The Polish Muslims, whose name is a purely fanciful oxymoron, have been characterized as a Hamtramck counterpart to Weird Al Yankovic. They do traffic in parodies, and for a drive-by blurb that’s adequate, but several things are wrong with it.
First, the band has been around longer than Yankovic has been doing polka parodies (although his “My Bologna” predated their work), and they claim not to have been directly inspired by him. Since coming on the scene in the early 1980s, they’ve been a fixture at outdoor festivals around the Detroit area, most consistently at the woolly and wonderful Hamtramck Festival on Labor Day weekend, and by now they’re a real local institution. Their lyrics are rife with Hamtramck and Detroit references; the Go-Go’s’ “Our Lips Are Sealed” became “Our Pizza’s Shields.”
Second, there’s more of an authentic sense in their music than there is in Yankovic’s. They parody pop hits, but once the song’s identity is established, the music develops in live shows with polka and rock beats that may become attractively frenetic and messy as a set proceeds. They get people dancing (which is not the point with Weird Al), and their parodies are not merely takeoffs but celebrate and affectionately poke fun at the culture of the place where they’re rooted. Quite a few of their songs include at least an episode of authentic polka music, whereas with Weird Al polka was restricted to his virtuoso medleys. Their music, they say, isn’t rock and isn’t polka: “Our music is just, well, it’s none of your business what our music is.”
Finally, Weird Al’s parodies are appealing in their sheer brash goofiness. The Polish Muslims can operate in the same mode (“Leader of the Pack” becomes “(That’s Why I Fell for) The Leader of Iraq”), but more often what catches the ear is the ingenuity in fitting deep local content to a lyric of a completely different kind: “Funky Cold Czarnina” or the molding of “Devil with a Blue Dress” into “Babcias with Babooshkas” (babcia is the Polish term for grandmother). Even as the songs go by in a rougher bar band sound, they’re clever in a different way from Yankovic’s.
The Polish Muslims say they’ve been around so long that it’s easier for them to stay together than to break up, but most of their appearances happen in Hamtramck or in the Detroit east-side suburbs to which Poles have moved. A caller to my “Drive Time Polka Party” radio show (Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. on WCBN) tells me they’re excited about their show at Top of the Park on July 1 at 8:30 p.m.