Heritage Moments: Buffalo picks a polka

Sep 12, 2016

There is no “Buffalo Sound,” but if there were, it might well be the lively, happy rhythms of a polka band – music that has provided the region a continuous soundtrack for the better part of a century.

Polka arose in Buffalo with the great influx of Eastern and Central European immigrants in the early 20th century. In the city, as in Chicago, New England and elsewhere, the Polish form of polka predominated. In Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the Slovenian form took hold. In Milwaukee it was German. And the music spread far beyond the Great Lakes and Northeast, across the Great Plains, down to the Hill Country of Texas, even to the conjuntos Norteño of Mexico.

There are differences – an example: in Slovenian polka the accordion carries the melody; in Polish it’s the horns. And then there are the “Chicago Push” and East Coast styles of Polish polka, but you get the idea. There are so many varieties of polka, but all of them share the same, bouncy 2/4 rhythm that set the couples dancing.

Polka became a fixture on Buffalo’s local airwaves beginning in the late 1940’s with Stan Jasinski’s radio shows in English and Polish. (He would do them until 2000.) In the early ’60s polka moved to Buffalo television with WGR’s Pic-A-Polka, featuring bandleader Frank Wojnarowski, and in the ’70s polka shows proliferated on radio stations like WXRL. In the ’80s, local cable TV featured Polka Saturday Night, a jaunty show hosted by Big Steve Krzeminski and his band, the Bellares. Taped at locations like the Polish Falcons Hall in Depew and the Executive Inn in Cheektowaga, the show perfectly captured polka’s sense of lighthearted fun:

Big Steve died in 1999, but he is still fondly remembered, and the music continues to thrive among its main audience, the sizable Polish and Eastern European community in Western New York and Southern Ontario. It is a niche audience, to be sure -- but even though it has virtually no mainstream commercial appeal compared with rock, r&b, jazz, hip hop, gospel and all the other musical genres it predates, polka lives on at banquet halls, community centers and on television with the newest dance show, Polka Buzz.

The roll call of local bands that have brought polka to the people down through the years is a long one: the Pole Cats, Honky Hoppers, the Dynatones, the Buffalo Touch, Wanda & Stephanie, New Direction Band, the Knewz, Steel City Brass, City Side, the Pic-A-Polka Orchestra, to name just a few.

And with the recent rise of Buffalo’s Dyngus Day celebration into an event that draws thousands of revelers, the music is reaching new audiences -- especially with Those Idiots’ joyous covers of pop hits by the likes of Lady Gaga and Twisted Sister:

That’s the good-time feeling of polka, always a barrel of fun.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Excerpt from a mid-1980s telecast of Polka Saturday Night, Big Steve and the Bellares performing “Hop Ciuk Polska Kiołbasa” (Li’l Wally Jagiello)

Narrator: Eileen Buckley

Sound recording: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Sound editing: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Arlene Krzeminski

Robin Pegg

Ron Dombrowski

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Micheal Peters, WBNY general manager, 2016-17 academic year

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)