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Various Artists: Deep Polka: Dance Music from the Midwest

Say what, a compilation of Wisconsonian music covered in a world music column? Has the columnist taken leave of senses? No, what Deep Polka: Dance Music from the Midwest (Smithsonian 40088; 67:25) represents is a serious consideration of one of those esoteric niches in American culture, and one which has a direct link to an important world music tradition, polka having spread from its European base to Mexico, the American Midwest, and beyond.

The passionate byway of polka lore thrives in parts of the midwest and other pockets of the country, but is virtually invisible by the discriminating terms of mass culture. If it does show up on the American cultural screen, it’s often seen in a satirical context. But it’s not funny, or, let’s say, it’s not only funny, just as it’s not only dance music.

Deep Polka is a title with, well, depth. As curator Anthony Seeger says in his introduction, it’s about delving deeply into the dance imperative at the core of polka’s being, but also acknowledging the musical riches and complexities of the tradition as well as its deeper meaning. The music here is taken from seven stellar bands who performed in the Smithsonian Folkways Festival this year, as part of the Wisconsin Sesquicentennial celebration. The bands represent various subcultural strains, including the Norwegian, Czech, Finnish, Bohemian, and Dutchman (alias German) flavors.

Karl and the County Dutchman open the proceedings with the giddy, liberating anthem of “Minnesota Polka,” with Karl Hartwich on concertina, trading choruses with a small complement of brass, including the mighty tuba. Twenty-six tracks later, the Czech style sounds of the Clete Bellin Orchestra takes us out with “Around the Moon,” with tightly voiced trumpets and lyrics in Czech and English, fittingly enough.

One of the most positive aspects of the world music boom over the last several years, at its best and least commercially calculating, has been its sense of curiosity, in digging up important music from around the globe otherwise left out of the general music distribution picnic. This polka set is a fine example of the same instinct, if extracted from a much closer corner of the world. It’s deep, if not exactly nationwide.

Originally Published