I come from a polka family.
I know what that sounds like, a whole lot of glitz and glamour, fast cars and accordions. You’re not that far off – there are accordions. The truth is, when you’re a Clevelander of Eastern European descent (Polish, Slovenian, Slovak, whatever), you’re in a polka family by default.
The happy, organ-like accordion notes that flit along the air as deftly as the fingers playing them. The lively bubble of the clarinet. The double-time kick-snare of the drums. A horn or two, if you’re lucky. This is the music of our people.
You don’t have to be of Eastern European descent to love polka. You don’t even have to have parents who were in an all-occasion band called The Polka Cats to love polka (Mom and Dad could jam, folks). All you need is two ears, a heart and someone to “1-2-3” around the dancefloor with.
Oh, and being in Cleveland, home to its very own style of polka, certainly doesn’t hurt.
What is Polka?
Comedian and former Clevelander Martin Mull once famously said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s hard to adequately describe the sound and feeling of an entire musical genre in mere words.
Nonetheless, I asked Joe Valencic, Director of the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, to try: “Polka music is a great American musical expression. It reflects the folk songs and traditions of our ancestors. The melodies and lyrics are simple and memorable. There’s also a nostalgia factor since polka music often appears at local weddings and family-oriented events.”
Czech in origin, polka was born in the 1830s and quickly took Europe by storm with its spritely beat in two-four time and eclectic makeup of musical instruments led by the amazing and wholly underrated accordion. The dance is easy and waltz-like, with a lively hop on the half-beat and even a half-spin. “Polka dancing first came to Ohio around 1845 as part of the polka-mania that swept the country,” continued Valencic. “Since then, polka music has gone in and out of style, but has never faded from popularity. A new generation always discovers the fun of dancing a polka.”
Jake Kouwe, frontman for beloved local polka group The Chardon Polka Band, put it pretty plainly when he told me, “Polka music is happy music. Like a vintage record collection, it has a lot of charm. In Cleveland, it’s such a fun way to celebrate our heritage and the melting pot of people who came here and made it home. “
Polka in The Land
The National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum is dedicated to preserving and promoting the genre of American polka dancing and music that emerged from Cleveland’s Slovenian community, rising to prominence after World War II, when our city was named the Polka Capital of the World. In fact, Frankie Yankovic, America’s Polka King (and namesake of Weird Al), was raised in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood before releasing more than 200 recordings in his storied career. Known as Nashville’s Polka Sweetheart, LynnMarie hails from suburban Maple Heights. Per Valencic, “Cleveland-style polka music still attracts audiences in North America and Europe. The Cleveland-Style Polka sound merges Old Country melodies with New World influences from jazz, Tin Pan Alley, country and western and other nationalities.”
Cleveland remains an amazing place to partake in some polka. You can catch Jake Kouwe and his Chardon Polka Band at some of the biggest events on Cleveland’s calendar. Cleveland Oktoberfest is THE Labor Day weekend party to attend every year, with its amazing food, bootfuls of beer, wiener dog races and of course nonstop polka mania. Meanwhile, Cleveland Kurentovanje, a Slovenian celebration held every February, features The Chardon Polka Band and many others tearing up the stage while numerous Clevelanders tear up the dance floor with their polka dancing prowess.
Dyngus Day is the realm of DJ Kishka, a colorful Cleveland legend known for his Polka Happy Hours at the beloved Happy Dog. The day after Easter, attendees gather in Cleveland’s west side for a celebration of Polish culture, including tons of delicious polish food, the crowning of Miss Dyngus Day, and – you guessed it – more polka mania, including DJ Kishka’s hilarious and irreverent act in his very own Beer Heaven Tent. For year-round polka action, head on over to Hofbrauhaus Cleveland for delicious German schnitzels and such, giant steins of beer and regular polka band performances.
If you’ve never danced to a polka before, have you really lived?
I’m not sure.
But then again, polka is such a part of Cleveland’s culture that I don’t know a life without it. Come to Cleveland, find a polka performance, and get ready to feel the weight of the world lift away from your shoulders with every hop, spin and accordion run. In fact, you can bring a little polka into your life right now with this playlist of Cleveland-Style Polka jams.
And please, remember to polka responsibly.