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Gary Sredzienski '85
Gary Sredzienski '85, UNH's "Polka Guy." Photo by Gary Samson

Accordion Warrior

By Anne Downey '95G

ary Sredzienski '85 is talking about "paczki," a kind of Polish pastry. This isn't a subject you'd ordinarily expect to hear discussed on a morning radio program, but no one would use "ordinary" to describe Sredzienski's weekly radio show on WUNH, 91.3 FM. Paczki -- when you eat them, where you get them, who used to make them -- is typical of the information Sredzienski imparts about Polish culture on "Polka Party" every Saturday morning from 9 to 10.

On air, Sredzienski's performance is polished, measured and seamless. (It takes him about 10 hours to prepare each radio show, and he writes out his script in longhand.) Off the air, the 38-year-old Sredzienski seems over-caffeinated as he answers questions about his show and his life as a professional musician, a life he has led for the past 10 years.

But it is enthusiasm, not caffeine, that has Sredzienski bouncing around the room. He moves swiftly from subject to subject, from his family ("My Dad played the harmonica, and he passed on the spirit of the old-style peasant music to me") to history ("Did you know that one of the first accordions built in the United States was built in Concord in 1835?") to recording ("Record labels aren't what they used to be, and these days you really have to do it all yourself").

His voice is big, and so is his heart. "I do what I do out of love for my grandparents and out of respect for the hard times that all Polish immigrants went through. And the music that I'm recovering is not about being Polish; it's about love and sharing," he says. "Besides, I love being an oddball and a pioneer."

Burt Feintuch, professor of folklore and English and director of the Center for the Humanities at UNH, described Sredzienski as an "accordion warrior" when he introduced him at the 1999 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. It is an apt description. "Gary is a crusader for older forms of music that aren't well known in this region, and he has such a strong commitment to those forms and such a compelling physical presence, especially when he is performing, that I thought 'warrior' was appropriate," Feintuch explains. "Much as literary scholars sometimes 'recover' writers who are not well known today, Gary has been recovering forms of artistic expression that were pretty much slipping away. He is also a fine musician, very versatile and open to all kinds of music. He really is a young cultural treasure."

The Polka Guy

Around Durham and the Seacoast, people know Sredzienski as "the Polka Guy" because of "Polka Party," but the show is only a small part of who he is and what he does.

Sredzienski, who began playing the piano accordion professionally when he was 9 years old, has spent most of his life reviving the Old World tradition of the performing accordionist. "I'm trying to preserve the culture that got passed down to me from my grandparents and the other old-timers from the Connecticut River valley," he explains. That culture includes a folk music tradition that came to America with Polish immigrants like Sredzienski's grandparents. Much of that music was lost when the people who played it adopted the big band sound and produced the American art form of the polka.

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