The Grand Rapids band performing at this weekend’s Dozynki Polish Harvest Festival talks about polka’s enduring draw for Local Spins on WYCE, which also debuts music by other Michigan artists.
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In the robust world of polka music, it’s all about family.
Take Grand Rapids trumpeter/bandleader Gerry Kaminski and bassist Dave “Nigel” Kurdziel who started performing with their fathers’ bands at the age of 12 or so, spending years honing their craft before striking out on their own.
Or the families that toast Polish culture at festivals and celebrations, dancing deep into the night to groups such as Gerry Kaminski’s Polka Network, which will headline Saturday night’s Dozynki Polish Harvest Festival on Grand Rapids’ Calder Plaza.
Or how about the band members themselves?
“It’s the camaraderie on the bandstand – the guys that are on stage with me,” Kaminski said of what makes polka music special. “We’re brothers. God has truly blessed all of us to put us on stage together. … I absolutely love it.”
Added Kurdziel, who was raised in a Polish neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, N.Y.: “It’s such a big part of my upbringing.”
Indeed, polka has been such a big part of Kurdziel’s life – performing and recording with several different renowned bands, including the Grammy Award-nominated Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones – that the International Polka Association will induct the bassist into its prestigious Polka Music Hall of Fame over Labor Day weekend.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” he said of the “polka-centric” award. “For anybody in this business … it’s the biggest honor anybody can get in this industry.”
Before that, Kurdziel, Kaminski and the rest of the Polka Network – accordionist and concertina player John Zelasko, trumpeter and saxophonist Andy Pawlak, drummer Pete Chacho, and concertina and fiddle player Paul Futa – will lead the 11-year-old band through entertaining sets at this weekend’s Dozynki Festival hosted by the Polish Heritage Society of Grand Rapids. View the schedule below.
“We’re gonna polka rock it out,” insisted Kaminski, who led Gerry Kaminski’s Merry Makers for 25 years before playing with the Versatones and later starting the Polka Network. “Since the pandemic, it (Dozynki Polish Harvest Festival) really has taken off. People really missed the polka festival downtown.”
“Rocking” accurately describes the progressive style of polkas the Polka Network unleashes. (Kaminski noted that he owned his fair share of Black Sabbath and Three Dog Night eight-tracks growing up, but had three times as many polka tapes.) It’s not the “oom-pah” approach stereotypically associated with the genre, but a style honed by Chicago and Buffalo bands.
“It’s like polka rock,” Kaminski said in an interview at Fifth Street Hall on Grand Rapids’ West Side, otherwise known as “home” for the band. “It rocks your socks off.”
VIDEO: Gerry Kaminski’s Polka Network
PULASKI DAYS’ POLKA MARATHON AND KEEPING POLKA MUSIC ALIVE
After this weekend’s polka splash, Kaminski and his crew will get even busier come the Pulaski Days celebration taking place at more than a dozen Grand Rapids halls the first week of October. The band will play several times over five straight days at Fifth Street Hall and elsewhere.
“Every day just keeps getting better, better and better,” Kaminski quipped.
Kaminski – who’s performed on stages for 52 years – noted that members of the Polka Network combined have more than 300 years of experience, all following “in their fathers’ footsteps” to create a true family legacy when it comes to polkas.
Kurdziel added that while polka’s popularity nationwide has gone through “peaks and valleys” over the years, it’s currently on the upswing with hopes for attracting younger audiences to the genre.
“We want to get more young people involved,” he said. “That’s a big part of keeping this music going and keeping it alive. It’s sort of my goal. You don’t have to be Polish to enjoy it. You don’t have to be Polish to play it. But come out.”
This week’s edition of Local Spins on WYCE featured two tracks performed by members of Kaminski’s band – “Frustration Polka” and “Daddy’s Polka” – with Zelasko noting the group might eventually release an EP.
The Aug. 25 show also featured new music by other Michigan artists, including Jake Godsil, Kitten & The Tonics, Blockhouse Valley, Jack Droppers & The Best Intentions, Jesse Ray & The Carolina Catfish, Myron Elkins, Brandon Marceal, Molly, Eric Nachtrab and The Accidentals. Listen to the full podcast here, with the Polish Festival schedule below.
PODCAST: Local Spins on WYCE (8/25/23)
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