In big Midwestern cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee, you can still go into a music hall on any given weekend night and find a polka dance going on. The lively German and Eastern European music brought to the U.S. by immigrants has achieved so-out-it’s-in status in the past decade or so, but with the lack of critical mass in immigrant communities here in the mountains, it never quite made it to Southern Appalachia. Asheville band
‘s infectious beats and they’re just the ones to bring it to them, says band co-founder Hans Meulenberg.
Meulenberg’s grandparents immigrated from Germany and Holland to Michigan, but he didn’t grow up with polka. Instead, his father, who played with the Navy band in the family’s hometown of Virginia Beach, introduced his son to jazz and Dixieland. Meulenberg, who plays “too many instruments to count,” picked up his father’s love of jazz and added in rock. He owns Asheville Music and Art on Haywood Road in West Asheville, where he teaches guitar. His wife, Lula, and daughter Heide teach piano from the store. The family also plays together in a Christian contemporary group.
It was church, in fact, that presented the opportunity to form the polka group. “We’re Lutheran, and Lutherans often have Oktoberfest celebrations,” he says. When the family’s church — Emmanuel Lutheran in West Asheville — was organizing its Oktoberfest five years ago, the church music director, Dr. Kevin Lorenz, suggested the Meulenbergs join him in giving polka a try. Fellow congregants Wendy Cady, Adam Bennett and Len Young joined them. “The response was overwhelming,” says Meulenberg. With the initial success under their lederhosen, they decided to keep going.
Mountain Top Polka stays busy with festivals, especially Oktoberfests around the region, which are scheduled during September and October. They’ve played in Helen, Georgia, a reproduction of a Bavarian village; Maggie Valley; Kingsport; and many others in the South. They’re also regulars at regional German restaurants including the Berliner Kindl in Black Mountain and the Old Gemran Schnitzel Haus in Hickory. A German company with offices is in Winston-Salem hired them for a company party. They were once offered a wedding, but the bride got cold feet. They’ve even been invited to play at a bar mitzvah.
Polka isn’t a singular form of music: there’s German, Czech, Polish, American and Mexican varieties. Mountain Top Polka hasn’t delved into Mexican yet, but they include songs from all the other Polka styles: 100 songs so far in their repertoire. Everyone, it seems, has a favorite polka song, and the band takes requests. “Beer Barrel Polka” is by far the most popular, followed by “Du, Du, Liegst Mir Im Herzen,” a German folk song, “Hofbrauhaus,” and the Schmid Waltz.
Lula plays accordion, Heide sings, Hans plays tuba, Wendy Cady is on the clarinet, Len Young on drums and Adam Bennett is on the clarinet and Dr. Kevin Lorenz plays the bells, hammered dulcimer, zither and guitar. But polka is about more than the music. It’s more of a lifestyle. Heide learned German to better sing the songs and makes the dirndls for the band’s female members herself (the men’s lederhosen are ordered online). Band members teach the audience polka dances on the spot and they’re working on perfecting the schuhplattler, a German leg-slapping dance performed by men (the dance gets especially energetic when the mock fight commences).
Lula says it’s the culture that draws people in and not just the music. While polka may have long been on a long decline “It’s fun,” says Meullenberg. It also doesn’t hurt that there’s often beer involved when polka music is being played. Polka may just be the perfect match for Beer City.