Somewhere in Hanson’s MMMBop, the Proclaimers’ 500 Miles and Beyonce’s Single Ladies, Jake Kouwe heard polkas.
The Chardon Polka Band, which Kouwe leads, routinely filters pop tunes through the accordion; all of those mentioned songs have been part of a Chardon medley. The band members also sport a very casual look, with Kouwe favoring a bandana over his long hair, and jeans. Still, after a performance at the 2012 National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame Awards, the Chardon band was proclaimed “the new face of polka.”
And it seemed to provide the perfect formula for a reality show.
ReelzChannel is making plans for Polka Kings, a series about the Chardon ensemble, to begin production in the spring for telecast in fall 2014.
“Constantly finding themselves in crazy situations ranging from private parties to nursing homes, Ukrainian summer camps to the Duct Tape Festival in Ohio, each week Polka Kings follows the dynamic, Middle American group’s attempts to achieve mainstream status and their ultimate goal of headlining their dream event: Oktoberfest in Germany,” said the program announcement. It promises that “there’s no shortage of inter-band drama involving financial stresses, rocky romances and disapproving family members who are convinced polka isn’t a real job.”
“I had a gut feeling that we would be perfect for this. We’re odd and unique,” said Kouwe, a former Chardon resident now living in Burton in Geauga County. “We’re quirky but we’re also a ragtag family.”
After all, Kouwe is in a relationship with the band’s saxophonist, Emily Burke. Paul Coates, a bassist and sousaphone player, is dating the daughter of the 67-year-old drummer, Pops Magooch, even though she is 20 years older than Coates. And Kouwe’s father, Phil, often sits in with the band.
While the Chardon group was formed a decade ago, its roots go back to when young Kouwe was “raised on Lawrence Welk,” the show that often featured accordionist Myron Floren. In his early teens, his family moved to Ohio from Wilmington, N.C., and Kouwe found himself friendless and at loose ends. Seeing an accordion-toting Weird Al Yankovic on TV, he thought it might be fun to take up the instrument.
Starting on a used accordion his parents had bought at a thrift shop, Kouwe began taking lessons — and was pleased to see that he was learning songs right away. Within two months, he was playing at churches and “basically anywhere that would have me.”
Then came a polka show at the Old Firehouse Winery in Geneva. Songs like Too Fat Polka and In Heaven There Is No Beer demonstrated how fun the music was, and how well audiences responded, even when the only musician performing was an accordionist.
Kouwe kept playing, adding nursing homes to his venues. He also wanted to play accordion at Chardon High, only to find doors closed.
“There was no place for me in the jazz band, there was no place for me in the symphony. There was no place for me in the marching band,” he said. So with Coates, his best friend, Kouwe started what was known at the time as the Chardon High School Polka Band.
The band played polka standards; Kouwe talks knowingly about Polish, Slovenian and German polkas, and his musical education included listening to the likes of Frankie Yankovic and Brave Combo. At the same time, he points to the influence of the Blues Brothers and Queen for their theatrical approach to performing, and to artists outside of polka for material.
“I was never going to get my generation to listen to it without putting some attitude into it,” he said. “We were in high school, and we’d play Twisted Sister, and the kids would turn around and watch us because we were doing something different. We would play punk songs … on accordion and tuba. We weren’t any good, but ... people would say, gosh, you guys are entertaining.”
After he finished high school, he said his family gave him a choice: go to college or get a job. He chose Lakeland Community College, although “I never liked going to school” and his attendance was erratic. Still, he had not yet committed fully to music. He produced videos for churches. He worked in an auto restoration shop. He was one of those guys holding a pizza-shop sign by the road. He thought about becoming a minister. If someone called to book what was now just the Chardon Polka Band, they would get together. But he wasn’t chasing the dream.
“There was one day, at the Geauga County Fair, which we had been playing for years,” he said. “And I went, this is a better feeling than anything else gives me. This being on stage and making people happy — you get your gratification directly.”
But that gratification would be nothing without a paycheck, so Kouwe committed to making the band better and to pursuing work for it. Now he estimates he spends several hours a day just booking jobs, The band also has worked on getting a strong Internet presence, including a website (www.chardonpolkaband.com) and several videos on YouTube.
There are still challenges, Kouwe admitted. Until recently, he was still working outside of music — and he takes some solo performing jobs to pay the bills. Only with continued work, and a TV show looming, he can see success ahead.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.