Peter Boro performed Croatian music on the gusle for ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell in San Mateo, California, December 20, 1939
A few enterprising sailors from Croatia arrived in America in the sixteenth century. Croatian missionaries lived and worked in the country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, immigrants from Croatia only began arriving in the United States in sizeable numbers during the late nineteenth century. Croatians settled in many parts of the United States. Some settled in factory towns and farming areas in Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. Others, lured by gold and a sunny climate that reminded them of their homeland, settled in the American South and West. They worked as saloonkeepers, grocers, tugboat operators, restaurant owners, farmers, as well as in the fishing industry.
From 1880 through 1924, a wave of Croatians fled to the United States to escape poverty brought on by changes in land inheritance laws, the deterioration of farmland, and population increases. Many of these immigrants settled in Pennsylvania and the urban centers of the Midwest and worked in the mining industry.
In the years following World War II and the rise of communism in eastern Europe, further waves of Croatian immigrants, many of them educated and skilled, came to the United States. The wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s prompted additional Croatian arrivals on United States soil.
Croatians have a strong choral tradition, which they brought with them to the United States. Choirs, the first of which were established around the turn of the twentieth century, would travel to each other's communities to perform both sacred and secular repertoire. Many of these groups became affiliated with drama companies and tamburitza "orchestras" (a traditional Balkan ensemble, whose members are usually men, playing several different types of fretted long-necked lute). In America today, the tamburitza is the hallmark of Croatian Americans' cultural heritage. The Croatian song "Onam, Onamo" was recorded on the Victor label in New York City on March 21, 1912 . It features a duet accompanied by a tamburitza.
The gusle, a primitive single-stringed bowed instrument, though rarely heard today, was also part of Croatian Americans' musical heritage. In this untitled example, recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in San Mateo, California on December 20, 1939, Peter Boro demonstrates the instrument's sound. He then sings the song "Konjanik" or "Rider on Horseback" accompanying himself on the gusle.
Many songs are harmonized in parallel thirds or sixths. Vocal and instrumental verses alternate. Singers typically sing in a high tessitura and use a slow, broad vibrato.
The becar, an event predominantly associated with carousing male culture, is another locus of Croatian American vocal music culture. Adapted nineteenth century folk melodies known as Starogradske psjeme (songs of the old) form the backbone of the repertoire sung at becars. Most of the lyrics, which are often lighthearted, focus on male heroism, honor and virility.
Traditional Croatian song and dance traditions live on in different parts of the United States. Based at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and founded in 1937, the Duquesne University Tamburitzans continues to present concerts and festivals to this day. Meanwhile, San Francisco plays host to both an annual Croatian Festival and a Tamburitza Festival. Ruže Dalmatinke, a group from Washington state, performed traditional Croatian choral singing at the Library of Congress in 2012 (select the link for a video of this concert).
In the twentieth century as a result of the influence of American pop music, the tamburitza ensembles have developed a more diverse sound. The repertoire of the tamburitza groups today combines traditional songs in the Serbo-Croatian language, narodnjak songs (contemporary, accordion-led urban folk/pop tunes) and classic American pop songs. In contemporary America the tamburitza is embraced by Croatians, Serbs and Slovenians. The Bajich Brothers, a musical group of Serbian descent, frequently perform for these communities. This concert was recorded at the Library of Congress on September 17, 2008.
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties. This Library of Congress presentation includes recordings of Croatians in the Californian towns of Woodside, San Mateo, and Mountain View singing and performing Dalmatian dance music and Serbo-Croatian oral epic songs, as well as instrumental selections. The recordings, made in the 1930s, are part of The WPA California Folk Music Project, a multi-format ethnographic field collection.
- For more information on Croatian American collections in the archive of the American Folklife Center, see the finding aid: Croatia Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture.
- Levy, Mark. "Southeastern European (Balkan) Music," in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp. 919-924 Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. The Harvard Encylopedia of American Ethnic Groups (Harvard, 1980; Second printing, 1981), pp. 247 - 255.
- See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.