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The 1st Ever San Francisco Tamfest

Format: cd   |  Released: 2000

Cost: $15

This live recording was made February 20, 2000 at the Croatian American Cultural Center in San Francisco. It featured a wondrous variety of music by California's best tamburitza performance groups. The event was an historic first, and included a serendipitous appearance by the great tamburasi singer, Zvonko Bogdan accompanied by Jerry Grcevic.

About the Festival

Croatian American Cultural Center of San Francisco has been the home for immigrant communities from the South Slav Balkan nations since 1856. In the past decade, the Center has gained increasing importance for immigrant communities from Croatia and Bosnia as well as for ethnically diverse American folk dance community. In this period, its programs have featured from Poklade Festival [a carnival festival preceding the Lent season observed by Croatian Catholics] and Bosnian Night catered more towards their respective communities, to Ivo's Diaspora Cabaret [multi-media performance] and regular dance instructions, performances, and master artist series whose goal has been to bring culturally more diverse audiences to the Center. The First San Francisco Tamburitza Festival held in the Croatian American Cultural Center on February 20, 2000, was an attempt to transform an ethnically insular Poklade festival into a more diverse event. The Festival was also an attempt to recreate excitement of tamburitza extravaganzas that have been taking place on the East Coast and Midwest for years. This time, the festival featured mostly tamburitza ensembles from Croatian immigrant communities from California; however, instruments from the tamburitza family are also important symbols of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian national cultures.

Tamburitza-s are a family of string acoustic instruments, which are a signature of folk music from southeastern Europe, particularly from Croatian and Serbian parts of Slavonia and Bačka, and northern Bosnia. Contemporary repertoire of tamburitza ensembles includes a variety of folk dances (from rural kolo circle dances such as drmeš to urban polkas and waltzes), “old-time favorites” or standards (urban folk songs from the first half of the 20th century), and popular songs featuring contemporary styles (from pop to rock 'n' roll). Since the 1960s, tamburitza ensembles have increasingly become involved in church services among the Croatian Catholic communities.

It is believed that this instrument was introduced to the Balkan cultures after the Ottoman Turkish conquests in the 15th century. At that time, its original form was a fretted long neck lute tambur, which was very similar to contemporary Turkish instrument saz or baglama. Turkish travelling musicians who accompanied themselves while singing ballads played this instrument. It is not clear when the Balkan communities first adopted this instrument. However, it is certain that tamburitza-s became increasingly popular instruments during the 19th century. The first amateur tamburitza ensemble was formed in Osijek, Croatia, in 1847. At that time, tamburitza­-s of different sizes and shapes were introduced for the first time, and tunings were standardized. Thus, instead of a solo instrument accompanying singing and dancing, an orchestral setting was adopted in which instruments played very different parts in the arrangement. Today, most tamburitza ensembles include prim and brač playing melody and harmony in parallel thirds čelo playing the counter melodies and fill-ins, bugarija playing the chords, and berda providing the bass line.

Soon after the first immigrants from Croatia and Serbia arrived to the USA in late 19th century, first tamburitza ensembles were established in the New World. They immediately took important part in American culture. Tamburitza orchestras from the vicinity of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania were particularly active. They performed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893; in 1900 tamburitza concert was held in Carnegie Hall in New York; that same year tamburitza musicians performed for President Roosevelt in the White House. During the first decades of the 20th century, a couple of tamburitza ensembles succeeded to penetrate competitive vaudeville circuits. Since 1920s, some tamburitza performers even reached Hollywood. The most notable example is success of the Crljenica brothers who wrote and performed music for such movie classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. While individual teachers, and Croatian and Serbian Clubs in the USA provided most of the tamburitza instruction in their local communities, the Duquesne University Tamburitza Orchestra in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has contributed to dissemination of tamburitza music in larger American community since its inception in 1930s.

Program of the First San Francisco Tamburitza Festival featured a variety of tamburitza styles and repertoires. Members of the Dalmacijo Singers, a choral ensemble directed by George Ruzich (Croatian American Cultural Center, San Francisco) and Novi Stari Tamburaši from Bay Area, a tamburitza ensemble lead by Caroline Bahr, a graduate of Duquesne University Tamburitza Orchestra, are mostly first and second generation immigrants from Croatia. Their repertoire includes a fine selection of old-time standards and contemporary tamburitza songs from regions of northern Croatia and Dalmatian Coast as well as Bosnia.

Blue Adriatic, the youngest tamburitza ensemble at the Festival consisting of mostly second and third generation immigrants from Croatia, is affiliated with the Croatian community in San Jose. This group performs at all major social functions in this Croatian community, as well as at the intercultural events in San Jose. For Tamfest, Blue Adriatic performed a selection of instrumental tamburitza music from different regions of Croatia as well as novelty pieces that are the signature of American popular culture.

Repertoire and style of The Slavonian Traveling Band from the Bay Area is rather unique. Unlike other ensembles at the Festival, The Slavonian Traveling Band is an ethnically diverse ensemble. As a result, the Slavonian Traveling Band blends musical styles and repertoires from many Balkan traditions - from Bosnian and Croatian, to Sephardic Jewish, Gypsy, Macedonian, and Serbian. In addition, the band brings in its repertoire original songs influenced by American spiritual, blues, and story telling traditions. As the “house band” of the Croatian American Cultural Center, The Slavonian Traveling Band has performed for Croatian community regularly for various occasions in the Center since 1986. The band has also performed at different intercultural festivals and concerts in the Bay Area becoming thus true ambassadors of music from the Balkans.

Tom Yeseta and his ensemble play regularly service music for the Croatian St. Anthony's church in Los Angeles, including Tom Yeseta's liturgy “Hrvatska pučka misa” [Croatian folk mass] that has become increasingly popular among Croatian immigrant communities across the country. For the larger tamburitza community, however, Tom Yeseta's ensemble is known as the “home ensemble” of Tamburica and Kolo Club “Croatia,” Los Angeles, whose repertoire is quite versatile, yet eclectic, while the arrangements are technically challenging and refined. Their repertoire includes instrumental excerpts from Croatian operas (i.e. Porin, Ero s onog svijeta, and Nikola Šubić Zrinjski), classics of the Croatian music theater, folk and popular songs from various regions of Croatia, and compositions written specifically for tamburitza ensembles by Croatian composers (i.e. Julije Njikoš, Dr. Josip Andrić). A selection from this secular repertoire was performed in their appearance for the Tamfest.

Zvonko Bogdan has been widely popular for his unique voice and beautiful songs not only in Croatia, but also in Bosnia and Herzegovina and northern Serbia for over thirty years. TV shows with Zvonko Bogdan and his tamburitza ensemble were frequently broadcasted on the national television in former Yugoslavia thus reaching furthest corners of all Yugoslav republics. His songs are true jewels of contemporary tamburtza music repertoire that reflect particularly tradition of Croatian minority (also known as Bunjevci) from the Bačka region of Vojvodina (northern Serbia).  In his first appearance in California with virtuoso tambura player Jerry Grcevich, Mark Forry, and members of the Yeseta Brothers Orchestra, Zvonko Bogdan performed both original and traditional numbers that were in many ways nostalgic reminders of the culture that disappeared in turbulent 1990s.

Rajna Klaser, ethnomusicologist


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