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Active Cultures: still a place for polka

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Stas Bulanda and Dyno-Chicago has taken the stage at Polonia Banquets on South Archer, a regular venue for the band and one of the only places left to hear live polka music in Chicago. Seated center stage is Bulanda, a barrel of a man with a perfect coif of white hair. He leads the band from one song to the next with minimal stage patter--"OK, polka time" or "This next one is going to be a polka." Once a song is rolling, Bulanda trills his rs, yodels, and snakes a concertina between his hands, whooping like a more somber, midwestern Bob Wills.

The first set finishes with a waltz written by Dyno-Chicago's accordionist, John Furmaniak, in response to the events of September 11. "It's called 'A Place for Peace,'" Bulanda says. "It's being played all over the radio shows, and we've been getting a lot of requests for it. By the way, I'd like to thank the DJs..."

There are about 150 people in the banquet hall. "This is pretty quiet," a woman at the bar says. "You should have seen last Saturday. The place was packed." Maybe a dozen couples are out on the dance floor. Most of the audience is eligible for social security.

Stas Bulanda and Dyno-Chicago is one of ten or so working polka bands in Chicago. Even the players readily admit they're part of a dying breed, kept alive by the national polka festivals sponsored by such organizations as the United Polka Association, the International Polka Association, and the United States Polka Association--which have all presented Dyno-Chicago with copious awards. "I couldn't even say how many," Bulanda says. The band travels 12 weeks out of the year, circling the midwest quickly and making longer trips down the east coast. One of its regular stops is the Polka Fireworks in Champion, Pennsylvania. "There's always good crowds there, a lot of college kids doing beer bongs and all that stupid shit," says Lou Jedlowski, Dyno-Chicago's trumpet player. "You could hear them playing it out the windows of their dorm rooms."

Bulanda gently contests Jedlowski's account. "I don't think that many college kids."

"At least 50 percent."

"Maybe 10 percent," Bulanda says.

Jedlowski, the newest member of the band, has been with Dyno-Chicago for the past four years. Before that he was with the Debonaires for 31 years. "Strictly weddings," he says. This year he won the United Polka Association's trumpeter of the year award; Furmaniak won best accordionist. At last year's Chicago Music Awards, Dyno-Chicago won best polka band. And over Thanksgiving weekend Bulanda learned that his band had won an award for its August performance at the Polka Jamboree in Fairpoint, Ohio.

The 47-year-old Bulanda grew up in a house where polka was the only music. "My dad and his brother had a band, the Bulanda Brothers Orchestra. When I was growing up, the whole family would go out to Dan Ryan Woods on 87th and Western--that was polka paradise. There were always picnics and parties, weddings. No one had DJs, it was all bands." Bulanda's father, Stanley Sr., and his brother Joe played twice every weekend and more during the week in polka's heyday. "That was the late 50s and 60s, when there was about 15 active polka lounges," Bulanda says.

He acknowledges that nowadays it's a bit of an uphill battle "to bring young people back into polka music, but that's the goal." He says people don't really know that the music has different styles: Chicago style, German, Slovenian, east coast, and many more. "We don't play that 'Roll Out the Barrel' shit," Jedlowski says. "Most people confuse polka with that real fast style."

"It's all melodies and tempos that are different," says Bulanda. "Like our name, Dyno-Chicago, is just about the music: 'dyno' is to polka what Dixieland is to jazz. Like the German style is all that oompah-pah. That's not us. Chicago style is more melodic."

Furmaniak's waltz, "A Place for Peace," has been getting play on WPNA, WNWI, and WCEV. "These are all AM radio shows that mostly play ethnic music and have polka shows on the weekend," says Bulanda. The song is on the band's second album, Rare Polkas Well Done, due out this weekend on Chicago Records.

As Furmaniak sings it at Polonia, couples drift to the dance floor. "Let there be peace / Let there be love." The chorus is taken up by the rest of the band. It's a sweet, lilting song that barely refers to any specifics of the past months. "In these tough times / There needs to be / A place for peace / A place for me."

After the last chorus Bulanda announces a quick break, and Wally Maduzia, regularly on clarinet and saxophone, steps to the mike. "For the card raffle. Eight of spades, eight of spades..."

Dyno-Chicago plays this Sunday, December 9, from 3 to 7 PM at the Eagle Soccer Club, 5844 N. Milwaukee, 773-631-1951. Next Sunday, December 16, they return to Polonia, 4604 S. Archer, to play the hall's annual Christmas dinner, which starts at 1 PM and requires reservations; call 773-523-7980.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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