It seems polka fans, especially younger ones, are a lot like members of the fictional "Fight Club." ("The first rule of polka is: You do not talk about polka.")
"A lot of people are afraid to admit to their friends that they love polka," said Jimmy Sturr, "The King of Polka," calling from his home in upstate Orange. "They don't want people to think they're square."
Sturr, however, knows the truth. Winner of 18 Grammy Awards, host of a weekly polka TV show on RFD-TV and leader of a band that's seemingly always on the road, he has seen the power of polka's audience first hand. "It's an underground type of music," says Sturr, who plays the NYCB Theatre at Westbury tomorrow. "It will never be rock, pop or country. But that doesn't mean it isn't great music."
Though polka's popularity has dipped in recent years, the Internet has made the connection of fans to the music and to each other stronger, says Bob Petrowsky, better known as "New York Polka Bob," the host of a twice-weekly show on Nassau Community College's radio station, WHPC/90.3 FM.
"It's exciting watching the music grow," he said. "Because of the Internet, people can hear the different exhibitions of our styles worldwide. I get emails from people in Japan or Mexico, or the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. I can play a song from a local band on Long Island and it will get heard by someone some place in China. That's amazing."
For many, it's the polka's upbeat tempo and accordion-driven arrangements, as well as the party atmosphere they create, that have helped it grow globally since its creation in Central Europe in the 1830s.
'In your blood'
"Once you get it in your blood, you can't get it out," explained Teresa Zapolska, a polka singer and songwriter who was inducted into the International Polka Association Hall of Fame and also hosts a weekly polka show on WUSB/90.1 FM Sunday afternoons. "People ask me why I don't retire and take it easy, but I can't get polka out of my system."
Exclusive subscription offer
Newsday covers the stories that matter most to Long Islanders. We dig deep to uncover the facts, hold the powerful in check and keep a watchful eye on Long Island.
Your digital subscription, starting at $1, supports local journalism vital to the community.SUBSCRIBE NOW
Zapolska even named her Westbury florist shop Polka Towne Florist & Gifts in honor of the music. "People call me all the time during my show and say, 'Thanks for cheering me up,' " she said. "The music revitalizes you."
A singer with Frank Wojnarowski's band, Zapolska said she wishes she could organize the massive polka festivals that she used to stage with Wojnarowski in Manhattan and Bridgeport, Conn. "Nobody is that daring anymore," she said, laughing. "We were both daring."
The future of polka
However, Petrowsky is excited about the future of polka, as new acts like Brave Combo and FreezeDried expand the genre's reach by incorporating it into other styles of music. "Let's keep our roots, but let's move forward," said Petrowsky, adding that when he played a polka version of Billy Joel's "The Longest Time," it inspired other DJs at WHPC to play it. "If we don't, we're not going to broaden enough to bring new people in."
Sturr is doing his part to bring new people into the polka underground as well. His recent "Not Just Another Polka" album, includes a polka take on The Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da."
"It's a way of showing that polka isn't just for old people or just for ethnic people," he said. "Polka is for everyone."
INFO $29.50-$59.50; 800-745-3000 livenation.com
Polka Country USA
WHEN 5-7 p.m. Sundays
INFO WUSB/90.1 FM, hosted by Teresa Zapolska, wusb.fm
WHEN 7 p.m. Mondays, 10 a.m. Fridays
INFO WHPC/90.3 FM, hosted by New York Polka Bob, ncc.edu/whpc
WHEN 3-10 p.m. July 10
INFO 1 Molloy St., Copiague, lipl.org
Polish Town Fair
WHEN Aug. 20-21
INFO Polonaise Park, Riverhead, polishtownusa.com