Big Lou in Keyboard Magazine

This month’s issue of Keyboard Magazine has an excellent profile of one of our favorite polka artists: Big Lou, the Accordion Princess. The piece covers her double life as a geophysicist/accordionist, her squeezebox arsenal, and how she made the transition from Texas honky-tonk piano player to polka princess:

“The only thing that a piano player has to pay attention to is phrasing, or breathing [compressing and expanding the bellows]. That’s kind of a sure giveaway when accordion players listen to piano players who don’t really learn how to play the accordion.”

To learn more about Big Lou, be sure to check out our interview with her (conducted in late 2006). You can also catch her weekly radio show online at 247PolkaHeaven.

Keeping the “Happy Music” Alive

Chicago Public Radio had a great story today on the local Chicago bands and fans who are working hard to keep polka alive. The piece starts out at the weekly “Therapy Tuesday” dances held at Major Hall and goes on to include interviews with Eddie Blazonczyk Jr. of the Versatones, as well as “Dandy” Don and “Jolly” James of the Polkaholics. James talks about how playing in the punk-rock Polkaholics changed his mind about polka:

“I thought polka was kind of square. I thought old blue-haired ladies listen to it, and they do, and they rock, and they can dance my butt off, which I’ve learned.”

You can listen to the story — or read a full transcript — on the Chicago Public Radio website. There’s also an accompanying photo slideshow.

Les Blank and the Accordion

Les BlankDocumentary filmmaker Les Blank offers glimpses into the lives and music of passionate people on the periphery of American society. Over the past forty years, he’s covered a wide variety of ethnic cultures, from rural Louisiana French musicians to Mexican-Americans in border towns to polka nuts in the Midwest. And these aren’t stilted, Travel Channel-esque accounts; his films are warm and intimate, deftly capturing the context (food, faces, scenery) from which the music originates.

Given the subject matter, it’s no surprise his films are a treasure trove for accordion lovers. Several of his films focus on Cajun and Creole musicians in Louisiana, following legends like Bois Sec Ardoin (Dry Wood), Clifton Chenier (Hot Pepper), and the Savoys (Marc & Ann). His 1989 documentary, J’ai Été Au Bal / I Went to the Dance is considered the definitive film on the history of dance music in French Southwest Louisiana.

Chulas Fronteras was one of the first films to document traditional conjunto music, including rare footage of artists like Lydia Mendoza and Santiago Jimenez Sr. (The film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” enough to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.) The clip below comes from his 1984 polka documentary, In Heaven There Is No Beer (1984); it features a colorful performance of “Who Stole the Kiszka?” by Walt Solek and his band.

You can easily lose an afternoon watching clips of Blank’s films on YouTube or at UC Berkeley’s Media Resource Center and — my apologies to your boss — I highly recommend it. Or you can order the full-length films directly from Les Blank’s website.

Johnny Vadnal Passes Away

Legendary Cleveland-style polka band leader and accordionist Johnny Vadnal passed away yesterday at the age of 84. Vadnal was the first polka band leader to have his own major market television show, performing every Sunday afternoon on WEWS Channel 5 in Cleveland from 1949 to 1961. In 1949, Vadnal won the title of “Cleveland’s Polka King” in a vote held by a local radio station.

A prolific songwriter, Vadnal penned such polka classics as “Yes, My Dear”, “No Beer on Sunday”, “Wayside Polka” and many others. Here’s Johnny and his band performing one of his later hits — written for his wife — “My Alice Waltz”:

Sturr, Simien, Tigres Win Grammys

Okay, I promise this will be the last Grammy post (at least until next year). No big surprises, but here’s a quick rundown of the accordion-related winners from tonight’s ceremony:

  • Best Polka Album: Come Share the Wine by Jimmy Sturr
    Surprise, surprise. This gives Sturr 17 wins in the 23 years that the polka category has existed. Maybe the Grammys need a system like some county fairs I know, where if you win for several years in a row, you’re taken off the ballot and given permanent “hall of fame” status.
  • Best Zydeco or Cajun Album: Live! Worldwide by Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience
    It’s fitting that the person who campaigned for this category’s creation would win its first-ever award. There were a lot of deserving albums nominated, though, and I’m sorry I didn’t finish my Cajun/Zydeco Grammy preview in time. (I’ll explain why very soon!)
  • Best Norteño Album: Detalles Y Emociones by Los Tigres del Norte
    Already recipients of a lifetime achievement award at the Latin Grammys, the Norteño legends collect this particular award for the second year in a row.

Check the full list of winners and let me know if there’s anyone (carrying an accordion) I missed.

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2008 Polka Grammy Preview

With Super Tuesday behind us, it’s time to focus on a contest that really matters: the Grammy award for Best Polka Album, to be handed out this Sunday in Los Angeles. This year’s nominees include some polka freaks from Texas, a pair of Canadian polka greats, and a 16-time winner who shows no signs of slowing down. Let’s take a closer look at the nominees:

Brave Combo, Polka’s Revenge

Eclectic polka-rockers Brave Combo are no strangers to the Grammy scene, having won in 1999 for their album Polkasonic and in 2005 for their album Let’s Kiss. For more than twenty five years, they’ve relentlessly busted genres and boldly taken polkas where they’ve never gone before. On Polka’s Revenge, the band fuses rock and Tex-Mex-inspired polkas with old-world waltzes, schottisches, and obereks. Originals like “The Denton Polka” mingle freely with updated renditions of classics by the Connecticut Twins and Ampol Aires.

