True to tradition: Freistadt Alte Kameraden

The photography assignment, to capture the spirit and activity of Milwaukee’s annual German Fest, wasn’t as easy as it might sound. Lederhosen and dirndls were relatively rare. Beer drinkers were cradling plastic cups, not steins.

Dusk was approaching, and out of the huge Sprecher Oktoberfest tent came the perfect picture. Four easygoing guys from the Freistadt Alte Kameraden Band had just finished performing and were ready to kick back.

They were agreeable models, in traditional German garb, and they represent a proud tradition that began in 1942, when the band began performing as a small group of friends who loved sharing the music of their native land.

In this particular foursome were Franklin Klug of Random Lake and son Al Klug of Sun Prairie. It is not unusual to have two or more generations of a family in the band, the men said, and I was encouraged to watch the group perform elsewhere.

That happened a couple of weeks later, in Belgium (Ozaukee County, population 1,700) for Luxemburg Fest, where more than a dozen men were happily at work inside of the town park’s gazebo.

“Alte Kameraden” means “Old Comrades.” Freistadt, which means “Free City,” is not much more than a crossroads around Mequon. The area is best known as home to the state’s oldest Lutheran church, Trinity Evangelical, which will be 170 years old in 2009.

What the band plays is more than polkas, and what they sing goes far deeper than our Americanized visions of Germany. These guys refer to the “Beer Barrel Polka” as “Rosamunde,” and the playlist is as much about “Mit Vollen Segeln” (“With Full Sails”) and “Freut Euch des Lebens” (“Life that Pleases You”). The fun-loving, spirited music is big on brass sounds.

The band’s recordings (which can be heard online) go back to 1975. You’ll find “Ein Prosit” and the “Alte Kameraden March” (the song that inspired the band’s name) on more than one release. They are among the sentimental favorites of the crowd, and the band, conducted by Earl Hilgendorf of Mequon.

Al says the band has as many as 30 performers, but the number on stage at one time will depend upon the event and musician availability. The group has played for presidents Reagan and Clinton, traveled to Germany and Austria for performances.

“These are descendants of families that came to Wisconsin more than 150 years ago,” notes Rick March of the Wisconsin Arts Board. “Their brass band music is a very traditional repertoire, and the degree to which they’ve kept their ethnic association is exceptional.”

Although one of the state’s larger ethnic bands, Rick says it’s by no means the only fine example in Wisconsin. “In the mid 19th century, the brass band was an immensely popular musical form in both the United States and Europe,” he says. “It’s a time when central Europeans were settling here, so it’s natural that their music would come with them.”

Several of these band leaders, including Ernie Broeniman of the 20-year-old Dorf Kapelle in Plymouth, are former school band directors. “Many Europeans had their music verein – music clubs or societies,” says Tim Wurgler of the Wisconsin Music Educators Association. “Some were choirs, some were bands – all show us the ethnic culture that is a part of music.”

For more about the Freistadt Alte Kameraden Band, consult www.altekameraden.com. The band performs 6:30-10:30 p.m. Sept. 5 in downtown Waupun for Volksfest (the festival is Sept. 5-7; call 920-324-2610).

The band also plays 4-8 p.m. Sept. 6, 13 and 20 for Oktoberfest at Old Heidelberg Park, Glendale; 7-11 p.m. Sept. 12 for Gemutlichkeit Days at Jefferson County Fairgrounds: and 4-7 p.m. Sept. 26 and 27 at Milwaukee’s Oktoberfest at Old World Third Street.

One of the nation’s largest and most significant Oktoberfest celebrations occurs Sept. 26 to Oct. 4 at multiple locations in La Crosse. For more: www.oktoberfestusa.com, 608-784-3378.

For more about Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Freistadt: www.trinityfreistadt.com, 262-242-2045.

About 55 percent of Wisconsin residents trace their roots to a German-speaking country, more than any other state. Oktoberfest, which began in Munich in 1810, is a fine way to acknowledge that heritage – but it goes much deeper than that.

I’ll be the featured guest on a Dec. 7-16 trip to Germany, being organized by Culture Ventures International in Madison. Consider joining me and Dick Franken as we explore Bavaria, Thuringen and Saxony during Advent.

We’ll soak in the spirit of the season – magnificent churches and traditional Christkindlmarkts – while visiting Dresden, Munich and smaller communities. The itinerary includes tours of the world’s oldest brewery, world’s oldest sausage kitchen, VW and BMW auto manufacturing complexes. We will favor independently owned businesses for lodging and dining.

Tour size is limited to 26 travelers. The cost is $2,997 for reservations made before Sept. 15, then $3,397 afterward. Prices include airfare from Chicago, ground transportation throughout Germany, lodging, breakfasts and a few other meals.

For more: www.culturetouring.com, 800-546-8520. The business is operated by Karl Gutknecht, former executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.