By Gary E. McKee
Chris Rybak, a Hallettsville native, was surrounded by music from day one, as he was born into the sounds of his father's band, the Leroy Rybak's Swinging Orchestra, a fixture on the polka scene for over 40 years. Leroy’s wife, Joyce, and toddler Chris were also fixtures at most of Leroy's gigs around the Polka Belt. Chris would hop up on stage playing a plastic trumpet. When he reached the advanced age of six, he started learning music by ear on a small keyboard.
By the ripe old age of 12, Chris received his first accordion and soon played solo at a family event. (Chris still has this $50 accordion and considers it his most prized of his collection of more than 20 accordions.) Playing several instruments with his father's band through junior high school, Chris joined the Hallettsville High School marching band, and was the first student to play an accordion. The highlight of the halftime show was when he and the bass player would play a brief solo (using a new, state-of-the-art wireless sound system). They always received a standing ovation.
When it came time to graduate, the school counselor asked Chris what direction he wanted to take his life. “Music,” he said without hesitating. The counselor suggested he think about pursuing a different career, and perhaps later in life he could play music. Heeding this sage advice, Chris worked in a print shop for a very short period of time before taking a giant leap of faith to follow his passion and become a fulltime musician at the age of 18.
“There was no guaranteed paycheck to pay for gas to the next gig, no guarantee of anything except the concept of focusing on the music and my audience,” Chris said.
Julius Tupa, founder of the Texas Polka News and the Texas Polka Music Association, saw the potential, as he awarded Chris the TPMA New Horizon Award in 1993.
With the basics of music firmly in hand, the next lesson he needed to master was the art of self promotion. At the Yoakum Country Opry, Chris brought along a box of 50 cassette tapes,
thinking he might be able to make gas money by selling them. He sold all 50. Lesson learned.
Chris developed a one-man show, ready to "play at the opening of an envelope." This refers to working musicians’ daily gigs of performing at car dealerships, grocery stores, and other businesses that would hire popular entertainers to perform as a public draw. Most of these events happened during the 8 to 5 timeframe. Bob Wills and Adolph Hofner grew their fan base this way.
Chris said the most rewarding of these type of shows were performances at senior citizen centers. “It’s always a great deal of satisfaction to watch folks’ eyes light up and smiles spread across their faces as, maybe for the last time, they are hearing the Julida Polka sung in Czech, as they recollect dancing the night away decades ago,” he said.
Another facet of this solo life is the equipment needed to make it work. Chris, who has been playing a conventional accordion for 25 years can make a joyful sound, but to enhance the performance, a band was needed. In 2007, musical powers-to-be smiled upon Chris. Roland Music Corp. had just developed the first digital (electronic) accordion and was ready to unveil
it to the music industry at the next NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) convention, which was going to be held in Austin.
Roland located Chris through an Internet search. They offered him a "free" chance to own the first digital accordion. As with all things "free," there was a catch. He had three days to learn how to play this revolutionary instrument and then wow the music store owners at the
convention. Chris was successful, so successful that Roland made him an advisor and flew him to Italy to assist with the introduction and design of a new model.
The digital accordion has allowed Chris to have the sound of a back-up band while playing all music live, not a preprogrammed music track. Life with Roland has been very good exposing
Chris to many different cultures as the company sends him and his accordion to venues throughout the U.S. and overseas. One of Chris’ proudest moments was to perform for the Czech Republic president, prime minister, and other government dignitaries.
Chris has always been on the lookout for assistance in procuring gigs, and two of the most supportive have been John Hybner and Jimmy Mauric, past and present brewmasters of the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner. “These guys and all of the staff at Shiner have always helped
promote my music,” Chris said. He showed his gratitude with a CD called Shiner Time, produced in 2010.
The Shiner Time song features a chorus recorded at the brewery with Shiner staff singing along, “Well, we’re drinking beer in Shiner, Texas. The party’s here, so drink one with us. We’ve all got friends in Shiner, Texas. The party never ends when you’re drinking with us.”
