A Mission From God

photograph by David Bedrich

Jake and Elwood Blues are probably the last people who should come to mind as you watch Austin's Dancehall Boys. After all, the Blues Brothers were about classic R&B -- the ultimate form of hip, funky coolness. The Dancehall Boys, on the other hand, are about polka -- a music that's about as far removed from James Brown or Otis Redding as you can get.

Yet in talking with the Dancehall Boys about their driving passion, one easily recalls Jake and Elwood saying, "We're on a mission from God." More than just a running gag about saving an orphanage, the bluesmen's raison d'être also declared Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's zealous determination to preserve the classic soul music they loved dearly.

That same fervor is obvious when talking to the Dancehall Boys. Their crusade doesn't seem to be religious in nature, but they have all the fervor of missionaries in their spreading the word of Texas-Czech dance music to the heathen of Austin.

"We're meant to do this," says accordionist/vocalist/band leader John Ondrusek. "If we don't, bands like the Majeks from Corpus and the Vrazels from Cameron, some of these bands that are getting up in years now -- the family bands -- they're not going to be around forever. We feel like someone has to carry it on, out of respect for our ancestors, if for no other reason than that."

Unfortunately, the urgency of the crusade is not some sort of paranoia on Ondrusek's part; his beloved Texas-Czech culture and its music is in all-too-real danger of extinction. He, Dennis Svatek (trumpet & baritone), Danny Gerik (trumpet & guitar), Dave Bedrich (trumpet & baritone), and Thomas Durnin (bass) have taken up the mantle at precisely the time when the last traces of this culture are fading. They see themselves not only as entertainers, but academics and archivists, as well.

The culture the Dancehall Boys seek to preserve is one that spans more than 100 years of Texas history. Immigrants began arriving in South Central Texas from their Czech homeland in the late 19th century and quickly entrenched themselves. Their food, music, and communities became entwined with the rest of Texas, resulting in permanent alterations to both their newfound home and their own old-world ways. They adopted cowboy boots and country music, but until recently, one could easily still find folks who spoke only broken English, at best, in towns like Moulton and Shiner. Modern times, however, reveal that most Czech sons and daughters have become completely or near-completely homogenized into the life of America and Texas, and the cultural memory is fading.

"My great-grandfather came over here in 1868 with nothing but the clothes on his back and his little accordion," says Ondrusek, 47. "He went to Fayette County first, which is where he met my great-grandmother, then he moved on to Shiner where he raised 15 kids. I can only remember seeing my great-grandpa twice, when I was like four and five, but I remember seeing him play, and of course my grandfather, [who] I was taught by quite a bit during my early years.

"At age two or three, I can remember on Sunday afternoons my grandpa would be sitting at his barbeque pit and playing his accordion. And he would say things like, 'You need to listen to this. This is good for you to listen to.' I knew at a very early age that I wanted to be doing this at some point in my life. I don't know how I knew, but I just knew. It's ingrained in me, it's in my blood."

"I was raised on it," says bandmate Svatek, who currently works in Austin but lives in Taylor -- one of those little towns where the Czech culture is hanging on. Svatek was reared in similar towns -- born in Wharton and raised in Sealy. "My dad worked on the oil rigs, and the weekends were the only time he had free. Saturday mornings, he would let my mom sleep and make breakfast, and he would always have the radio on the polka station. I can remember hearing that music, and his truck was full of polka 8-tracks.

"After my parents got divorced, the only time I would ever hear it was when I went to visit him, and eventually I just kind of forgot about it because I wasn't around it. Then, I guess when I was a junior in high school, we went to my grandfather's 80th birthday. They had a polka band there, and I was a big, hot-shot first-chair trumpet player in high school and my dad dragged me up on stage.

"I got up there and did okay. They had sheet music, so I could read that. [The band] said, 'Hey, we're playing in Sealy next week if you want to come sit in.' I said, 'Sure, I'll come play,' and I went the next week and they kind of said, 'Well, you want to start playing with us?'

"It was weird," Svatek says, "because the minute I got up there and started playing these songs, it all came back to me. I didn't know any of the names of [the songs], but I remembered them."

