My 2 hours as a Columbian Vallenato Bassist

"aka done stranger things, but can't rightly recall when"

OK, so there I am at the Lowell Folk Festival. Jet lagged, worn out from a busy week at my violin shop, and looking to be a bit drunk on my new home infused vodka. Mark Halata and Texavia, the group who I've come to play with, has just put in a fine solid set of Texas- Czech Polka, C&W and assorted Gulf Coast sounds to an very appreciative dance crowd.

I decide to stick around and check out the next act, Sensacion Vallenata con Gustavo Nieto from the DC area. Now I'm a big fan of vallenato, a Columbian accordion based dance music that gave the world the "cumbia," and I have a couple of CD's that date from the classic 70's era when the music first started getting attention outside of it's home. I really dug the way the bass seemed to lazily lope through the tunes, working in conjunction with the percussion. Relaxed and behind the beat like old-school Reggae for instance. My pal Mike Maddux even has a vallento band here in Austin that I enjoy seeing. He's informed me however that the music has progressed quite a bit from the old records I like so much, with a VERY active and busy bass style. (For lack of a better analogy: I like the marijuana bass, and it's the cocaine bass favored today, if you will;-)

Having never seen a real live Colombian playing the new complex style, I begged off returning to the hotel for a much needed rest and hung out on the side of the stage with the amiable monitor mix man. We watched the band set up and immediately there seemed to be a problem. No bass player. They were all set up ready to play and there was no sign of the bassist (or their lead singer as it turned out.) Now I don't speak much Spanish but I did wave the accordion player over and inquire. He tells me, I think, that the bass player drove up from DC and got caught in a storm and was running late. He was mighty upset about it.

Gustavo Nieto
Well says I, "Yo toquar el basso, in estilio de Tejano." "Vamanos!" says he.

As I amble onstage I note It's a good sized band; with accordion and 4 percussionists and vocals all around. I can see in their eyes that they are spooked. It's a big festival gig, and 3 members of their band aren't there for the down beat on the big dance stage. Then some goofy looking Guerro in a cowboy hat crawls up on stage and sets up a bass amp. It must have been unnerving. They had a large plastic bottle of "Coke" which was actually the best Rum I ever had, and everybody was taking a hit to calm their nerves. They put me between 2 percussionist and only one spoke much English. The accordionist turns to me, gives me a key, plays a bit of the melody and then we're off.

OK, let's go back to what I noted before. I dig the "classicos" style of laid-back cumbia and I even know a few hits ("El Gota Fria," "Matilda Linda," etc..) so I can fake it. But only to a point. I suck it up, remembering that the whitey's like me in the audience will never know the difference, watch the boys for cues and concentrate on summoning the booty motivator. Whatever I'm playing seems to be working, and the dance floor is packed. The rum is mixing with the vodka from before and that mixed with jet lag and exhaustion I have mildly left my body. There's only one tune I bow out of; a meringue a style I know nothing about at all. The boys in the band are all smiles, and they are a rocking. Killer vocals, aggressive, funky accordion and a deep, deep percussion section. A total blast to play with.

After 90 minutes, and a sweaty dance floor, it's over. After I pack up, the boys all come over to thank me for hanging in. In my best attempt a Spanish I try and tell them that I hope I didn't embarrass them too awful bad. I collapse into a waiting shuttle and head to the arms of Morpheus.

Next morning I'm told that the bassist and the other members of the band were in fact in Lowell that night. They just couldn't find the festival. (Insert bass player joke here.)

Never did get a chance to hear them play, though the staff said the regular bassist was indeed a virtuoso, busy player. (I'm also told that the festival crew liked the band better when I was playing with them, but what do they know from Vallenato?)

One of the things I like most about big folk festivals is that you get to see and interact with some many great different styles of music. It's not often I get to sit in as well! Lets see what happens next week when I go up to the Festival for Cultural Exchange in Portland Maine.


Mark Vs. Jimmy Sturr

Several months back I got a call from what seemed to be a nice journalist fellow in Boston MA. Evidently he had been assigned to do a story on a well known East Coast Polka performer named Jimmy Sturr. While researching the story he did a Google search (and that seems to be just about all journalists do these days it seems for research) and found this cute thread on the newsgroup:

"Subject: Re: Question - Who is Jimmy Sturr ?-WHO CARES?
View: Complete Thread (17 articles)
Newsgroups: alt.music.polkas
Date: 1996/07/25
Dave Bedrich wrote:

For the sake of real polka music, Jimmy Sturr should be
banned from performing. This guy gives Czech, Polish and
German music a bad name. pure commercialized CRAP.
Amen Brother!
There's an old Yiddish saying that the Grandson wants to know most what the Grandfather has tried hard to forget.
It's probably easy to target Sturr, you can't begrudge his commercial success. But what he has to do with polka is beyond me. I've seen the Sturr show twice in as many years, and while I'm sure some would consider him an engaging showman, I found his performance glitzy and hollow, devoid of the very elements of soul that drew me to polka music in the first place. A few more generations subjected to Sturr, and the many others who follow lockstep in his "crossover" wake, and they'll be no tradition left in polka music.
I can't see that happening here in Texas, though. Folks 'round here still attach a great sense of community, a shared heritage and cultural pride in their polka, whether it makes them any money or not.
Just one fan's observations.
Mark Rubin"

Well, I'll tell you I learned two valuable lessons the day this guy calls me. 1) what you say on line stays around for all to see FOREVER, and 2) I still feel very much the same way 8 years later.

