Austin’s 5th First Annual Polkapocalypse keeps polka music tradition alive

Francesca D'Annunzio

Unicycles. Costumes. Free admission. Guys with accordions. It’s not a typical Oktoberfest, and it’s definitely not a traditional polka festival.

Since Austin already has Oktoberfest, Oliver Franklin, the site coordinator at the Elisabet Ney Museum, said he decided five years ago the city needed another way to celebrate the month of October: Polkapocalypse.

“Nobody was doing a polka festival in Austin,” Franklin said. “Let’s do this and make it kind of dumb and wacky and yet respectful at the same time.”

Since its inception, the festival, which has free admission, has enjoyed a fairly large audience. Last year, over 1,200 people came.

“I didn’t expect (the festival) to be as big as it has become,” Franklin said. “Ours is not a traditional polka festival. People come in costumes, we’ve had people bring unicycles.”

The event will be held at the Elisabet Ney Museum on Oct. 28, from 12 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Despite only being five years old, the festival has managed to attract famous polka bands, such as Brave Combo, who have won two Grammy’s, and the Ennis Czech Boys.

Carl Finch, Brave Combo founder, was inducted into the International Polka Hall of Fame last year. Finch said although he did not grow up around polka music, he stumbled upon it after picking up some records at a music store 40 years ago.

“Unlike most polka bands, we play all different styles and work really hard to understand the nuances of each style and the background,” Finch said.

For example, if they play a Polish polka, they’ll learn the dance. If they play conjunto or Tejano, they’ll sing the words in Spanish.

“We don’t want to be outsiders picking and choosing things we think are cool and exploiting those,” Finch said.

Finch said he believes others may enjoy polka if they’re open to learning about the genre.

“There is a big tension and release within music,” Finch said. “From a psychological point of view, if listeners can be open to the idea that polka is cool, then they can respond outrageously.”

Finch said there is a lot of emphasis on dynamic contrasts and a build-up to a cathartic release in polka music.

Trey Sylvester, manager and member of the Ennis Czech Boys, said his appreciation for the genre of music comes from the fact that he grew up with it. He said since gaining popularity after 13 years of experience as a group, the band currently plays 30 to 40 shows a year throughout Texas.

“Czech people are very proud of their culture,” Sylvester said. “We all grew up around Czech polka music in Ennis, which is 30 miles south of Dallas.”

Sylvester said the band sees Polkapocalypse as an opportunity to keep Czech music alive and share their culture.

“(Polka is) all about having fun,” Sylvester said. “It’s nice, clean family fun. It’s so much more than the stereotypes — the fat guys playing tubas. It’s so much more than the chicken dance.”

Franklin strongly encouraged those who have never been exposed to polka before to come out on Sunday.

“It’s definitely a hoot,” Franklin said. “It’s fun and wacky and (the festival) doesn’t take itself seriously.”