The Art Of Being Brave
by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
They rock in the homecoming party at the University of North Texas every fall. They were the sole act to close Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams and they marched under the Woody Woodpecker balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
They are the weirdest band at a rock 'n' roll club one weekend and the weirdest band at a polka club the next. After a performance on the road, they'll be taking in a performance by a lounge band at a tiny casino in the middle of Nevada.Since 1979, this five-piece miniature orchestra has been an institution in Denton, inspiring countless other garage bands such as Schwantz Lefantz (in the early years) and Riddle Me This (of more recent history). They have Grammy's 1999 award for best polka band and inspired the Denton City Council to declare an official week in their name.
This year, citing the simple commonality as artists sharing the same planet, they worked with the award-winning children's recording artists Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer to release All Wound Up! A Family Music Party, a compact disc of children's music on the Rounder label. They are Brave Combo, and what makes them go for so long and with so much creative success is an intelligent combination of folkloric savvy, present-day artistic sensibility and plain old musical chops. Polka usually begins with some combination of accordion, clarinet or trumpet, bass and drums, but Brave Combo adds or subtracts instruments—keyboards, brass, woodwind, percussion and strings—to make the sound their own.
The group unpretentiously occupies a storefront two blocks from Denton's town square. Outside, old "Brave Combo" bumper stickers are affixed to their oversize mailbox at 223 N. Locust and a "Peace through Polka" poster graces the window.
Inside, a computer and telephone occupy the corner of a long worktable with shelves. More shelves line another wall; they are piled high with copies of 20-plus years of recordings, created about one or two per year. Another long table sits in the middle of the space, all this occupying only the front third of the store. They gather here, while a Rand McNally road map book lies as if tossed nonchalantly on the floor.
Trumpet player Danny O'Brien is taking care of some business at the computer. No doubt he is working on the children's release, as the Teletubbies website is on the screen. The phone rings and a tour bus operator is offering the group a deal. They consider it momentarily, and only because the band was in an accident in Missouri last year. Insurance paid for a tour bus for a brief time, explains woodwinds player Jeffrey Barnes. "That was nice," he says, looking a bit road-weary. "Really nice."
O'Brien, feigning his newness to the band, claims he would tell only the stories the other guys tell, and disappears as the founder and leader of Brave Combo, Carl Finch, an accordionist; Barnes; and tubist/bassist Bubba Hernandez, another long-timer with the band, settle in at the table. Barnes sits at the far end so he can continue to smoke as politely as possible. Unlike O'Brien's stylish buzz-cut, each of the three has his own way of tying back extra-long hair.
They have been asked "Why polka?" many times and Finch is clearly seasoned with his response. His earliest memories of polka are part of his coming of age, he says: "I had been hanging out with a friend in the 1960s and early '70s whose father had eight-track tapes of polka musicians. It was sort of the sound track for riding around town in Texarkana," he recalls.
In contrast, Hernandez grew up in South Texas with the tradition all around him. "Polka was ingrained in our culture quite a bit," he says. "It's in all the mariachi music and the conjuntos. My grandfather was a musician and my uncle, as well. Polkas were always around the house."
Barnes, who lived near Toledo, Ohio, grew up with polka in a different way. "There were a lot of German and Polish families up there," he says. "I remember polkas on jukeboxes." After he moved to Texas and enrolled at The University of Texas at Austin, Barnes changed his music major to ethnomusicology. But, Barnes said: "I was still unaware of polka until these guys found me, moved me here and indoctrinated me."
Although Finch will say putting the band together began his education in polka, part of it also came from his avid record collecting. "After I was through working on my art degree [at UNT], I wasn't relishing the idea of becoming an advertising artist," Finch says. "I had been in high school rock bands, and I wanted to perform again."
But he was also burned out on pop music and thought the scene in the 1970s was going nowhere. So he started shopping for unusual music in bargain bins. Finch regularly found cut-outs and new issues still in their shrink wrap for as little as a quarter each at a Woolworth's store in Texarkana. "A lot of the stuff I found was polka music and old loungy Latin music," he recalls. "Some of it was from folkloric labels, some from polka labels and ethnic labels. I didn't know anything about the musicians or styles, but I was finding that I preferred it over other stuff. It had very, very good players with great arrangements and interesting music."
Finch developed an encyclopedic knowledge of polka in its myriad styles from those hours of listening, and the band's reputation for that knowledge grew.
"I knew that they had a wonderful record collection of all different styles of polka music: Mexican, Polish, Czech and German," recalls Bubba Hernandez, who was encouraged by friends to check out the group before he joined in the 1980s. "The Polish polka music they would play for me, it was really good music, too. It was just on another continuum, coming from family and culture. So it came full circle for me, so to speak."
And like any conjunto band he grew up around, Hernandez says, Brave Combo will mix up styles. On any given performance or recording, they might play a polka, then a ranchera, a cumbia, then another polka. On a given polka, they might lead the introduction with a riff reminiscent of The Who's I Can See for Miles and roll through three or four key changes before the coda. That knowledge and musical ability allow the band to transcend ethnic ties.
"We don't have a specific ethnicity that binds us to any of this kind of national spirit, or beer, or plate of food," Finch says. "What we have found—since we won the Grammy—is that we can be a unifying element within the polka scene at large. We can go into Cleveland and play a Croatian hall and pull in Polish as well as Slovenian people. Which is very rare; it's unheard of. Their cultures don't mix."
Hernandez adds: "And their polka styles are different. The Polish is a little bit funkier, more laid-back. Slovenian is a bit more up-tempo." By transcending styles, Brave Combo has ushered in a fourth generation in polka styles. Folk music that came with the first-generation Polish-Americans bears little resemblance to the music of their children, who had little or no memory of Poland and readily incorporated elements of big-band jazz into their polka music on the East Coast in the 1940s and 1950s.
But, according to David J. Jackson, political science professor at Bowling Green State University in Kentucky and a polka radio deejay, the third generation of polkas—the slower tempi and smaller groups characteristic of Chicago-style polka—were enjoyed by parents and children alike. That shared enthusiasm helped define a "new ethnicity" for Polish-Americans in the shadow of the Cold War.
"Fourth-generation polka includes contemporary artists such as Crusade, Brave Combo, Freeze Dried and the Polka Family, who are nearly unlimited in their influences," Jackson says.
But their ability to incorporate many styles of music within the rubric of polka shares an important characteristic with many other contemporary artists creating in other genres, whether in architecture, sculpture, painting or even electro-acoustic music. Finch says: "I do think a lot about where we fit in all of this, not just the polka world but where we fit in culture. Part of how you determine significant art is where it fits within the time and where it fits within the stream of arts, you know. I do think that a lot of these subtle things that we're discovering about [polka] music reflect the yearnings of where people are right now."
"It's absolutely one of the most progressive styles," he adds. "It's just so far underground that nobody knows that it's .. ."
An art form?
Reprinted with the permission of the publisher of the Denton Scramble