So Mr. Big City Paper Writer asks me to elaborate on my on line comments form so long ago. I commence to spend around 2 hours on the phone with this fellow all the while trying real hard to choose my words carefully. I've heard lots of negative squak about Sturr's bubble gum version of Polka culture from just about every musician I'd encountered here in Texas, Mr. Bedrich (see above) included. I was VERY important for me to make clear that I am not a Polka person, just a geeky fan, and that I spoke entirely from the perspective as an outsider. More importantly I felt it was important to give voice to those musicians that I had met and worked with who ARE polka people and would never get a call from a writer from Boston.

I hoped that I could reasonably speak on the nature of folk music created within a specific community, the multiple levels of context that informs that cultural expression through dance and music. And how that wasn't necessarily a purley vocational pursuit and that maybe that in fact wasn't such a bad thing after all.

I also brought up what I though was a provocative question as to why someone born and raised an Irishman, like Mr. Sturr, would want to change his surname for professional reasons and pass himself off as a "polka person," (the accepted codified language for Slavic-Americans.) Only to then bemoan the low pay scale of his career choice all too late in life. It seemed more than a little bit sad and pathetic, on many levels.

It's a situation that I, an Okie Jew, have been presented with on many, many occasions. I myself have performed on Festival stages literally across the world representing the cultural expression of groups that
I AM IN NO WAY A MEMBER OF; Texas-Polish, Texas-Moravian, Texas-Mexican, Persian, Armenian and even Anglo Texan. At no time have I ever been confused that I was in fact an Okie Jew just lucky enough to be playing with these groups. And I tend to feel that reason I am afforded any respect from those communities is because everyone Iπm involved with musically is quite clear about my identity and my intents. I will never forget the first time I performed with Santiago Jimenez, Jr. outside of the US. Moments before we went onstage he stopped me, looked me straight in the eye and said "Tonight, you represent the people of San Antonio. Don't forget it." I took that to mean that I must hold myself to the highest professional standard onstage and off, all the while not forgetting I am not actually a hispanic person from San Antonio.

From interviews I've read in the press, I think Mr. Sturr has most likely forgotten that he's "not from San Antonio" if you get my drift...

OK, that's what I though I said. Here's what made it to print:
Mark Rubin also checked out the boys, but for a different reason.
Rubin played bass and tuba in the Bad Livers, an acclaimed
Texas-based roots band that released a half-dozen albums from
1992 to 2000. He's produced polka bands, and he knew about
Sturr's Grammys. He wanted to see the man behind them. He
wasn't pleased.

``It reminded me of a really smarmy Vegas act,'' says Rubin. ``It
was really quite depressing.''

As Rubin sees it, Sturr is so desperate to commercialize polka,
he's forgotten why people play it.

``It's just an indicator of how culturally void the American culture
has become,'' says Rubin. ``Polka is not supposed to be  

commercial. For me, it was kind of sad.''

 Other detractors have not been quite as tactful.

 ``For the sake of real polka music, Jimmy Sturr should be
banned from performing,''  one disgruntled fan writes on the
alt.music.polkas newsgroup.

``This guy gives Czech, Polish, and German music a bad name. Pure commercialized CRAP.''

The criticism does bother Sturr.

``They're not purists,'' he says. ``They're dumbbells.''

For context's sake,you can read the whole article here.

Well, I guess I can blame the editors. After all these years I should really know better than try and have an actual conversation with someone who in fact is only really listening when what you tell him someting that fits into his preconceived agenda.

Personally, I didn't think much of it until someone directed my attention to the, um,
reaction to the article right there on the old chat room again. Most involved me getting my ass kicked by a gentleman with the delightful e-mail address "polkabiker," (now there's two communities you don't see getting together enough.)

Most disturbingly, tucked in all the discussion was this missive from the
PRESIDENT OF ROUNDER RECORDS (not coincidently Mr. Sturr's record label, who has made quite a good coin selling his music) who felt the need to address this pressing issue and evidently had the free time expend on the subject. As I had originally feared, he felt the need to "out" me as a Polka nobody. Oh yeah, that and my old band sucked too. Read on:
From: Ken Irwin (keni@rounder.com)
Subject: Re: Globe article on Sturr   

Newsgroups: alt.music.polkas
Date: 2003-09-09 14:07:09 PST


In correspondence with the writer following the release of the
article, I pointed out that it was inappropriate for a writer to quote
an anonymous contributor to a list and further went on to say that
if I were to do so, I could find negative things to say about the
Pope,or anyone else on a given list serve. Geoff conceded that
that was a good point as he did about my point that Mark Rubin
was not necessarily the most appropriate person in the polka
field to check with. I went to on to point out that if you were to
speak to a traditional old-time musician, many would likely have
scandalous things to say about Mark's group the Bad Livers.

Until then, I had always counted Mr. Irwin as one of the good guys in the business, and had shopped quite a few Polka releases to his company. Now I see why he passed on all of them without comment. Disappointed is not quite the word.

I will however tell you that since all that ruckus came up I have received so many positive e-mail and letters from hard working polka musicians from all over who appreciated my comments and wished they'd said the very same thing. As long as they all buy me a beer when they run into, it will have all been worth it.

Lessons learned from this experience:
1) Don't EVER post to newsgroups unless you care to talk about a decade later.
2) No matter what you say prepared to have it taken down wrong.
3) Evidently I'll never be a Rounder Records recording artist!

Caveat internet!