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A Reason to Hit, Kick & Swoon

Anchorage’s Prize Honker Turns 80!

 

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Photos & Words By Teeka Ballas
First published in Anchorage Press, April 30, 2015

 

“There are two curses to manhood: shaving and a steady job.”

He keeps a smooth clean-shaven face and lets loose a warm, dry laugh with just a touch of raspy on its edges. In jeans and a blazer sipping an IPA during a Sunday afternoon interview at a nearly empty Chilkoot Charlies, he looks more like a mafia boss than an octogenarian squeezebox honker.

Nominated this year to the World Concertina Hall of Fame, Dan Zantak – known to just about everyone in Anchorage and the world beyond as Polka Dan – has amassed more stories of adventure, success and joy than years he’s lived. Although it was work, a series of pseudo steady jobs that he refers to as “traps”, that allowed him to initially make his way all over the world, it was the love of travel that lured him in, and he figured out early on that the concertina was his ticket.

Unraveling Dan’s story means engaging in a series of non sequiturs and jumping off the chronological timeline. It’s sometimes difficult to know if he’s finished answering a question or taken a detour. If anything, 80 years courteously affords one that luxury. He’s been afforded an impeccable memory.

“You know where Frankfurt is? Do you know where Braunschweig would have been? It’s where they had the big towers and guns – it’s where you go into East Germany, and then from there into Poland.” He’s on a roll. “So we pull up to the gate and that’s where I get to say, I brought the first communist vessels into South Korea for ship repair – back in the 80s.”

There’s an excitement that comes with hanging out with Dan – his stories are a little bit spy, a little bit espionage, and a whole lot of world traveling hipster-with-a-squeezebox.

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Born in Minnesota to Polish immigrants, he first fell in love with his brother’s concertina when he was just a child.

“I can almost pinpoint it. It was 1942, I was about 7 years old, and my brother Louie was home on leave from the army. When he left, he said, ‘Don’t touch that thing!’ but as soon as he was gone, I started squeezing. 1942. I remember that well.”

When Polka Dan reminisces his eyes twinkle and bend, lines form at the corners.

Dan’s infatuation with travel might be traced back to his “Nordeaster” Minneapolis childhood, growing up in a bilingual household with stories of the old country. Or it could be attributed to his college days when he went away to university in Wisconsin and learned that not only was there a world outside the warehouse district where he’d been raised, but there was a world with a very different identity and features.

“It was the first time I ever saw a sunrise other than a sunrise over the grate elevator and a sunset other than a sunset over the pickle factory. And that was amazing for me. I thought I was in paradise.” A raspy breath laced with romance.

Dan says he didn’t go to college to get a degree, he went to play football, because that’s “what you do when you’re a big Pollock.”

“But of course, the closest I got to being an athlete was athlete’s foot.”

Dan majored in psychology and/or sociology – it’s all relatively vague, and he seems to dismiss the relevance of it in his overall life story (though notably, he has a keen affection for other cultures and societies, and now uses hypnotherapy, predominantly on himself). What Dan is not ambivalent about is piano; he minored in it, even though he’d never had a class or lesson and knew virtually nothing about it. Initially, the department head turned him away, stating piano at the university level was meant for those with prior experience, but warmed his way in and earned himself an “A” in the class.

He says he’d really wanted to play jazz and ragtime, but classical was the curriculum, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff – “the bald headed stuff.”

 

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the concertina… and while I was [at the university], some people offered me a job playing the concertina in Minnesota, but I said ‘No. I don’t want to be another drunken concertina player.’”

As a college graduation present, Dan’s brother, who was living in Alaska, had Dan drive his car up to Anchorage and told him if he liked it he could stay, and if he didn’t he’d fly him home. The piano didn’t come with him.

“I ain’t afraid of anybody or anything,” says Dan, and he says it with as much honesty and truthfulness as a 20-year-old mountain climber. “I always act like I’m the boss. I’m in charge.”

With that vigor, he embraced guitar, violin and ukulele. Dan’s one of those who seems to have music in his blood, he can inherently comprehend each note and nuance and play any instrument he touches with the ease that the rest of us learn to eat pizza. Eventually, a friend who knew him as a honker, brought him up a Chemnitzer concertina – the same one he plans to play for his 80th birthday party bash, and he let go of those stringed instruments and returned to his true love.

Dan’s hands are softer than a kitten’s belly. The pads are bold but sweetly naïve. They’re perfect for engaging each of the many buttons on both sides of the concertina – something he couldn’t do if he had string-induced callouses. And with those soft hands he traveled the world, married and divorced three times, and played polka in more than 35 countries. He’s left a squeezebox in a number of places: Seoul, Warsaw, Moscaw, Seattle. Each await his return – promised kisses from a service man on active duty.

“We were going through East Germany to Graudenz, Poland for life raft school,” he continues. “I said to the guys, ‘open all the doors, open the trunk, open the hood and just get the hell out of the way.’ And the gestapos are digging through all our stuff and open the concertino case … ‘What’s this?’ I tell them it’s a sweet box and they told me to play it – so I played some kraut music. He blew his whistle, all the guards came over and we had an Oktoberfest right there.” That’s how he rolls.

Polka Dan reminisces his travels through different countries and the hundreds of stages he’s played on with a jolly ease that is remarkably free of ego or brow beating.

 

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Father A.J. Fisher, an 87-year-old retired Priest and Godfather of Polka (a serious enthusiast of the music) says Polka Dan doesn’t like to be the center of attention, when he’s playing with a band he tends to play off stage.

“I’m a polka man, he’s a polka man,” says Fisher with a flippant grumble – his way of saying their connection should be obvious.

Fisher boasts of being the one to convince Dan to record his ethnic music; with great mastery Dan plays polka from numerous regions.

“When he’s gone, this music is dead. He’ll take it all with him. There’s no one really doing this music – Polish, German, Czech, Russian…”

There are thousands of people playing polka music all over the country – many in Anchorage. Polka’s been coined “the world’s happiest music” – though it’s more than that, it’s a sound that has a squeezebox at the center – whether it’s a chemnister, a diatonic, concertina, chromatic, bayan, button box, or piano accordion (or any of the variations thereof) – it squeezes out societal ills, the threats and injustices, and replaces them with waltzes and toe taps, hops and glides and takes its audience away to a different place, a different time.

On May 3, Chilkoot Charlies will be hosting the Polka Dan’s 80th Birthday Party Celebration from 2-6pm. Four hours to dance away the blues and escape to a number of different regions; Polka Dan plans to focus on Russian polka that day – a genre that often dwells in minor chords, but uplifts with intoxicating downbeats.

The afternoon is slated to include local Polka greats such as Marge Ford and the Polka Chips, The Button Box Gang, Ziggy and Roger, Chalon Rein (Dan says he’s probably the best button box player on earth) and Alaska Main Squeeze – as well as some Polka greats from all over the country, including Hermann the German, who also turns 80 this year.

“I’m not much into the whole birthday thing,” says Dan. “But Hermann’s wife called and said he was scared to death of this whole 80 thing. ‘What the hell is there to be afraid of?’ I said. ‘He’s either going to be 80 or he isn’t. He’d be happy if he is.’ So he got over all that bullshit and he’ll be here… It’s gonna be a Polka Dan Birthday Polka Fest.”

 

PD_Bar Profile_Teeka Ballas

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