It all started so simply for the Dearborn dance band Kielbasa Kings. It was on the occasion of an annual backyard barbecue that accordionist Kevin Jakubowicz assembled a fun-loving group of friends and neighbors to play a little polka music.
“We started in July 1999,” he recalls fondly. “It was originally just going to be a one-time-only shot. We had a party. Polish theme — food, drinks, etc.”
And that’s when it all started to happen.
“At the time we had a neighbor that was 72 and he played sax,” notes Jakubowicz, recalling what surely must have been simpler times. “And it really went well, and I asked the guys if they wanted to do this as a hobby. They said ‘yeah.’ We became a working band. We’re in the basement practicing every Sunday.”
Huh? This was supposed to have drama! This was supposed to be a tale of “one too many sausages”! But, no! Listen …
“All of us just love what we do,” says Jakubowicz. “You won’t hear us singing about suicide or how I hate the world. It’s not that kind of music and it’s not that kind of band.”
OK, so you likely won’t find the Kielbasa Kings haunting VH1’s pre-Grammy “Behind the Music” marathon anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean they’re not out there rocking and rolling (out the barrel).
In fact, the polka scene (and there is one) is about as antithetical to the late-night bars ’n’ boozin’ scene as it gets. And, much like the gospel, bluegrass (or gospel bluegrass, for that matter) scenes, it is self-contained and reverent for the most part to a culture outside of “pop.”
“We don’t normally play taverns,” says Jakubowicz. “We’ve played church festivals, small parties and large festivals. We did our first recording — an eight-track CD — got all our money together and we sent them out to polka radio shows around the Midwest,” says Jakubowicz, of the Kings’ beginnings.
“For five guys no one ever heard of before — especially outside Detroit — the response was overwhelming. We were getting letters from people in New Jersey, Chicago, Wisconsin, Florida. That was a real eye-opener for us. Plus [on radio and trying to book shows] we were going up against bands from Detroit and Toledo that have been around for 10 or 20 years.”
The momentum has kept these five guys – who each hold down steady day jobs — playing 20 weekends a year. In addition to Jakubowicz, the Kings are composed of Tim Pazdziora (trumpet, vocals); Tom Gyuran (bass); Justin Maniaci (clarinet); and Ron Marcissuk Jr. (drums).
They recently released Fresh & Smoked, their first full-length CD on their own Horseradish Records label. The CD is a mix of reverent traditional polkas (they credit both a Polish lyricist and cultural consultant in the liner notes) sung in both English and Polish. There are also original compositions and a cover of that famous polka song “Alison” by Elvis Costello(ski).
Jakubowicz explains, “We sing some in Polish because to translate the words would ruin the song. But we mix the traditional with songs that we grew up loving. Like ‘Alison.’ It’s an effort to make it into a danceable song.
“We’re all between 27 and 35, so we’re a lot younger than most of the bands on the polka scene.”
But on that last note, Jakubowicz is optimistic about polka’s chances of surviving in a fast-paced, bar-centric environment.
“As for us playing bars and stuff, we probably won’t be playing a mainstream bar outside maybe the Blowout or Paczki day,” he says.
“But you don’t have to be Polish to enjoy the music. The music is a blast. If you go up to anybody at a polka dance and say, ‘I want to learn how to polka’ — they’ll teach you right then and there. If you want to meet someone and you’re single, you walk up and say, ‘Wanna polka?’ Right there you’ve broken the ice!”
A Beginner’s Glossary
Polka — Rhythm is usually counted in twos (i.e. 1-2, 1-2).
Waltz — Counted in threes and usually slower.
Oberek — Counted in threes, like a waltz but with a faster tempo.
Push Sound — Style of playing the polka in which the accordion bellows “shake,” the drums have a really solid beat and, says Jakubowicz, “generally the instruments are screaming pretty good.”
Honkey Style — Style in which the accordion bellows don’t shake. A little bit slower than Push Style. This is a traditional, laid-back style.
Chicago Style — Invented by Little Wally in the ’50s. Slower-tempo polka developed, appropriately, in and around Chicago. “Like Honkey, but with more instrumentation.”
Eastern Style — Popularized on the East Coast. The playing is almost like a swing band; Fast, up-tempo. “Big, big, big arrangements.”
Other polka resources:
247polkaheaven.com — Kevin Jakubowicz hosts a show on this online polka radio station five days a week.
Topomo.com — Online regional polka resource.
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