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Surf boards, Austrian economics and "Pulp Fiction"

Professor’s band takes top honors, prepares to travel the country

Assistant Professor of Economics Ivan Pongracic’s surf band, The Madeira, took top honors in the surf music world this year when its second album, “Carpe Noctem” was named Pipeline Magazine’s top album of the year.

Surf music, an instrumental rock genre that peaked in popularity in the 1960s, has recently made a comeback. So much so, the four-member band – comprised of Pongracic on lead guitar, Dane Carter on drums, Patrick O’Connor on rhythm guitar and Todd Fortier on bass – hopes to tour Europe this summer for 10 days.

Economics and surf music

For at least two band members of Madeira, Austrian economics and surf music go hand in hand.

Pongracic was first introduced to the music while growing up in Croatia. But it wasn’t until 1994, when Pongracic went to a New York economics conference that a prominent Austrian economist brought the genre up again.

“So Austrian economics brought me to surf music,” Pongracic said, laughing.

Pongracic then introduced the genre to one of his own economics students, Dane Carter, while teaching at Indiana-Wesleyan University.

“It all started innocently enough when he brought me a stack of CDs and said 'Check these out!’” Carter said.

American sound

Developed by the son of immigrant Lebanese and Polish parents, surf music was born in the 1960s in California when Dick Dale, “King of Surf Guitar,” renovated the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Cali., and packed 1,000 to 1,050 kids in to hear him play his new style of music, Pongracic said.

Surf music is instrumental rock that features a “reverb effect on the guitars,” said Alan Taylor, editor of the British instrumental rock magazine, Pipeline, in an e-mail to the Collegian. A precursor to the rock music of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, classic surf music centered around surfing, regardless of whether musicians actually touched a board or not.

“It was probably the only time you had a [music] genre connected to a sport,” Pongracic said.

The genre’s surfing elements are still recognizable today in the driving pulse and energy of the drum lines of surf standards.

“It’s called surf music – there is that feeling – you can imagine yourself on the edge of your board, looking down thinking 'I’m gonna die,’” Carter said.

Skeptics puzzled by the genre would be surprised to realize how prevalent surf music is today, he added.

“When it’s pointed out, people recognize it,” he said. “It’s not that it’s foreign.”

Pongracic points to the theme song of “Pulp Fiction,” Dick Dale’s “Miserlou,” as a classic example of surf music – the Black Eyed Peas used it as the bass melody of their 2006 hit song, “Pump It.”

A prominent feature surf music is Middle Eastern melodies and strumming technique, due to Dick Dale’s Lebanese heritage, Pongracic said.

“[Dick Dale] took a lot of traditional Middle Eastern tunes and made them into surf songs,” Carter said.

The Madeira – the style

The Madeira took these classic surf music characteristics and put a modern spin on them, Carter said, starting with cultural ties.

“We tried to move a little further west into the Spanish and Portuguese styles,” he said.

The group also wove in contemporary-style melodies, said Lorenzo Valdambrini, their European tour promoter living in the Caribbean in an e-mail to the Collegian.

“Madeira put together the original classic surf sound (Dick Dale’s style) with sophisticated melodies and great energy,” Valdambrini said.

Their fusion of old-school techniques and modern sounds was partly what gave The Madeira their album win.

“They incorporate the drama of traditional folk dances from Eastern European and exotic Middle Eastern flavors into some of the most powerful rock instrumental music,” Taylor said of the band. “The Madeira’s arrangements make great use of their second guitarist playing rhythm guitar in a style that has been under used since the 1960s.”

To Europe and beyond

This summer, the band plans to play in a three-day surf music festival outside Pisa, Italy and then tour through some of France, Italy and maybe even Pongracic’s home country of Croatia, Valdambrini said.

Pongracic is looking forward to hearing other surf bands play alongside The Madeira in Pisa but isn’t setting his hopes too high for the tour afterwards. Even though surf music standards are very familiar, the genre itself is still quite unrecognized in its own right.

“It’s a niche genre – if we get 100 [people] we’re quite happy,” he said. “It’s always great.”

For now, the band is trying coordinate a few practice sessions to prepare for their tour. Arranging traveling arrangements with band members in Indiana, California and Michigan is just one challenge, Carter said.

“That, and the blisters and cramps and everything else that comes with playing this style of music on the drums,” he said.

Marieke Van Der Vaart
The Hillsdale Collegian

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