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ENTERTAINMENT A rocker’s respect for Youngstown’s polka scene

Sunday, December 4, 2016

By Anthony LaMarca

Special to The Vindicator

Editor’s note: Anthony LaMarca is a Boardman native and a musician who plays guitar in the acclaimed indie rock band The War on Drugs. He has also performed in the nationally-known rock act St. Vincent and has worked with Dean & Britta.

I recently wrote an essay for the website The Talkhouse about polka and ethnic music in Youngstown and why it’s so vital to our area and its culture. I wrote it so I could share with a greater audience my love of the music, the records, and the history of the regional record labels, but I realize that I also need to preach to the choir as well.

In case there are those who don’t already know, there is a rich music scene in this area. Not in rock or pop music, but in polka and Slavic music.

Every weekend you can and should go to Kuzman’s in Girard and see live polka bands and learn to dance. It’s cheap, it’s fun, and the bands are great. Every Saturday you should have your radio tuned to 90.7 WKTL, which hosts ethnic music programs all day (WPIC-AM 790 also has a polka show).

There’s a whole world of music happening in plain sight and not many of us are taking it seriously. More importantly, it’s an experience that’s unique to this area, which is the main reason I feel compelled to care about and want to share this sometimes forgotten world with others.

I’ve come to realize that the main thing that I’m really excited about when I talk about polka in Youngstown is regionalism. It’s pretty difficult to find really unique experiences, or unique cultures in a place anymore, especially in music. The “hip” neighborhood in one city is sometimes indistinguishable from its counterpart in another city.

I was talking to someone from Orlando, Fla., recently who was saying it was sort of a drag growing up there and he could never see himself moving back. He went on to say about a recent trip home, “There’s some signs of culture there now, though. There’s a nice coffee shop.”

I understood that he was saying this partly tongue in cheek, but it really bugged me. Why is that a sign of culture for my generation? We seek these very unique experiences and authentic lifestyles, but most “cool” neighborhoods in bigger cities are becoming just as cookie-cutter as every suburb.

New restaurants and coffee shops are wonderful, don’t get me wrong. I love a high-quality cappuccino as much as the next 29-year-old. (I go to Branch Street and Generations often. I am part of the problem!)

But these things are not themselves a sign of culture in an area. To me, they are trends in commerce in nice areas. Also, often they are gentrification signifiers. But they are not an equal exchange for being invested or involved in a place’s history and culture. Despite what that guy thought, there’s probably some very interesting things about Orlando.

Smaller cities that are experiencing a revitalization usually look to bigger cities for influence, which is great, but often this moment of opportunity for growth in a place is also an opportunity to forget the great and unique characteristics of that area and mimic bigger cities.

This trend cycles me back to regionalism and why it’s so important.

I lived in New York City for almost 10 years before moving back to Youngstown two years ago. The most inspired time of music making and other creative projects in my life, though, have been here in Youngstown. I find myself most fulfilled when making something about this area or making something in this area. I have little interest in being a musician in another city. I feel very strongly that the place where I’m from is just as important as the actual work that I produce.

My brother and I recorded our most recent album as The Building at Peppermint Productions on Indianola Avenue in Youngstown. We chose that place not only because it’s a great studio, but also because of its history and significance to the area.

Peppermint is a massively important studio and label in the polka world. Gary Rhamy is still the engineer since opening the studio in 1971. The place is legendary not only in the volume of Grammy Award winning and nominated records they’ve produced but in its ability to make great sounding records in any genre.

Almost more amazing is that through all the economic disasters this town has seen, Peppermint is still open! It flies counter to the environment in the industry nationwide because many recording studios are having a hard time keeping the lights on.

Recording at Peppermint isn’t just about working at a great studio though. For me, it’s about making art that’s from a place.

Gone are the days where you hear a band and you can guess where it’s from. But when I’m listening to some polka or tamburitza music on WKTL, I feel like we have a little bit of regionalism left here.

When me and my friends get excited because we found a record that Gary Rhamy engineered, it’s not necessarily because we love that recording, it’s more that we are starting to immerse ourselves into the musical history of our town.

That, to me, is one of the most compelling things an artist can do.