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February 17, 2014IM -
You may be a little confused, or even shocked, the first time you hear Brave Combo. Have you ever heard a band play “Louie Louie” as a polka in a minor key, a convincing cumbia complete with phonetically accurate Spanish lyrics, and a timeless standard straight from the Great American Songbook, all in one set? And that doesn’t include the various ethnic styles, such as traditional Japanese and Balkan roots music that they have experimented with over the years. Brave Combo covers such a huge range of stylistic territory that it’s pointless to even try categorizing their music.
Understanding the plight of the first-time listener, keyboardist and founding member Carl Finch of Local 72-147 (Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas) throws critics and prospective fans a rope. “Pretty quickly I will say that polka is the cornerstone music,” says Finch. “It’s the style that inspired us to move forward.”
But if the members of Brave Combo consider themselves to be, at their core, a polka band, then where’s the beer and sausage, and when is their next Polish wedding? Most people laugh when presented with these stereotypes of a polka band, where the music and the culture are more often than not exposed to the mainstream as a joke. It’s exactly these sentiments Brave Combo pushes against, and in fact, its crusade forms an important core concept of the group.
“The attachments have become greater than the music itself,” says Finch. “We see that happening in something like polka, where you have this great music, but almost no one in the mainstream will give it a chance because people associate it with beer, or Polish jokes, or bad weddings, or any of that stuff that any ethnic group would experience as prejudice. This goes back to what we’re dealing with today, which is basically prejudice against immigrants.”
Finch grew up about as far away from any kind of polka scene as one can get, and has absolutely no Polish ancestry. In addition, he’s a vegetarian and doesn’t drink beer. “I couldn’t have picked a music further from my path,” he jokes, “but it just really got under my skin.”
Finch was introduced to polka as an adult, when, on a whim, he bought some polka records from the discount bin at his local Woolworth’s in Texarkana, Texas. “At first, I was intrigued by the jackets; they just looked like nothing I had ever seen, and then I started buying polkas like crazy, and started really diggin’ them,” says Finch. Then he started wondering why polka’s reputation overshadowed the reality of the genre.
Shortly after becoming enamored with the sounds of polka in the late ’70s, Finch decided he wanted to put a band together with the music as a central component of the sound. But like many young musicians, he also wanted to rock.
“We use polka as a cornerstone, but we expanded way beyond that,” Finch explains. “We originally wanted to be a rock band, but we didn’t want to be influenced by the rock scene at that time, which was pretty stagnant, soulless, and corporate. A lot of people turned their backs on it.” In Finch’s eyes, Brave Combo was a unique rebellion against mainstream rock, when punk rock and disco were reacting against the same things. “We were trying to lump into the alternative movement from the beginning, it’s just that we played polkas,” Finch says with a chuckle.
As an art student at the University of North Texas, Finch found other students in the music department that were just as curious about obscure ethnic styles as he was, if not more so. Though the personnel has changed over the years, Brave Combo’s vibe has remained true to the original concept pioneered in the early days at North Texas State. The current line up consists of woodwind master Jeffrey Barnes, Little Jack Melody on bass, trumpeter Danny O’Brien, and Alan Emert on drums, all of Local 72-147.
“Over the years, we’ve been really lucky as members have come and gone,” says Finch. “We’ve had different people come in with similar passions. They love different stuff; they like the challenge of learning different music.” This different music ranges from reimagined pop standards (“Apple Blossom Time” performed as a twist, for example), Japanese folk tunes, polka standards, a host of Latin American styles, and mega-hit rock anthems.
“We don’t want to be snooty and elitist, and turn our backs on things that are commercial; we want to be open to all things,” says Finch. “Almost no one is going to dislike ‘People Are Strange’ played as a fast Jewish horah. A lot of what we do is not going out on a limb, but being clever without being elitist.”
Brave Combo’s commitment to their cause was solidified when they made a decision that many would call career suicide. They were invited to play on The Tracey Ullman Show, but the writers wanted them to perform in a stereotypical skit involving a bad Polish wedding. “We literally turned it down,” says Finch. “On the other hand, we were making definite gains in the music, and we saw a lot of our future tied up in people who love polka for what it is.”
Brave Combo’s repertoire can’t be narrowed down to a style; if you try, they’ll leave you in the dust. The group refuses to conform to genre boundaries as it continually develops its reach into obscure ethnic music, blurring the accepted boundaries of mainstream and traditional styles. To understand Brave Combo, you have to embrace the group as the embodiment of a concept.
“It’s the concept that there is some great music out there that a lot of people are conditioned to shut the door on before they listen,” says Finch. “The worst thing that a musician can do is shut their mind to a style of music. That’s a big challenge with Brave Combo, to not throw anything out as a style, and say, ‘We don’t play that.’”
With more than 45 international releases, two Grammy’s, an animated guest appearance on The Simpsons, and a full touring schedule, Brave Combo is stronger now than ever. Finch says he owes a lot of the band’s success to the AFM, particularly in its formative years. “We’ve always felt encouragement, from an emotional point of view, to get out there and do our thing,” says Finch. “There’s a lot of debate about the need for unions, but from our point of view, it’s been a win-win situation. I can’t imagine not being a member.”
“We’ve always felt encouragement, from ?an emotional point of view, to get out there and do our thing,” says Finch. “There’s a lot of debate about the need for unions, but from our point of view, it’s been a win-win situation. I can’t imagine not being a member.”