Pat Barrera hasn’t gone out to listen to his favorite music in a while.
But when he sat down at a table to watch the 55th Annual Chicago Polka Bands Festival in Orland Park last Sunday, the bands quickly brought him back to “heartland,” a time when he would be on the dance floor at Polonia Banquets. ” for polka functions until it closed a few years ago.
“When I hear some of this music, I can’t dance anymore, but it hits my heart,” Barrera said. “I can sit here and be happy and cry because it brings back all these memories.”
A longtime resident of Chicago’s Southwest Side, Barrera grew up in a Polish household. When he was a child, his mother always played a Polish radio station on Sundays. Even though Barrera cannot speak Polish well today, the traditions and music have stuck with him.
“To this day, I can sing you any song you want to hear,” he said.
As with many musical genres, some children inherited their parents’ polka interests while others did not, leaving dance music not as popular as it once was and having fewer places to call home. But polka dancing still has the feeling of a family reunion. In fact, “family” was the #1 word people used to describe their attraction. International Polka Association‘s meetings.
“When you meet someone you might not see them for a year, but when you see them there’s a big ‘How are you?’ What’s going on?’” said Carol Trzebiatowski of Bridgeview. “We’re like family.”
Trzebiatowski got into polka by studying for a disc jockey at a dance more than 60 years ago. He immediately fell in love with the stage.
Eddie Korosa Jr. and the Boys and Girl from Illinois, Tony Blazonczyk & New Phaze, helped collect and check-in guests for the festival held Jan. 14 at Elements by The Odyssey in Orland Park, featuring the IPA Tribute Band, EZ. Tones, Polka Generations and The Music Company, followed by a warm-up dance with Lenny Gomulka and Chicago Push on Saturday.
Next to him at the table was Chicago native Sally Rzeszutko, who has followed polka for more than six decades after growing up in venues where her father played as a polka drummer.
“We are all friends,” Rzeszutko said. “We have known each other for a long time and love music. “I love all music, but polka is number 1.”
Crest Hill’s Tony Blazonczyk followed in the footsteps of his father, Eddie, who owned a recording studio as well as a musician, bandleader and record store.
“It was just in the blood,” Blazonczyk said. “You grew up with it.”
But their connection to the polka world goes beyond blood. He stuck with it because of the feeling that he was performing as part of the community.
“It’s a family,” Blazonczyk said. “You come to the dance and everyone knows everyone. … It’s happy music. “People are always excited when they come here.”
Dan Mateja of Orland Park, who is treasurer of the International Polka Association and leads the IPA Tribute Band on saxophone and clarinet, is among those who describe polka as family and says he has friends made through music in 17 states.
“We are very collegial,” Mateja said. “A lot of Polka people are more like family than friends. Do we know each other? We stay at each other’s houses when we go to other states.”
Mateja’s parents were first-generation Polish Americans who always listened to polka on the radio. Mateja started going to events with them around the age of 8 and never left the scene. She started playing music at the age of 15 and found friends and musicians who shared her passion.
“I love music,” he said. “This is part of my Polish heritage.”
Polka is a style of dance music attributed to Bohemia in the 19th century. However, its popularity spread to Europe and then to America in a variety of styles. Mateja said Cleveland is considered the home base of Slovenian style music in the United States, while Chicago and Buffalo are known for the Polish style. Czech music is popular in Texas, while German-Dutch polka is found in Wisconsin.
“Everything is a little different,” Mateja said. “Many of the core cities where Polish and European immigrants came to live are still going strong, including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland and places on the East Coast.”
But Christy Krawisz, who has chaired the IPA for the past five years – after rejoining in 2010 after spending six years on the board in the 1990s – knows how important it is to maintain traditions. He started polka as a child, going to dances to see his father play the accordion. He witnessed countless events attended by 500-600 people and enjoyed seeing the IPA’s Hall of Fame housed on the upper level of Polonia.
Krawisz also kept a close eye on Polonia and, with it, Glendora House in Chicago Ridge, which has hosted events for more than three decades. Hall of Fame is currently in storage. Still, polka endures as not only a great form of entertainment and a good cardio workout, but also a way to make lifelong connections, Krawisz said.
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“I fell in love with his music,” he said. “I met my husband at polkas. … I’ve met a lot of great people in the industry. I consider many of them to be brothers and sisters because I have known them my whole life. Great experience. “Everyone is so kind, so friendly, and we all have the same love for music.”
Krawisz said Elements is a great partner as the IPA’s latest home for the annual festival designed to commemorate January as National Polka Month. Many of those attending events in Chicago have moved to the Orland, Palos and Tinley area. Band members come from places like Orland Park, Mokena, Palos Park, Palos Hills and Crest Hill.
Krawisz said that although polka participation fluctuated with the weather as he got older, it was always Martin Luther King Jr. He said the annual dance, held on the weekend of the Day, has never been canceled in 55 years.
“The people who come are having a good time,” Krawisz said. “Groups always make you feel like you’re important. It doesn’t matter if you’re new or have been here for 50 years. The bands make it a really fun environment.”
Krawisz encourages others to try polka and understand that there are a variety of styles, even if they are skeptical. Some polka bands even incorporate other genres into their work, from country to bluegrass to rock.
“Keep an open mind,” he said. “The music is really good music.”
Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.