Chris has also reached out for collaboration with other artists, the most notable being his friendship with conjunto accordionist Santiago Jimenez Jr. The duo has toured on educational
jaunts and heritage festivals, and collaborated on a CD – Two Kings of Accordion, recorded in 2012. The Czech-Mex tracks take turns featuring Czech classics like Clarinet Polka, and conjunto favorites, like Viva Seguin Polka, written by Santiago Sr.
ZICKE ZACKE ZICKE ZACKE HOI! HOI! HOI!
Chris’ brand of “let’s get everyone together to dance, drink some pivo, and have a good time,” fits in well with festival entertainment. He is a much sought-after performer at festivals that
promote all kinds of heritage – Czech (Westfest in West, Kolache Festival in Caldwell), German (Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg, German Heritage Festival in Tomball, where Chris has his own party stage), Polish (Houston Polish Festival), Tejano (Big Bang Salsa Fest in Three Rivers), and Cajun (Fiddlers Frolics in Hallettsville).
The latter had hometown boy Chris headlining Cajun Night this year. “My family always went to this event and my dad would say, ‘One day, you’re going to play here.’ He didn’t get a chance to see me play (his father passed away in 2012), but I think he had a hand from above in getting me in the lineup,” Chris said. He debuted his latest CD Cajun Baby at this year’s festival. It features the song Going to Hallettsville, which tells the story of going to the Fiddlers Frolics.
Chris has also been a mainstay at the Texas Renaissance Festival in Plantersville at the Arborhaus Biergarten since 2005. He was the first and only accordionist there for a while, although the fest now features other accordionists. He also brought his wireless mike to the
biergarten, which was frowned upon by other festival acts, wanting to remain true to the period and not introduce today’s technology. Chris reported most of the other stages now usewireless. “Yeah, we changed the landscape of the Ren Fest,” Chris joked.
Depending on the event, Chris recruits other musicians to round out his band. Mainstays include guitarist Marvin Kremling, who played in Leroy’s band, and drummer Jonathan Statsky.
Of course, Chris’ wife of 16 years, Edita, also joins in on vocals, offering authentic pronunciation of Czech lyrics since she hails from Slovakia. Chris also brings in brass, reeds, tuba, fiddle – whatever is needed to keep the polka party going.
TAKING THE PARTY ACROSS THE POND
Chris and Edita have added another dimension to their entertainment business by organizing European tours for their fans. Since 2008, they have taken music fans overseas 14 times, and
this past September took travelers to Europe for a tour of Italy, Vatican, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. On February 12-19, 2017, they will host a Valentine Polka Cruise to Belize, Cozumel, and Mahogany Bay with several polka dances scheduled. On May 1-15, 2017, Chris and Edita will host another Mediterranean cruise tour; their first was held earlier this year. “It was so popular, we decided to do it again,” Edita said. Many polka fans have toured with the couple more than once. “It’s just a great time and the people you meet on the tour become lifelong
friends,” said Dennis Pustejovsky of the Waco area.
“It’s great when we go to an event like the Praha Picnic and see a group of people who have toured with us. They immediately raise their drinks and greet us with ‘Na zdraví,’ because we are always toasting to each other’s health (with slivovitz) on our tours,” Edita said.
CONTINUING THE RYBAK TRADITION
In the spring of 2011, Chris became the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Kristina Nicole, who is already walking in her father's bootsteps. She is showing much interest in music and has even appeared in national newspapers and television programs, such as the Mollie B Polka Party and early morning news programs.
Chris Rybak is an excellent example of the American Dream, a small-town kid who stuck by his accordion, and followed it halfway around the world many times. Looking back, Chris said he
wouldn’t change a thing. “I think back to those who said, ‘You’ll never make a living playing accordion.’ I’m glad I didn’t listen,” he said.
This writer wonders if he has ever played Frank Sinatra's immortal (I did it) My Way.
Chris' CDs are available in the Polka On! Store.