Originally issued on vinyl in 1981 as "Texas-Czech Bands," this collection proved quite a revelation to the Texas music fan accustomed to fiddles, steel guitars and such. The wholloping polkas and waltzes of the Baca and Patek family brass bands with their blaring tubas, trumpets and accordions, sounded as native to Texas as klezmer music. But this new Arhoolie disc should serve as an excellent introduction to the music of Texas's first European immigrant culture, folks who populated south central Texas generations before most fiddle-wielding Anglo-Americans came here. It is a musical tradition that thrives and evolves even today, although almost completely ignored to popular press.
As early as 1849, Czech immigrants began arriving in the newly opened land grants in Mexico's northern most state. They were mainly farmers and predominately Catholic, fleeing a combination of intolerance and upheaval that swept their native states of Moravia and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in the wake of the 1848 revolutions against the crumbling Hapsburg Empire. The Czechs had long suffered as serfs and peasants under Austrian domination and for generations their native language (and attendant culture) had been formally suppressed. When the grant agents went looking for recruits to settle in Texas, they found many eager families in the soil poor Czech countryside. The rich black dirt of central Texas must have seemed like heaven. Like the Germans just before them, they settled peacefully among the local Indian tribes, secured commissions and grants from the Mexican authorities (later Texas, then American) and set up their farms, churches and most importantly some say, their breweries (Shiner, Pearl, ect...).
This CD starts with the first Texas-Czech recording artist, the Baca (pronounced bat-cha) band of Fayetteville. The Baca Orchestra is very much a family affair, John R. started the group soon after the family arrived in Texas in 1860, and has continued with every generation of Baca since. It is a Texas musical dynasty paralleling the Jimenez family in Tex-Mex music. When the major labels finally lost interest in regional, ethnic recordings after WW2, the Baca's formed their own labels and distribution networks. You'll find Baca records under their own F.B.C. and Kermit imprints. The trademark of the Baca band was the powerhouse hammer dulcimer playing of 2nd generation musician Ray Baca. The hammered dulcimer is a common folk instrument in almost all European cultures, but the tone Ray produces on his dulcimer is a far cry from the wispy, ethereal sound of Celtic dulcimer music most folks associate with the instrument. This a big, manly sound, bringing a whole new meaning to the term "hammered". The only photo I've ever seen of Ray is on a Kermit Records Lp from the mid-70's of the Gil Baca Band. The whole band is situated around Rays emmense dulcimer, big enough to not quite fit into the bed of a pick up truck. There are two sets of recordings represented here, beginning in 1929 and including trumpeter/founder John R.'s final session in the early '50's. If you're ever head toHouston on Hwy 71, look for the turn-off to Fayetteville, it's called Baca Road.
Featured next is the other great musical family, the Joe Patek Orchestra. (Its their ruddy countenances that grace the cover of this CD). Their roots in Texas date to when father John immigrated to Shiner in 1895. If Baca defined the sound, then the Pateks established the material that is today the canon of Czech tunes in Texas. As is noted in the liner notes, they originally recorded some sides for the Decca label in the mid-30's, but the band was unhappy with the results. Included here are the sessions made later for the independent, San Antonio based Martin label. Their "Shiner Song", basically a re-working of and old Czech standard "Farewell to Prague", has become the unoffical Texas-Czech anthem in parts of south Texas. This version of "Shiner" or the gorgeous "Krasna Amerika", an ode to the opportunities of their adopted homeland, tie for my favorite tracks on this CD. The closing track is a mid-fifty's curiosity of the Patek's tackling the then popular with the Spanish speaking community "Corrido Rock", an example of the cross-pollination of music we come to find common in Texas cultures.
These first recordings, with their martial brass band arrangements,set the Texas sound apart from the other polka traditions that would develop in other parts of the US. The Texas Czech sound is "less Mickey Mouse.." than the bands up north as Vrazel Polka Band leader Albert Vrazel has characterized . Its a harder sound, with more swing.
Which brings us to the next featured artist. Better known for his earlier work as a pioneer western swing band leader, Adolph Hofner led a band out of San Antonio that gleefully grafted the romp of their tradional Bohemian polkas with the new jive of western swing. With his brother, steel guitarist Emil or "Bash", Hofner's only real competitionas a swing band was Bob Wills for many years. Until after WW2 that is, when he made the conscious decision to return to his native language and music. Included here are my favorite examples of his Czech work, including his rollicking take on the "Shiner Song."
The 27 selections include solid examples of fully six other groups, including the Benny Brosh Orchestra and Julius Dietert' Band, and over all the sound quality is uniformly excellent. As usual, Arhoolie prez Chris Strachwitz compliments the package with informative, if personal, liner notes.
As it happens, I have several of these selections on 78RPM and I can personally vouch for the new Arhoolie slogan "bringing back 78s up to 78 minute CDs". It's releases like this that remind me why I broke down and bought a CD player in the first place, to give my poor shellac 78s a rest. And think, I scoured through every junk shop and flea market from Flatonia to San Antonio and back to find my fragile 10" discs. All you have to do is buy the one CD.
Texas music has always been music from someplace else that came here and got weird, be it German polkas and Mexican corridos turning into conjunto or Appalachian fiddle tunes and Tin Pan Alley rags mutating into western swing, just the same way as every one from Texas was originally from someplace else and came here and got weird. This latest CD is as fine example of Texas music as is available and belongs in any well rounded record collection.
This hardly a dead art form. The Texas Polka scene is today dominated by Czech language groups like Lee Roy Matocha and the mighty Vrazels, playing SPJST halls all over central Texas.: The brass band tradition however has fallen by the wayside in recent years.There's only two examples I can think of.
The Shiner brewery sponsors the Shiner Hobo Band, who play the Czech Feast and Feastival circuit every spring. If you can get around the goofy, hobo outfits and preponderance of homemade instruments like wash-tub bass and the like, you'll hear an echo of the old Czech village band. Last time I saw them was on a Saturday afternoon at the Weimer K of C Hall and they had no lo less than 15 accordions, three tubas and a complete brass and reed section. They were gathered around a keg of Shiner premium (their only payment for performance) and whoever was leading the song in performance, got to man the spigot. There is nothing quite like the sound of this aggregation leading an audience of 60 years old and up through Czech language sing alongs. Go see them now because I was the youngest person there by about 30 years, and when these folks are gone, I don't see anybody picking up the torch.
There is one last proper Czech brass orchestra, the Columbus Travellers, that performs every year at the Praska Pout or Praha Feast. Praha, Texas (just south of I-10, east of Flatonia) is concidered by many, though it is hotly debated, to be the first organized all-Czech community in Texas. Every August 15th, reguardless as to which day of the week that falls on, is one of the oldest and biggest Czech festivals.( At a tradional Feast, for less than $5 you can get a homemade meal of beef stew or fried chicken, mashed potatos with gravy, fresh baked bread and some of the best cobbler I've ever had, ala mode of course, and still have enough leftover for a cold Pearl Light (just 56 calories!)) The Travellers, called that apparently because none of them are actually from Columbus and must travel to rehearse, get together and perform the old tunes during the afternoon. Don't show up late, cuz that's when the awful top 40 country bands play for the kids.
If'n you're interested and want to know who's playing where, the Texas Polka News (POB 800183, Houston TX 77280) runs a complete calendar of events, listing bands and starting times. The Elgin SPJST Hall is a mere 40 minutes drive from Austin and there's a Battle Dance there at least one Sunday every month.
Mark D. Rubin