Polka music was the last thing Jake Kouwe expected to flourish in the South. He’s as surprised as anyone that his Chardon Polka Band is building a loyal following in the Lake Norman area and parts of South Carolina and Georgia.“I just never thought of polka as a Southern thing,” Kouwe said. “It’s not.”But the crowds are picking up at Daveste’ Vineyards in Troutman, Duckworth’s Grill & Taphouse in Mooresville and other venues where the band performs, he said. The audiences include a fair share of transplants from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where polka has always been big. Turnout at Daveste’ has grown from just a handful of people at the band’s first performance there several years ago to about 50 now, he said.Kouwe, 26, started the band in 2003. He was in his teens living in Chardon, Ohio, about 35 miles east of downtown Cleveland.He saw an accordion being played on TV when he was 14 “and thought it was cool. ‘Hey, I’ve got to get one of those,’” he recalled thinking. At 15, he was playing the accordion on street corners in Ohio, and at 16 formed the band.Kouwe decided to start a Southern branch of his five-member band after his family moved to Lake Norman Airpark off Perth Road in Mooresville in 2006. His family also includes dad, Phil; mom, Jeanne; and sister, Lindsay Shaw, 29, who now lives in Huntersville, where she and her husband, Kevin, a horse trainer, run Shaw’s Performance Horses.The family lived in Wilmington for several years in the late 1990s, when Phil Kouwe was chief of the New Hanover County Fire Department. By 2006, Phil Kouwe had become a consultant to fire departments nationwide, and he continues to fly his Piper Archer plane from the air strip to assignments along the East Coast. When he’s not in the air, Phil Kouwe, a musician since he was young, plays bass in his son’s band. Jake Kouwe continues to live primarily in Chardon, where his full band still performs. The band has sold at least 1,000 copies of a studio album it released in 2010. He earns part of his living performing solo with his accordion in Ohio nursing homes, which are packed with polka fans, he said. He spends two months in winter in North Carolina and other times in the spring and fall.He started in Mooresville playing at the former Three Goats Coffee & Espresso in the Byers Creek retail center on N.C. 150 West.His band also performs at Oktoberfests in Helen, Ga., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. A loyal Mooresville fan even showed up in Helen to hear his band, he said. The band also is scheduled to play in Wilmington this year.Marte and Mary Jo Yerkins attend every performance of the band at Daveste’ Vineyards, near their home in Troutman.The Yerkins are in their 50s and from Pittsburgh, Pa. “They have a lot of energy,” Mary Jo Yerkins said, noting how the band also caters to the younger set by putting Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber tunes to a polka beat.The Yerkins attended a Chardon Band performance at Daveste’ on Feb. 1, 2009, the same day their beloved Steelers were in the Super Bowl. At the Yerkins’ request, the band played the “Pennsylvania Polka” to the words of the Steelers fight song as provided by Marte Yerkins.The Southern version of the band also includes drummer Steve Garifo, 46, of Mooresville, who said he’d never played polka before he met Kouwe when they played at The Cove church off Langtree Road. A member or two of Kouwe’s Ohio band occasionally visits him when he’s in Mooresville and performs with them.Garifo said that “in my younger days, I used to play in punk rock bands around Los Angeles,” where he is originally from. He still plays Sunday night services at The Cove on rotation.“I would say to play polka with the right feel, you have to add a bit of swing to it,” Garifo said. “Other than that, I just oom-pah my way along and look to Jake for the changes.” “Jake,” Garifo said, “is one unique kid.”
Friday, Mar. 01, 2013
Accordion player brings polka to the South
Jake Kouwe, left, founder of The Chardon Polka Band, is shown with his father, Phil, who often performs with his son's band in the Lake Norman area. COURTESY OF JAKE KOUWE
Chardon Polka Band The band will perform 1-4 p.m. March 9 at Daveste’ Vineyards, 155 Lytton Farm Road, Troutman; and 6-9 p.m. March 9 at Duckworth’s Grill & Taphouse, 560 River Highway (N.C. 150), Mooresville. Details: Jake Kouwe at email@example.com; www.chardonpolkaband.com.