Texas Music

Defending the Polka: Mark Halata of Texavia

Polka may be a musical punchline to a lot of people, but it's no joke to others. That's why no one was laughing when the Recording Academy announced last week that it was eliminating the Best Polka Recording category starting with next year's awards. As reported in The New York Times, the Academy said, in a statement, it cut the category "to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape."

The only thing is, polka is very much a part of the current musical landscape. And although it doesn't have quite the same currency here as in the upper Midwest - the International Polka Association's headquarters is in Chicago - the large number of Czechs and Germans who settled in central and east-central Texas in the 19th century planted polka's roots deep in Lone Star soil. Rocks Off spoke with second-generation Czech Mark Halata of Texavia, one of the Houston area's few practicing polka bands, about this perpetually misunderstood - but always lively - style of music.

Rocks Off: What was your reaction when you heard?

Mark Halata: My reaction was disappointed, but then again I really don't know how the nomination process works with that. It seems like with the polka awards, it always centered around the Northern polka bands until I guess Brave Combo finally broke the barrier on that. That was exciting for us in Texas that a Texas polka band won that Grammy. Here now, just a couple of years later, they're doing away with it.

It's disappointing. And why take it away? I see it as pretty prominent in the music scene in its own way, just as all the other categories.

RO: It seems to me like polka is more popular in Texas than a lot of the rest of the country, with maybe the exception of the Upper Midwest. Why do you think it stayed more prominent in Texas folk music and faded away elsewhere?

MH: Well, for one thing, the Czech heritage, definitely, because of your Czech population. I don't know if you're familiar with Czech polka itself, but a vast majority of the Texas polka bands are Czech polka bands, from Czech heritage playing traditional Czech polka songs. So many Czech immigrants came here. Czech was the third most-spoken language in Texas at one time, I think, until Vietnamese passed it up.

RO: Not being overly familiar with the different styles of polka, what's distinctive about the Czech style of polka?

MH: What's distinctive about what I'll say is Texas Czech polka - you have maybe some orchestrated bands, maybe a couple, that'll play almost like the European style and all that, but you're talking about 100 years of evolution into its own style, with country music influencing it big-time, and amplification - electric guitars coming in, electric basses replacing tubas, accordion and maybe not so much brass in the bands.

In the '40s and '50s, the bands got smaller. You had the Vrazels from Cameron - they just retired after 50 years of playing music. They had a style that a lot of people followed. My band comes from that.

RO: Northern bands - they're not Czech, right?

MH: Well, they're Czech, Polish, Slovenian...

RO: What I think of when I think of the Northern style is probably the more Polish kind of thing.

MH: Yeah. And then again, you're talking when those people came and they went up there, the Czechs down here, their music was evolving in its own way and up there it was evolving in its own way. You can find similarities, and the way communication and travel are now, you've got polka groups that are intertwining and sharing - coming down here and going up there, and getting involved with the festivals and stuff like that.

That's why it's bewildering to me to think why the Grammy association would think that polka's kind of a dying thing when actually I don't see it as a dying thing. I think it may have started to die, but I think it's still going to be around for a while. My goal is to preserve it, or preserve what I grew up listening to.

RO: Talk a little bit about how Czech polka has influenced other music down here, like country and conjunto.

MH: Well, I don't see it as influencing the style of country music. Actually, I think country music definitely influenced the style of Texas Czech polka. I don't know if you ever heard of a gentleman who passed a few years ago - his name was Adolph Hofner.

RO: Oh yeah. Definitely.

MH: Adolph Hofner was a pioneer. Here he was, a Texas guy who sang Texas swing, but he also did polkas and waltzes and sang 'em in Czech. He had his band, and he played polka music and he played Western swing. Then you had other people who followed like Jimmy Brusch, who played the fiddle.

And the dance-hall circuit is pretty interesting thing itself. It seems there's a lot of people interested in the history of the old dance halls. It's amazing how many of them there used to be, and how many of them are still around. Have you heard of the Sengelmann Hall that's been reopened in Schulenburg?

RO: Yeah. We've done a couple of little things on it in the paper.

MH: [The owner is] bringing in a lot of Texas music acts, and here on Sundays he's putting in Czech polka bands.

RO: Yeah, I noticed that.

MH: You asked about Texas Czech polka influencing other styles of music. The only thing I can say is growing up here in Houston playing the accordion, I came in tune with zydeco, Cajun, conjunto and so forth, which I enjoy playing on the accordion. But I'm not a great zydeco player by any means. I'm still a Czech accordionist, and that's my thing.

RO: Is polka part of your personal heritage?

MH: Yes. I'm second-generation Czech. My granddaddy was born in - it wasn't even the Czech Republic, it was Moravia province at that time, and he came here in 1894. He was almost 80 years older than me. I'm the youngest out of eight - my dad was a lot older than me. I'm 42, and my granddad was born in 1891 in Moravia, and he emigrated with his family. My mom and dad were both born in Moravia, Texas, which is about eight miles south of Schulenburg.

That's where my second home is. I have about 32 acres out there. My mom and dad were born there, and they worked the farm. It was a Czech community. People spoke Czech, and music was played. In other words, these families that had instruments, they'd pull 'em out at church picnics and play the old songs that were brought over here with them.

RO: Is there a decent-size Czech community in Houston?

MH: Yes. I grew up on the southeast side of Houston in a Catholic family. My dad was really involved with the Knights of Columbus, which is a Catholic fraternal organization. At the KoC hall my dad belonged to, most of the members were Czech, and a lot of them were from the country out there where my dad grew up.

You would find that all over Houston, Knights of Columbus halls. And then you've got SPJST Lodge No. 88, which is a Czech [meeting hall] on Beall street and 15th, which is kind of my home base, where I played with my band. It's kind of a center for Czech polka.

RO: Why do you think polka has such an unhip, square image these days?

MH: I think its cultural base, I guess being foreign, I don't know why it's not appealing to people. It was appealing to me growing up, because I enjoyed it. My dad listened to it, and I liked the music.

RO: It's dance music, right?

MH: It's dance music, and that was always the deal. I don't know why it became such a hokey thing. I think if people came out to polka dances and got up there and grabbed somebody, they would realize how fun it is. When I go play a dance, it's not about me and what we're doing up there, it's all about the dance. It's about the music, and what makes it full is to see everybody out there. It's like a mosh pit - everybody's going in a big circle with the polkas and waltzes.

RO: What kind of place do you think polka has in the 21st Century?

MH: I think if people would go to a polka dance, if they saw how much fun it was to hold onto another person and twirl around on a dance floor - my hope is to see that it can be a growing thing again. In my mind, I feel that it's not dying, that it's gonna be around. There are new generations of polka bands coming around, guys younger than me - the Czechaholics out of Halletsville.

You still have Brave Combo. You have Bradley Jaye Williams in the Austin area, and the Polkasonics. You have a new generation coming up with the traditional polka style, so I'd say [it will last] as long as there are people willing to provide the polka music, and there's still a place for it to grow, as long as there's dance floors.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray