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Brave Combo

Smack-dab in the center of the polka universe.

by tim mcmahan








All right. Here it is, a true confession: I was in a polka band for two years.

I'm neither proud nor ashamed of this fact -- polka is polka. But before you stop laughing and start lobbing "Beer-Barrel-Polka"-flavored insults my way, keep in mind that at least I'm one of the few music critics who can say he's actually been in a band. I played saxophone (ours was an unconventional lineup), and we were known as The Polka Pioneers, named after our Fort Calhoun High School mascot. We played mainly at pig roasts and hog-shed dedications throughout Washington County. Although playing polka wasn't the coolest thing you could do in high school, the Led Zeppelin-worshipping dirt-heads who smoked cigarettes outside the metal shop between classes never made fun of us. They knew we made money at gigs where we could meet women and even sneak a beer or two when no one was looking.

Grammy winner Brave Combo, the Denton, Texas, 5-piece that's scheduled to play Sokol Underground Sept. 28, also is a polka band, though in a much larger league than my beloved Pioneers. They've been cranking out a modernized polka sound for more than 21 years, picking up such fans as Talking Heads' David Byrne, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, MTV's Kurt Loder (back in his Rolling Stone days) and Simpsons creator Matt Groening, to name a few. Maybe being in a polka band ain't so uncool after all.

It's ironic, however, that Brave Combo will be playing at the Sokol Underground -- arguably one of Omaha's hipper punk/alternative venues -- while above them stands Sokol Hall, one of the Midwest's most noted polka dance halls. The irony wasn't lost on Brave Combo founder Carl Finch.




"We wish we could draw a crowd large enough to book the dance hall," said Finch, who sings and plays guitar, accordion and keyboard. "We do play a lot of straight-ahead polka dances, but we'll be lucky to draw 300 in Omaha."

Regardless, playing a punk venue is fitting, Finch said, because the band has always viewed polka as "rebellious."

"When we started in the late '70s, disco was thriving and I couldn't stand what rock had become," Finch said. "But instead of turning toward punk, we turned to polka as our rebellion against commercial music. It was sort of a forgotten music or was considered irrelevant. I bought a lot of cutout records of ethnic and polka music and just learned how to play from them. We transformed the songs and did them in a rocking style."

The result was sort of a hybrid sound that blends Czech and German-style dance music with ska, reggae and Latin rhythms, resulting in a fun-loving party music that is indeed brave. That might be fine for the folks in the big cities, but how does this new-fangled poly-rhythmic-polka sit with folks in the heart of traditional Polka Country?

"Some of them think we're screwing around with the form; that what we play isn't pure enough," Finch said. "But the overwhelming majority think we're doing fine adding a new energy to the tradition."

Finch grimaces when comparing his polka-hybrid to the rock-ification of country-western music by the likes of Shania Twain and Faith Hill. "It would frighten me to think we're part of a movement that would water down the specialness of polka," he said. "We don't want to contribute to that side of it. On the other hand, nothing is going to stop the cross-pollination of the scene and the creation of forms, such as Tejano music, which has been blowing up for the past few years."

It's this kind of re-energization of polka that will keep it alive for the next generation. Because, Finch said, polka is in danger of dying out, literally. "The average age at a typical polka dance is frighteningly high," he said. "Some of those people who don't want anything to do with a weird thing like Brave Combo are getting up there in age. They want to keep polka as two trumpets, a concertina, bass and drums. I can tell you right now, that scene will die. There won't be enough passion with the younger people to keep that alive."


"It would frighten me to think we're part of a movement that would water down the specialness of polka. We don't want to contribute to that side of it."

Brave Combo circa 1983


"(The Grammy) was a good promotional thing that we could talk about in interviews, but from a record industry standpoint -- those people could care less. "


Meanwhile, Finch said, he's watched polka evolve, thanks in part to his band's influence. As a result, "these younger bands are rocking it. They're coming up with new instrumentation and using guitars and electric bass. The drummers play in a more bombastic style. They're creating a whole new genre, and I'm very hopeful that that music could break into the mainstream."

