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Lively strains and laments of Tamburitza call across the ages

Alan T. Saracevic, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday , Feb 17, 2005

It's funny how a single word can take you back.

As a kid growing up on the east side of Cleveland, it took but one word from my Dad to strike the fear in me. Nothing harsh. He just had to say, "Tamburitza."

Usually happened over dinner, or during cocktail hour, or while we were swatting mosquitoes out on the back porch. I'd hear the "T" word and I'd start sweating.

He'd be telling Mom about an upcoming folk music concert at the local Croatian hall, which meant we were going that Saturday. Which meant I'd spend hours listening to Croatia's best-known genre of folk music. Which explains the fear, as in "Oh, no! Not another Tamburitza concert."

It's not that I didn't like the music. The songs were familiar to me, as my Dad would play Croat records at home and tune the radio to the "Croatian Hour" on Sunday afternoons. I liked the stuff well enough. My hang-up was more about trying to fit into American culture as a second-generation immigrant, a common story if there ever was one. Think "Joy Luck Club," except in my book, everyone's eating cabbage and drinking slivovitz.

Anyway, my older sister and I would usually take these Tamburitza get- togethers as an opportunity to poke fun at Cleveland's sizable Croatian community.

There'd always be a guy, or six, in the crowd wearing tight green polyester pants, white leather shoes and greased back hair, slamming beers and grooving to the oldies. And the kids in the dance troupes. Sheesh. We couldn't believe anyone would be caught dead in those outfits. We thought we were so cool. We weren't.

To my Dad, it was all about the backstory. He wanted to make sure we knew where our parents came from. Where we came from. We were never too keen on the idea, meaning we were teenagers with a pulse.

But time goes by, and that's when things get kind of funny. I'm going to a Tamburitza festival this weekend, at the Croatian American Cultural Center right here in San Francisco, and my Dad is nowhere to be seen. He's living in New Jersey. And I've grown to love that Tamburitza, man.

Before I go any further, let me explain the music. The word Tamburitza refers to the traditional folk music of Croatia, high-speed dance tunes played on mandolins and guitars and all kinds of string instruments you've never seen. Technically, Tamburitza are a family of lute-like string instruments. They range in size and sound, but the results add up to a string-based musical style common to many Slavic cultures.

Layered on top is a wide range of singing, from hearty group efforts to heart-wrenching ballads, all sung to the universal themes of love lost, homes missed and a nation loved.

The pace varies, song to song, but I'd venture to say it's generally up- tempo. The musicians can pick it quick, easily matching the finger play you'd see in any bluegrass band. And that leads to some great dancing. Nothing too intricate, but the music makes you want to move.

The most common result is the "Kolo," a group dance where people sling an arm over their neighbors' shoulders and repeat a sequence of steps that move the dancers on down the line, so to speak. Hop-step to the left, hop-step right, then a one-two-three crossover to the right. It's often performed in a circle, creating a great communal feel to the whole thing. You've probably seen a variation performed by Greeks.

The flip side to these are truly soulful ballads. They're slow, beautifully strummed and, when done well, bring tears.

I guess it was all those attributes, combined with a lifetime of trips to the astonishingly beautifully and increasingly popular Adriatic Coast, that brought me back to Tamburitza music a few years ago. Oh, and I moved to San Francisco, where John Daley does his thing.

Daley, whose mother was Croatian, lives in Berkeley and runs the music at the Croatian Cultural Center in the Outer Mission. His Slavonian Traveling Band will be one of many that take the stage this weekend at the Croatian hall on Onondaga Avenue.

If it weren't for Daley, I probably wouldn't be writing this column, or going to a Tamburitza show this weekend. Almost single-handedly, he's revived a San Francisco tradition that dates back to before the '06 quake.

It was back in 1902, actually, that Ilar Spiletak organized the first Croatian Tamburitza band in the United States, right here in San Francisco. Before he passed away, he'd launched a total of 12 different orchestras during the Croatian community's heyday in San Francisco. (Yes, there was a heyday.)

For many reasons, when Spiletak died, the bands mostly faded away, until Daley came along. Applying a totally inclusive Bay Area perspective to Eastern European folk music, he's brought back the song and dance at the heart of the community, locally and nationally.

"San Francisco is now the center of Tamburitza culture across the nation, " Daley says. "I love the singing and the harmonies and that you can dance to it. You can hear the East and the West in the music."

Hear, hear, John.

But why listen to him or me? I used to give my poor Dad a hard time for turning me on to the stuff. And like any music, it loses something when experienced only in print. Check it out in person this weekend.

I'll be the guy with two kids in tow. I keep telling them they'll love it. And they get this funny look on their faces.



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