Nowhere in metro Detroit can you feast your ears on anything more droll, more wry, more musically comedic than the Polish Muslims, an eight-piece band whose vibrant renderings of classic pop and punk songs satirize their own Polish heritage with an ever-provincial eye on Hamtramck.
The songs, in fact, go to great lengths to kick-start cravings for kielbasa, beer, jelly-filled donuts and polka-beat proletariat sing-alongs.
Dig this — sung to an on-the-mark reworking of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” (retooled “Paczki Day” — with cutting narrative based on the ritual consumption of deep-fried pastries): Paczki day/All the tourists come Hamtramck’s way/And I add 10 pounds to what I weigh/Oh I believe in Paczki Day.” Or the comely rewrite of Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” (“Metabolife”): Another festival, a fork stuck in your food/Everyone’s getting drunk but no one’s bein’ rude/The city chicken from the Holbrook tastes just right/Just wash down with a pint of Miller Lite.
Born of late-1970s power-poppers the Reruns and the Cheaters, the Polish Muslims coalesced one drunken evening 21 years ago at the unrefined yet demure rock venue Lili’s 21 in Hamtramck.
Main Muslim lyricist/guitarist/ singer Dave Uchalik explains that “in 1981, all of the Reruns equipment was stolen and we had a benefit at Lili’s to get our gear back. We got together and like sixth-graders we were changing lyrics to songs. You know, after a few beers, everything gets funny.”
What started as a one-off gag has proved to be a long-in-tooth lampoon that shows no signs of dying. The band will in fact return home to headline Lili's final night of life on Monday, Sept. 30.
Uchalik, also a member of the near-legendary Mutants, says it’s easier just to hang together than to split apart. “We’re still together because I think it’d be more trouble not to play. We’re happy for the joy we’ve been able to bring into people’s lives through our stupidity.”
Bassist Al Phife explains that he’s afraid he wouldn’t see his friends if he quit. “It’s like a bowling league,” he says. “I mean, you know how old friends drift apart. I started (with the Polish Muslims) reluctantly, but we were drawing better than the Reruns and it just kept going.”
“We’re like, ‘Holy shit, it’s been 21 years since we’ve been doing this,’” adds Uchalik. “It sounds hokey, but it’s great when we have 10- and 12-year-old kids coming up to us asking, ‘Are you guys a new band?’”
Uchalik, whose parents are both Polish, found his musical muse in the Beatles and Kinks, the British invasion and Polish weddings. The latter left the lively Polish 2/4 dance beat tattooed on his brainpan.
“That polka beat is so funny, repetitive,” cracks Uchalik. “It’s just funny to put a polka beat to a song … Whether they (the crowd) are laughing at us or with us, that’s great; just so they are laughing.”
In their years together, the Polish Muslims (Uchalik, Phife, vocalists Donna Duffield and Mary Beth McGraw, saxophonist Russell “Mombo” Loicano, guitarist/vocalist Ken Kondrat and keyboardist Darin Rohrkemper) self-released two CDs of hilarious pop ’n’ Pole skewerings, The Polish Muslims and Make #2. Picture the Beach Boys “Kokomo” redone as “Joe Campau,” the Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” as “Sophie is Polka Rocker” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” rechristened “Sounds of Polka,” all complete with tricky harmonies and musical counterpoints. Some are done up with new polka beats. It’s beautiful stuff.
In the 1980s, the thought of seeing the parody band land a major-label deal wasn’t so far-fetched. Restless Records used the band’s “Polka is Now” on a nationally distributed compilation, and an AP story about the Muslims went nationwide; calls came in from radio stations as far away as California. Capitol Records showed interest. Locally, the band garnered airplay on morning radio shows. But the intensely provincial lyrics were off-putting to those not familiar with the intensely provincial Hamtramck (no surprise, considering that Phife, Uchalik and Kondrat all met at St. Florian High in Hamtramck, and St. Florian is a common image in many songs).
“We got calls from stations in California and Utah and elsewhere. No one was astute enough to see our potential,” laughs Uchalik, who by day is an occupational therapist. “But I can’t remember a time when we ever sat down and said, ‘Please, dear God, let me make a million off this musical project.’”
The Muslims still do a couple gigs a month. At the recent Hamtramck festival, they were the biggest draw. The crowd was hungry for the band; eyes wide, necks straining to get better views, fans beamed and pointed, literally salivating with joy.
Uchalik remembers an encounter that day that was rather profound.
“An older guy, maybe in his late 60s or 70, comes up and said his wife had just passed away. He’d been looking for the CD with ‘Polish Wife’ on it for a year.”
“Polish Wife” has a refrain that is anything but sentimental — it should be fodder for protest: “So let your friends say you got no taste/Go and marry Polish anyway/though her eyes are crossed and her clothes don’t match/Take it from me, she’s a better catch.”
Over the years, the band name has generated a bit of chafing from some factions.
Uchalik: “In the early days, we’d get older Polish individuals coming up and saying (assumes a thick Polish accent), ‘How come you have the name Polish Muslims? You should change that name!’ We’d appease them by saying we’d change the name for our next show.”
They apparently enjoy diplomatic immunity from any humorless Islamicists.
Uchalik recalls a gig with the antiquated Motown luminaries the Contours. He almost got his ass kicked.
“We played with former Motown group the Contours around ’93. At the time we were doing a parody of Johnny Rivers’ ‘Seventh Son’ as ‘Coleman Young.’ When we finished our set, the Contours were in the dressing room we were sharing with them. And as I walked in ahead of the rest of the band, one of them goes, ‘Ay, what was that song you was singin’ about the godfather?’ And even though it kind of clicked with me he was talking about the Coleman song, I asked him what he was talking about. He began to appear to become more agitated, got out of his chair, started to walk toward me and said, ‘Why don’t you tell me some of those words to yo’ song about Coleman Young?’ One of the other Contours walked in and said ‘Be cool,’ though the other one continued for a few more minutes … But by that time the rest of the Muslims, including our stocky, then-road manager, were filtering in, so he backed off.”
Then there was Sept. 11. A band that had the word “Muslim” in its name became box-office poison.
“Right after 9-11 we were booked to play Checkers Bar & Grill,” recalls Phife. “They took the name down (off the marquee) and put up ‘Live Band.’ We probably lost a lot of gigs over the years ’cause of our name.”
Bar gigs aside, what about the always-lucrative wedding circuit?
“We hate doing weddings,” reveals Phife. “We talk people out of it, in fact. Die-hard fans are always asking us to play a wedding. I just say, ‘Oh, man, your uncle Harry is gonna hate it.’”
Lili’s final show
For bassist Phife, Lili’s was a home away from home of sorts. He met his wife of 19 years there. They now have two children. The bar even named a drink after him, the Upside-Down Al Phife.
“It was like Norm walking into Cheers,” he laughs. “I’d sometimes walk out of there like the name of the drink. In all reality, my wife and I would never have left Hamtramck if not for the school system.”
“Yeah, it’s really sad Lili’s is closing,” adds Uchalik. “It was, is and will probably always be our favorite bar to play. We really thank God for the years that we have had both with the bar and as a band.”
He pauses, and interjects a bit of humor into the otherwise solemn tone the conversation has taken: “Lili’s is to us what tostada shells are to Taco Bell …”firstname.lastname@example.org