It wouldn't be the first time that an ethnic-based musical form broke through to the popular culture. Ricky Martin, Santana and Gloria Estefan all helped bring Latin-style music to the MTV masses. Finch sees a parallel between polka and how the Latin scene has found its way into the musical vocabulary. "Once people get accustomed to that sound, they're not going to turn it off when it's played on their rock stations," he said.

Regardless, Brave Combo has momentarily turned its back on polka for its latest CD, The Process. "It's as close to a pop album as we can get," Finch said. "It has a lot of relevant stuff going on. In a way, this is my roots music."

While managing to attract new listeners, The Process also has ostracized some of Brave Combo's loyal following who see the CD as a betrayal of sorts to the polka flag they've flown for so long. "Most people want us to be what we are -- a band that takes old forms and updates them. That's our reputation and they love it," Finch said. "When we started getting out of that and into the mainstream, those same people weren't as receptive. It offended them that we left the sound that they want us to do forever. In fact, our pop album is as schizophrenic as our potpourri world music albums."

To add insult to injury, The Process was released immediately after Brave Combo took home the 1999 "Best Polka Album" Grammy Award for Polkasonic. "We didnít think we had a chance to win a Grammy," Finch said. "We started The Process when Polkasonic was completed. We didn't know it was going to be as successful as it was. Winning the Grammy two weeks before The Process was released wasn't good timing and it caused some confusion."

Though they'd been nominated before, this was their first time they actually took home the trophy. As a result, "every radio station with a polka show got the record," he said. "It was a good promotional thing that we could talk about in interviews, but from a record industry standpoint -- those people could care less."


The Grammy merely bolstered the support the band already had from its loyal following which, Finch said, is made up of listeners who are "more curious, more open-minded, more worldly in scope."

"Our fans seem to come out of the woodwork," he said. "It's strange how some of the punks that came to our shows in the early '80s ended up working in the industry. Matt Groening is our biggest fan. He had us play for a party for the 200th episode of The Simpsons at the House of Blues. Kurt Loder, who used to handle the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone, was there when we made our first trip to New York."

And yes, Finch said, the band did indeed play for David Byrne's wedding. Finch said he even hung out with Lester Bangs, the legendary rock critic who has become immortalized again in the new Cameron Crowe bio-epic Almost Famous. "Bangs was a god. He was the final word -- a gentle, intuitive person," Finch said. "When we first came to New York, he had a poll in the Village Voice where people listed their favorite releases, and we were getting a tremendous amount of support. He dug what we were doing and found us sincere, and in return, we helped turn him onto a new sound."

That all sounds high-minded and rather impressive, but we're still talking about polka music, the musical butt of every nerd joke ever told. When Pepsi launched a national commercial for its "make your own CD" promotion, the punch line was that you could either make your own CD using Pepsi points and choose from their array of "cool" artists such as N-Sync and Britney Spears, or you could just do it yourself at home -- at which point they showed a stereotypical horn-rimmed nerd surrounded by polka albums. "That created an uproar in the polka world and it pissed us off," Finch said. "Teenagers have no idea what polka is, and then along comes Pepsi. Now they've got that stereotype to work with." A letter-writing campaign led by Brave Combo resulted in Pepsi pulling the ad.

Another example: The Tracy Ullman show pleaded for Brave Combo to appear on a skit as the polka band at a Polish wedding. "We asked them to send us a script," Finch said. "They made the deal so enticing and our profile would have really jumped with that crowd. It was painful, but we couldn't do it. In the big picture, we knew we had to have respect and stop the negative, malicious stereotyping.

"The cool thing about polka is that it has endured so much ridicule over the years and has managed to survive."

Maybe it has here, but not in its country of origin. Brave Combo has toured extensively in Europe, where the attitude toward polka "is so removed," Finch said. "Polka has been confined to a tourist mentality. As a result, it just petered away. We recently played in Belgium and Germany and on a given night we would see maybe 20 people polka dancing.

"People have been saying for years that polka belongs to the United States now," Finch said. "In a way, it's encouraging. I tell young bands to rock out because we're at the center of the polka universe. The only thing that has to happen is that they open their ears and eyes and aren't afraid to take it to the next level."

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Published in Omaha Weekly Sept. 29, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.





"The cool thing about polka is that it has endured so much ridicule over the years and has managed to survive."