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Bohemian Rhapsody

Connect the polka dots: Jeffrey Barnes (from left), Carl Finch, Alan Emert, Cenobio Hernandez and Danny O'Brien are Brave Combo.
Angilee Wilkerson

As Brave Combo founder Carl Finch talks about polka from an office phone in Denton, Texas, his passion for the multicultural art form knows no bounds. But get him going about the mainstream perception of his chosen trade (he plays accordion, guitar and keyboards and handles most of the singing and songwriting for the band), and the 53-year-old bandleader sounds like his guts are churning from a bad kielbasa.

"If you say 'Pick the goofiest, most novelty-prone music that's easy to make fun of,' everybody says polka," Finch insists. "The media perpetuates this stereotype with very little regard for the depth of the music. You wouldn't believe how many hotdog music journalists I talk to who come to me from the point of view that accordions are a joke. Most of them are slackers who aren't taking care of business. They need to see that the accordion has been part of the vocabulary of pop music for the last twenty years. I bet you if you go to that ultra-hip person who supposedly is the gauge for all coolness, I bet they don't have any idea that the accordion's a goofy instrument.

"Polka in the mainstream world is there for one reason," Finch continues. "And that's to be the ultimate symbol of ridicule. The music world needs a no-brainer that you can point at and laugh at, 'cause no one can think on their own. It's the most absurd thing I've ever seen."

Confounding Finch even further is the tiresome fact that polka is always associated with annual drinking marathons such as Oktoberfest.

"Beer, sausage, lederhosen, national pride -- why do any of those things matter?" Finch demands. "Polka, for some reason, has not been allowed to grow away from those attachments. With a blues festival, no one's gonna force a barbecue sandwich in your mouth. When a Cajun band plays, do they have to pass out free crawfish to legitimize themselves? For some reason, polka is not allowed the same luxury that other ethnic forms of music are. Why can't polka just be like rock and roll?"

Even though in his youth Finch gravitated less toward Lawrence Welk than the amplified roar of the Yardbirds, the Nazz and Led Zeppelin (bands he tried to emulate during stints with the Lords of Sound and Rasputin & the Monks), he soon discovered polka in the form of bargain-bin vinyl. While attending a jazz-studies program at North Texas University, Finch met two like-minded souls who would become core members of Brave Combo: sax and woodwinds ace Jeffrey Barnes, and bassist Cenobio "Bubba" Hernandez. After several personnel changes over the years, trumpeter Danny O'Brien and drummer Alan Emert came aboard, strengthening the Combo's grip on zydeco, swing, ranchera, cumbia, rumba, Tex-Mex, ska, gypsy music and countless other styles.

Boasting a massive discography whose contents range from serious to self-consciously giddy entries, Finch and company can charge through a salsa version of "Louie, Louie" as easily as they can a twist treatment of "Hava Nagila." They've rearranged show tunes, torch songs, Yuletide classics, Mozart, Bach and Chopin -- and introduced a new generation to the chicken dance and the hokey pokey. They played at David Byrne's wedding, performed on A Prairie Home Companion and collaborated with Tiny Tim on his final album, Girl. Then there's longtime fan Matt Groening, whose friendship led to Brave Combo's appearing in glorious yellow-skinned animation on an episode of The Simpsons, for which they also rescored Danny Elfman's closing theme, polka style.

"Matt was a DJ in college, and when our very first album, Music for Squares, came out, he wrote reviews of it for the school paper," Finch recalls. "About ten years ago, he just started showing up at our gigs."

Brave Combo's charmed life continued. After multiple Grammy nominations, it took home the prize in 1999 for Polkasonic, which beat out traditionalists Jimmy Sturr and Eddie Blazonczyk. A few snippy letters to the Polish American Journal, however, disparaged the band as hippie outsiders with no unifying national origin.

"Polka purists don't dig what we do to some degree, because we're mutts," Finch admits. "It's a small percentage, but it does represent a mindset, and the ultimate wall that is not coming down. Normally, if you're Slovenian, you play Slovenian. If you're Polish, you play Polish. If you're Mexican, you play Tejano. We aren't from a particular ethnicity -- other than Bubba, who's Hispanic -- but none of us are drawn to this because it was in our background. We take the polka seriously, but we don't claim allegiance to any one particular group."

Even so, a white supremacist from Minnesota who apparently views polka as a badge of racial pride sent the Combo an adoring fan letter. In it, he asked the band to prove its loyalty by denouncing jazz as the music of Satan; he also offered his "Polish Power" T-shirts as on-stage apparel. Brave Combo declined.

"They're the ones that are confused -- the old guard," Finch allows. "This music does not belong to them. They have confiscated it.

"I know a lot of scholars researching this, and Hitler didn't want the accordion to have anything to do with Germany," Finch goes on. "He thought it was the instrument of the common people. So what's funny about that whole white-supremacist thing is that the ultimate leader of that movement wanted polka music annihilated because it represented stupidity."

The F├╝hrer wasn't the only one who viewed the instrument as inferior. A while back, Pepsi ran an ad that portrayed a young Jimi Hendrix choosing the electric guitar over a squeeze box, which incensed Finch. Brave Combo, which plays its own ripping version of "Purple Haze," actually inspired a boycott and letter-writing campaign that convinced the beverage bottlers to pull the spot.

"We were instrumental in having some negative publicity pulled away from polka," Finch says. "The bottom of that is some stupid, insecure, ill-informed ad guy: He wasn't cool one minute of his life, never will be, and all he can do is sit around and criticize."

"We're not like the young renegades fighting the old world," Finch continues, "because the old world is supporting us. We're just one of thousands of people around the country who are trying to get some respect for the music. There's a lot of progressive polka in the world, but it is not even on the radar. So we're trying to pinpoint the reason, and, through sheer force, change it."

Whether or not Brave Combo's silver-anniversary release, Let's Kiss, alters any widely held perceptions about polka remains to be seen. The album might have fetched the group its second Grammy, but Finch believes the Combo's overall legacy has yet to be determined.

"It's not like we're newcomers," Finch concludes. "We've been doing this for 25 years. Perhaps we've even created a whole new genre, and history won't tell us for a hundred years. Who knows?"