Cleveland is known as “America’s polka capital,” where the traditional music and dance still draw devoted fans. But the genre is struggling to reach a broader and younger audience.
In this week’s Shuffle, WKSU’s Phil de Oliveira met a husband-and-wife duo who’s taking polka all over Cleveland.
Go to the Hofbrauhaus in downtown Cleveland on a weekend, and you’ll probably hear Nancy and Eric Noltkamper playing German polkas.
“For somebody who’s never heard it, it’s happy music,” Eric said. “Just like the blues sets a certain mood, polka sets a certain mood too.”
Nancy works as a security analyst by day. Eric is a full-time musician.
“We play all the standard, 'Roll out the Barrel' and 'Pennsylvania Polka' and 'She's Too Fat for Me.'” Eric said. “That's what the people recognize, and that's fine, it brings it to a different audience. There's such a variety of folks who come through here every day.”
Attracting all ages
Nancy and Eric — both in their 40s — maintain a busy performance schedule around Cleveland. The music attracts people of all ages, from children to eighty- and ninety-year-olds “who have been around and saw Frankie Yankovic back in the heyday,” Nancy said.
But getting younger people to actually play the accordion is a different story. For one thing, Eric says, it’s easier to learn chords on a guitar than pick up a more complex instrument like the accordion. And then there’s the price.
“You can go buy a guitar for $100, and you're looking at $3,000 to $4,000 for an accordion, for a professional one,” Eric said.
Nancy has taken to the internet to help keep the polka tradition alive. She started a website — Polkas.com — where she distributes recordings from a variety of artists. The site began in the very early days of mp3 recordings.
“The website is as old as Google, but I'm not quite as rich,” Nancy joked.
Same music, different instruments
Accordions come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. While Eric and Nancy play the same music, they play on different instruments. Eric plays a piano accordion, with its familiar keyboard, bellows and buttons. While the left hand plays a bass line and chords, the right hand plays the melody.
“So you make your rhythm with your left hand and you play the melody with the right hand,” Eric said.
Eric’s accordion also has a handful of switches right above the keyboard. They route the air through different sets of reeds, like stops on an organ.
Nancy plays on what’s called a button box. It also has a bellows that pushes air through reeds to create sound. But instead of a keyboard, it has buttons on both sides. Each button plays a different note depending on which way the air is moving. It's similar to the way a harmonica plays different notes depending on whether someone breathes in or out through the instrument.
Growing up with polka
Accordion music was a regular part of Nancy’s upbringing. Her great uncle played a button box at all the family get-togethers, and she would often hear music spilling out onto the street where she grew up near 65thand St. Clair.
“There was a bar on the corner there, and they would play accordions and button boxes and you could hear them either stumbling out after they were done or you could hear the music inside,” Nancy said.
Nancy’s neighbors embraced traditional accordion music, but it was a different story at school.
“Little did I know that I would be laughed at pretty much through grade school, through high school,” Nancy said. “Even through college they didn’t understand what the button accordion was. It wasn’t exactly like I was playing a guitar or clarinet or something that was familiar to everybody else.”
Eric got his start on the accordion a bit later.
“I grew up as a teenager starting to play dance jobs,” Eric said. “It was the WWII generation at that time that went out dancing every weekend, and they danced polkas and waltzes and swing music and Latin rumbas and cha-chas, ballroom dancing.”
These days, Nancy and Eric play all over Cleveland, keeping the polka tradition alive one audience at a time.
“Trying to keep the music alive, trying to create that audience is a lot harder than you would think,” Nancy said.
“There will always be people playing it, it will always exist in some form,” Eric said.
“But as far as being able to go out and hear it somewhere, that's going to be hard.”