PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 25, 2006

The Duhks Fly in from Up North

by Jim Newsom

If you mentioned Winnipeg, Manitoba to a young music fan in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, he might have responded by naming The Guess Who, a band that came out of that Canadian city with a hitmaking brand of pop-rock they called “Wheatfield Soul.”

Nowadays, though, Winnipeg is becoming musically synonymous with five young folk music genre-benders who play together as The Duhks.

“It’s just a funny little name that people remember,” Leonard Podolak, the band’s founder, told me over the phone recently. “Actually D-U-C-K-S, ‘The Ducks,’ is a copyright of the Walt Disney Corporation for their t-shirt line. We were going to spell it normally, but that’s the reason. Sometimes we tell people that it’s the Canadian spelling.”

The 28-year old Podolak put the band together with the expressed intention of merging the disparate musical styles that had attracted and influenced him:

“I feel like all these traditions—old time music, Irish music, Cajun music, bluegrass, Quebecois music—they’re all old traditions and they get handed down from generation to generation, they change and move with the movement of the people. They’re all different, unique and distinct, but they’re all cousins and brothers and sisters too. And it doesn’t stop there; blues and gospel are all part of the same family of music in my opinion. The uniqueness of our sound—nothing that we do is reinvention of the wheel; we’re just celebrating the similarities.”

The Duhks, who headline a benefit concert for The Dwelling Place at the Roper Performing Arts Center Wednesday night, are not alone among their generation in embracing acoustic music. There’s a whole scene that’s developed over the last few years, with groups like The Mammals, Yonder Mountain String Band and Nickel Creek blending acoustic instruments and traditional forms with contemporary sensibilities. It’s a welcome respite from the sampled beats, synthesized arrangements, spiteful lyrics and histrionic vocals that make up much of modern pop radioland.

“My theory behind that,” he explained, “is that all these festivals started in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a sort of resurgence of festivals, and all those people who started those festivals started having kids. The people who went to the festivals and got exposed to this music also exposed their children to it, so a lot of people my age had this music in their lives whether they realized it or not. Eventually, it just bites you in a really good place, in your heart, and you say, ‘Hey, I could do this and I want to do this too!’”

Leonard’s dad, Canadian folk impresario Mitch Podolak, was one of those festival organizers, having started the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1974. So Leonard was one of those children.

“That is sort of my story,” he acknowledged, “but it isn’t unique to me. When I was a kid, I always loved the festivals, I loved going out to the park, the stages, the musicians. I didn’t really know what kind of music was what, it was just music.

“I started when I was ten playing piano, and then when I was sixteen I traded in the piano for the banjo. My dad had been trying to get me to play since I was six, clawhammer style, because he’s a clawhammer banjo player too. He learned it out of the Pete Seeger book.

“I saw Bela Fleck play at the folk festival and I said, ‘OK, that’s cool. You can teach me to play clawhammer, but I’m gonna take it to three-finger and bluegrass/newgrass like Bela.’ But then I started playing clawhammer, and in order to really do that, you’ve got to listen to old-time music. When I started listening and really digging it, I fell in love with that kind of music. I’m a big fan of melodies, so I really connected with it.

“I went down to Swannanoa, North Carolina, just outside of Black Mountain, to an old-time camp for a week, took a few classes and jammed. I immersed myself in this music and after that, it was like, ‘man this is so cool. This is what it’s all about!’”

The Duhks have two albums out now, with a third planned for August release. They just won a Juno, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy, for their latest, self-titled CD. But they’re playing mostly in this country.

“We barely spent any time in 2005 in Canada,” he said, “just five or six gigs. It was sort of not on purpose, it just took off down in the States. There’s a lot more people. The NPR affiliates nationally play a huge role in presenting Americana and folk music, and that whole network just doesn’t exist up here.

“There’s so much driving distance between venues in Canada. When you’re touring the east coast of the United States, there’s Boston, Providence, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, and all the little mini-towns that are bigger than most Canadian cities. Because of that, and because of the radio, there’s been more of an outlet.

“We went on NPR, on All Things Considered, and all of a sudden five or six million people were listening to The Duhks. That was the best thing we ever experienced! And the people who listen to NPR aren’t just listening to the radio as background music; they’re interested in what’s going on, they’re listening to the part of the culture that they want to be tapped into.”

I wondered if he had succeeded in bringing his original vision to fruition.

“I knew that I wanted to tap into the Irish and the Quebecois and definitely the old-time,” he replied, “and make a sound that blended them and have a percussion player. But I didn’t know that I wanted an Afro-Cuban percussion player, I just didn’t want a drummer. You have an idea of what you want to do musically, but it’s not until you get everybody in the room and really develop a band that you realize how fundamentally profound and diverse we all are in terms of what we each bring.

“I did have a simple vision, but it was just sort of a rough sketch.”

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.