Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Polka Party

By Mark Jordan

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  In the last 15 years the accordion has literally gone from one of the most unpopular instruments of all time to being the ultimate fashion statement of the ’90s. Everybody wants one.

On the face of it Carl Finch’s statement seems rather ridiculous, as, indeed, the accordion itself seems. This is, after all, an instrument that is, in most people’s imaginations, most often associated with monkey grinders and Bavarian beer-hall performers wearing lederhosen. But after even a brief conversation with Finch, founder of the Texas group Brave Combo, one begins to realize the accordion has an esteemed place in some pretty cool ethnic music genres, including klezmer, Tejano, Cajun, zydeco, and Finch’s own beloved polka.

“What you imagine [about polka] in your brain is a tourist version that they do in Munich once a year for a bunch of stodgy old men and their nephews,” Finch says. “It’s the same as if you were going to Memphis and someone took you to the most slick blues bar that really has nothing to do with blues.”

Finch formed Brave Combo in 1979 in Denton, Texas, about 35 miles outside of Dallas. The group – which today consists of Finch on guitar, keyboards, and accordion; “Bubba” Hernandez on bass; Jeffrey Barnes on reeds, flute, harmonica; trumpeter Danny O’Brien; percussionist Joseph Cripps; and drummer Alan Emert – was conceived in opposition to what Finch saw as the sorry state of popular music at the time. Like many people in the ’70s, Finch was dispirited by what he heard on the radio and went looking for an alternative. But while most people turned to the new sounds of disco, punk, and New Wave for salvation, Finch found it in older, more unlikely forms.

“I was mainly listening to polkas at the time,” Finch says. “But I was also getting turned on to other forgotten ethnic forms – lots of Latin albums that were in used-record bins, like cha-cha albums and mambo albums and merengue.”

For most ordinary musicians, the cultural stigma around polka as something profoundly uncool would have been tough to get over, but Finch immediately responded to it on a level that went deeper than fashion.

“I think I was actually hearing some fiery playing that was coming strictly from the love of playing music,” he recalls. “With rock-and-roll in the ’70s, the human element had been reduced considerably from the real Top 40 stuff. I think that’s why disco and punk and new wave kind of branched off, because people were looking for that passion that had once been there in rock-and-roll.”

Today, the Brave Combo hear that passion in a variety of musical styles. True to their name, they fearlessly explore not just polka but related forms such as Tejano and klezmer as well as some not so similar ones such as cha-cha. In each case, the group reinterprets the traditional forms with a uniquely American multicultural ear.

“With American Polish music especially, you can hear the grittiness of traditional music moving to an urban environment and through all that it took in all these influences – rock-and-roll and funk and stuff like that – over the years,” Finch says. “To people outside of those movements it sounds radical and unusual because they don’t know how much those movements take from the disparate elements they’re exposed to. A lot of the traditional stuff now is very influenced by music outside of their culture, but they’re working it in in very interesting ways.”

Despite the mutt aspect of their sound, once the Brave Combo started playing out in 1979, they found a surprisingly receptive audience, one that continues to make them one of the most popular bands in Dallas.

The band also won over the critics early on. An early write-up in a Texas magazine led to a rave in Rolling Stone by Kurt Loder, who was intrigued by the band’s polka take on a Jimi Hendrix medley. Since then Brave Combo has become a regular on public television and National Public Radio programs such as A Prairie Home Companion and All Things Considered. The group won Downbeat magazine’s “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” honor in the pop/rock category three years in a row. And they have been featured in David Byrne’s movie True Stories and even played the Talking Heads lead singer’s wedding.

In their 19-year existence, Brave Combo has also recorded an impressive 20 albums domestically, including the recently released live disc Polka Party, as well as a number of foreign releases.

Through all this, whether they’re playing polka or cha-cha, Finch has discovered that it is that human element he first heard in the ’70s that reaches through all the cultural barriers and grabs audiences.

“We play polkas a lot of times without the accordion. It doesn’t have to have the accordion to be a hip, driving song; it just really boils down to the beat and the style,” Finch says. “That’s what so appealing about a polka. It’s music you can come to and take very seriously from a musical point of view. If you break a polka down, it’s not real simple; it’s actually pretty complicated if you try and perform it right. But it’s also music that holds up very well as fun music.”

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