John Gora & Gorale, Bulletproof Polkas

Born in Poland, now living in Ontario, Canada, saxophonist John Gora and his band earned their fourth Grammy nomination this year. The repertoire on Bulletproof Polkas runs the gamut from traditional polkas sung in Polish to polka-fied covers of rock songs. In the latter category, Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” survives the transition well, but the same cannot be said for John Lennon’s “Woman.”

Bubba Hernandez and Alex Meixner, Polka Freak Out

When Bubba Hernandez (former bassist for Brave Combo) first heard accordionist Alex Meixner, he asked himself, “What would this guy sound like on a Tex-Mex tuned accordion with some Tejano players?” The result is Polka Freak Out, an unlikely collaboration that places Alex’s technical mastery of the accordion over a Tex-Mex rhythm section, with dollops of Tejano, pop, and rock thrown in for good measure. Think Brave Combo, but with more accordion (and a heck of an accordion player at that).

Walter Ostanek and Brian Sklar, Dueling Polkas

“Canada’s Polka King” Walter Ostanek matches up with Saskatchewan fiddler Brian Sklar and his band, the Western Senators, for an old-fashioned double album. It’s an apt pairing: Sklar is a Canadian country music legend and Ostanek has been bringing country and western stylings to Cleveland-style polkas for years. The two styles merge effortlessly on Dueling Polkas and, fifty years after starting his first band, Ostanek is still one of polka’s greatest accordionists.

Jimmy Sturr and his Orchestra, Come Share the Wine

Having won 16 out of the 22 awards given for Best Polka Album, Jimmy Sturr has earned his share of both respect and enmity from his polka colleagues. But few can deny that he’s one of polka’s hardest-working promoters, cranking out an album a year and following a relentless tour schedule that ranges from the Bayway Polish Home to Farm-Aid. Come Share the Wine may lack the star power of his most recent releases (no Willie Nelson cameo this time), but that’s actually a good thing; this time, the focus rests squarely on his top-notch band.

It’s a diverse set of contenders for the polka field and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will bring home the Grammy. Will Jimmy Sturr add another trophy to his collection? Will the Texas polka mafia power either Brave Combo or Polka Freak Out to victory? Or will one of Canada’s polka heroes swoop in from the Great White North? We’ll find out on Sunday!

Lil’ Wally vs. Lawrence Welk

What would happen if the king of Chicago-style polka met the king of champagne music? It actually happened back in 1966 when Lil’ Wally Jagiello performed “Johnny’s Knocking Polka” on the Lawrence Welk Show. I could watch that chemnitzer concertina shake for hours…

Canadian Polka Showdown

Today’s Toronto Star has a feature on saxophonist John Gora and accordionist Walter Ostanek, the two Canadian artists nominated for Best Polka Album at this year’s Grammys. The article plays up the good-natured rivalry between the pair — Gora has been nominated four times but never won, Ostanek has been nominated 20 times and won three times — but also suggests that polka won’t be part of the Grammys much longer. According to Ostanek:

“Everyone in the polka business is wondering how long (the Grammy polka category) can last… Polka will never die, but no one makes a living at it. It’s music you play for the love of it. It’s for parties and good times, and it will always have a place in people’s lives. But it’s for weekend warriors now.”

While it’d be sad to see the category go — and I don’t think it will; the Grammys seem more preoccupied with adding rather than removing categories at this point — I agree that polka will survive just fine without it. As long as there are parties, beer, and accordions in close proximity, there will be polkas.

Polkaholics Anonymous

Last week, the Chicago Tribune had a fun piece on Chicago punk/polka band The Polkaholics. Fortified with Old Style and Old Spice, The Polkaholics recently celebrated their 10th anniversary and continue their quest to bring polkas rocking and screaming into the 21st century. Guitarist “Dandy” Don Hedeker (day job: professor of biostatistics!) describes the reaction of older polka fans who sometimes stumble upon their shows:

“Sometimes they’re excited to see what we’re doing with the music… Other times they think we’re the devil.”

The band’s latest CD, Ten Years to the Floor, is a live album highlighting the band’s unique brand of polka madness. As with anything punk, it’s more about the spirit and raw energy than musicianship — “we may miss a note, but we never miss a party” — and you can practically hear the beergarden and mosh pit coming together. This is a Polkaholics original from that album:

Quick Links: Finch’s Favs, Galla-Rini, AccNoir

  • Everybody Must Polka When Brave Combo Comes to Town
    Carl Finch of Brave Combo lists five polka albums which “helped shape the face of polka in this country.” In addition to classic albums by Scrubby and the Dynatones, Steve Jordan, and Happy Louie, his list of essential polka artists ranges from the Connecticut Twins to Polkacide.
  • Tony Loved to Learn
    A new children’s picture book on the life of master accordionist and teacher Anthony Galla-Rini, who passed away in 2006. Written by Sharon Riddle and Nancy Sanders.
  • Accordion Noir: Best of 2007
    Vancouver’s finest all-accordion radio show celebrates its first year with a recap of their 2007 favorites. The perfect soundtrack for a long winter’s night, you can download the shows directly from their website.

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