The oddball of the group is bass player Durnin. He's not Czech. Neither is he a Texan, actually, though you wouldn't know it from talking to him; Durnin is English by birth, having immigrated to the States when he was eight. Nevertheless, Ondrusek and Svatek say Durnin probably knows more about Texas-Czech music than either of them. After getting hooked on the stuff by a friend, Durnin went so far as to start a radio show on Austin's KOOP: Czech Melody Time, 10-10:30am every Sunday, 91.7FM.

"I guess what caught my ear was the odd sound of this music," says Durnin. "It sounded very alien, but yet at the same time, it came from Texas. I guess it was that strange irony. When I started learning that it's folk music from this state, yet it sounds so foreign -- especially the language -- that strangeness appealed to me.

"My friend Dave Bedrich, who plays with us on a regular basis, is the one that got me into this, because he's half-Czech. He had some records, they were 78rpm records, and a few LPs of these Texas bands, and he told me where I could listen to it on the radio -- this was back when KTAE in Taylor had a Sunday afternoon show and a weekday show.

"I think he started off just playing one of those records, and I said, 'What the hell is that?' I had no idea of even the existence of Czechs in Texas. I knew there were some Germans around New Braunfels, and that was about all I knew."

That "strangeness" is part of the uphill battle the Dancehall Boys face in trying to preserve this music. It's unfamiliar even to many native Texans, and especially here in town; as far as anyone knows, despite a sizeable local Czech community, the Dancehall Boys are the first Texas-Czech band in history to be from Austin.

"We have researched that carefully," Ondrusek says. "The hot spots for bands, especially family bands, have always been Fayette County, Lavaca County, the Ennis area south of Dallas, Corpus Christi, and Houston. In the Sixties and Seventies, there were 12 Czech bands in Lavaca County alone."

Another hurdle in spreading the word is the image of modern polka music -- decidedly unhip. If you haven't heard the music, though, says the band, you've got the wrong idea. This isn't Frankie Yankovic and Lawrence Welk here.

"In the Forties and Fifties, the general population in the South, all they knew about polka music was what they heard from Northern bands from Chicago, Wisconsin, Michigan, and places like that -- popular bands that just happened to play polka music," says Ondrusek. "But it was a whole different style [from the Texas bands]. It was extremely Americanized."

The music that the Dancehall Boys play is less slick, a rawer brass band sound that evolved into its own style here in Texas much like Tex-Mex conjunto bands distinguished themselves from the music of Mexico. In fact, Ondrusek says that his band is even more purist to the original Czech sound than some of the more well-known family bands of the Lone Star polka circuit.

"Eighty percent of the arrangements we play are well-known in Texas, but we play the music as it was written, note for note," explains Ondrusek, adding that the band has tracked down almost-lost original arrangements through old music shops and Czech culture groups.

"That's what has attracted the attention we've gotten," he says, "especially with the elderly crowd that remembers the old brass bands back in the Twenties and Thirties. And there are very few of them left that remember how the music was played back then.

"I think one of our finest moments was at the Ennis polka festival last year. This lady came up to the stage on crutches or a walker or something -- her daughter helped her get up there -- and that woman had tears in her eyes. We had played a waltz, and we were the only band that had ever played that waltz in Texas as far as I know. We found it in some old songbook or something, an ancient piece of music. And this woman, who was born in Czechoslovakia, she said, 'My god, I have not heard that song since I was 15 years old.' That's why we go to so much trouble to seek out arrangements that have never been played or recorded by Texas bands."

There are constantly fewer of those kind of people.

"When I was a baby, and the years before that in the old days, these events in these small towns drew all the locals and that was the only socialization those poor people had in those days -- getting together for the picnics and dances," says Ondrusek. "And they always brought the children. If we got tired, 11 o'clock at night, they lay us down on a blanket under the table and we'd go to sleep.

"We just don't see the young people anymore. We're losing our older generation, that generation is just about gone. And the people that are coming, they don't bring the kids anymore. They're not getting the kids interested. I'm afraid it's going to die because of lack of family involvement.

"If it doesn't die totally," Ondrusek concludes, "I think 10 years from now it's going to be severely limited. The amount of bookings and bands that are left on the scene at all will be severely limited, due to lack of interest and the older generation being gone."

The Dancehall Boys don't currently have recordings in the stores, but they sometimes have cassettes and maybe even their new An Evening in Dubina CD at their shows. You can also hear their music at http://members.aol.com/dancehallb/home.html.

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