They're Here to Rock Your Dyngus Day

The Chardon Polka Band (Phil Prosser Photography)
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Jake Kouwe adjusts the bandana that surrounds his shoulder-length hair. As he straps an accordion to his chest, Kouwe admits his band is going against the grain. And that’s just fine by him.

"Everybody and their brother gets a guitar and starts a garage band, " he says.  "Everybody and their brother doesn’t start a polka band, anymore. I would like polka to be the next punk rock."

Kouwe and his bandmates step onto the stage of the Hofbrauhaus --- a big-box beer hall in downtown Cleveland. They know what the crowd wants to hear.  "If you’re from Cleveland, this song is in your blood!"  And the band lauches into a spirited version of   "In Heaven There is No Beer."

The Chardon Polka Band is a quintet of 20-somethings whose heavy touring schedule takes them from New Jersey to New Mexico. They play venues ranging from senior centers to hip music clubs, sharing their love of a musical form first championed by another Northeast Ohio band nearly seven decades ago.

That’s Clevelander Frankie Yankovic, who in the 1940s had a string of hit songs that sold millions nationally. It may be hard for some modern listeners to relate to a time when polka music topped the pop charts, but biographer Bob Dolgan says you have to understand the cultural context of the years following World War II.

"It was a more ethnic country," he recalls. "There were a lot more first-generation immigrants from Europe, and it was still a more receptive time for that kind of music."

But, a few years later came the invasion of rock and roll ... and polka just wasn’t cool anymore. It would take another generation for an accordion to reappear in the Top 40.  That's when Jake Kouwe says a different Yankovic changed his life.

"I got into the accordion when I was 14-years old --- I saw Weird Al Yankovic playing on TV."

The frizzy-haired musical satirist is a role model for the Chardon Polka Band, whose members are an assortment of musical refugees. Joe Dahlhausen is a former heavy metal drummer, sax player Emily Burke comes from a background in classical music. Over the past year, a version of their story's been on national TV.  It's a reality television series called Polka Kings, which was shot in town, a couple years ago.

Denver-based producer Scott Feeley says, in a video world saturated with pawn shop shows and battling housewives, polka offers the chance to try something new.

"Polka is generally seen as music for older people," he says. "We wanted to find a kind of younger, hipper band that was kind of adding a little edge, a little attitude to the music.

Many of the Chardon Polka Band’s fans weren’t exactly raised with a passion for polka.

"I always heard polka music, I knew what it was, would recognize the songs, but it wasn't like they were playing on the record player," admits 29-year-old DeAnna Domino-Sierputowski.  "I grew-up listening to Pink Floyd."

But, Domino-Sierputowski and her husband Jeff love the polka revival; in fact, she was crowned "Miss Dyngus" in the 2012 Dyngus Day event. Jeff compares it all to the way punk music sounded fresh 30 years ago.

"To kids today, polka is new, and it is different, and it’s just fun."

And it’s a music that those kids and their grandparents can sing together.


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