'll be nominated and we're feeling really good about it." 'Scuse them while they kiss the sky.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Pulse of the Twin Cities, March 7, 2001.