The Chardon Polka Band Crafts Musical Quilt In ‘Polka Across America’< < Back to
In a typical year, The Chardon Polka Band plays for hundreds of audiences scattered throughout the entirety of the country.
2020 was not a typical year.
“2020 was extremely different and extremely difficult in so many ways, and not just for us,” said Jake Kouwe, founder of the Chardon Polka Band and the group’s accordion player. “I mean, we’re just musicians. Across the country there were hardships for so many people — so many people whose jobs were just getting thrown out the window. For us, usually we play about 200 shows a year and that all of a sudden dropped to nothing, everything was canceled. So we were doing basically anything we could to continue making music and entertaining people.”
In response to the lack of gigs due to COVID-19, Kouwe began getting in touch with other musicians who were facing the same sort of difficulties.
“I started reaching out to bands that we knew from across the country and asked them to send videos and clips in to us — and the response was enormous,” said Kouwe. “Then we kind of strung all the submissions together with kind of a storyline we developed pretty much on the fly. It made this interesting kind of musical quilt, if you will, with parts from all over the country.”
The band’s efforts culminated in an hour-long documentary entitled Polka Across America, which WOUB-TV will broadcast Saturday, September 25 at 11 p.m. ET. It’s important to note the documentary doesn’t only feature polka.
“Polka Across America doesn’t just focus on polka – we’ve also got some Zydeco artists in there. One of my favorite parts in the documentary came from a dude from Atlanta who plays the organ for the Atlanta Braves. He also plays polka! I reached out to him, and he knew who The Chardon Polka Band was, so he played “Take Me Out To the Ball Game” on accordion for us! It was fantastic,” said Kouwe.
Kouwe formed The Chardon Polka Band when he was only 16 after he learned that he would not be able to play the accordion in the Chardon High School Marching Band. The group of enthusiastic teenagers soon developed a following from regularly playing at local nursing homes. Although the band members often looked more like they were in a punk rock band than a polka band, their skillful and eager renditions of the much-loved genre endeared them to the nursing home residents.
Nearly a decade and a half later, The Chardon Polka Band remains highly regarded – and not just by nursing home residents — not only for their faithfulness to the musical conventions that define polka as a genre, but also for their ability to creatively bend those conventions – such as giving Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” or Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” polka makeovers.
“I think that music, like any art form, has got to keep evolving and changing while still maintaining all these cool traditions and cool songs that have been played for, you know, like over a hundred years. Still, you’ve got to work to keep it interesting and as in touch with your generation as possible,” said Kouwe. “I recently read about how all these different states have physical polka hall of fames that house all these polka artifacts and they have physical mailing lists — which is great, but it’s not really where my generation is at. My generation is more apt to plug into something like Facebook or Instagram and create a community there who can then come together physically for concerts. Like any art form, if polka is stuck in the past, it just won’t reach new people. What we try to do as artists is to make polka accessible to our own generation.”