Croatian Music in WA

by Neven Smoje

The essence and fountain of all great Croatian culture emanated from the peasantry and the village. It is therefore not surprising that our early pioneers would bring with them to Australia traditions passed on from generation to generation.The great tradition of a’cappella or as is fondly known Klapa singing, the centuries old gusla playing, Tamburica music and from the Dalmatian regions instruments like the mandolin and piano accordion all appeared in one form or another in Western Australia since the arrival of Croatian immigrants in the early 1890’s. Along with music also came the various forms of dance which were performed privately or publicly  from the Goldfields to Fremantle.

The chain migration of unskilled workers to the Woodline and Kalgoorlie Boulder Regions brought the threshold population of Croats to the point of being able to form their own clubs and societies. Thus in 1912 we see the formation of the Croatian Slavonic Society in Moran Street, Boulder. By 1914 the Croatian Slavonic Society had a 25 member  Tamburica group called “Velebit” as well as a 12 member choir. Let us go to the beginning of the orchestra.

Undeterred by the midsummer heat of the Golden Mile four Croatian enthusiasts met in a timber framed hut covered by bleached canvas in January 1913. It consisted of one room furnished with a bed, table and one chair. Who sat on the chair and who sat on the floor or stood will forever remain a mystery. Nevertheless it was in the home of Marko Tvrdeić. His three guests were Ante Šantić, Čedomir Bušelić and Petar Pašalić. The aim of the meeting was to form a steering committee with the view to establishing a tamburica group. Marko Tvrdeić possessed a second Brač which he couldn’t play so it was left to Ante Šantić to open the meeting by playing a rendition of Lijepa Naša Domovina and Gore Nebo Visoko  accompanied…….

By 1914 The Croatian Slavonic Society had a 25 member Tamburica group called “Velebit”. Antun Šantić was its conductor, teacher and President whilst Marko Tvrdeić was its secretary. In addition, the Society had a 12 member choir of which an Australian, Mr. Scadan was its teacher and Marko Vodanović his understudy.

In September 1924 The Croatian Slavonic Society of Boulder placed an advertisement in the Croatian Newspaper “Hrvatska Riječ” for a conductor of their Tamburica orchestra and choir. The national awareness of the club members and Croatian people in general is reflected in the editorial which states, inter alia: “ovo je zgodna prigoda za jednog naseg covjeka, koji moze da sebi osigura lijepu buducnost i ujedno mnogo koristi hrvatskoj narodnoj misli. Jer, kako je poznato, u tamosnjem dalekom svijetu nasa pjesma je jedno od najboljih sredstava da se odrzi jaka i ziva nacijonalna svijest medju nasim iseljenim narodom”.(1)

Reporting on the Yugoslav community’s closer cultural and social ties as a result of their country being at War the local afternoon paper, The Daily News, presented in its edition of 17 April 1941 a broad survey of the peoples of Yugoslavia love for music. The article introduced the finer points of the Tamburica orchestra and detailed the good work of the Oreški String Band under the conductorship and tutelage of Ivan (Jack) Kovačević. At the time of writing of the article the band had a full complement of 32 players. It was noted that the band practiced three times a week at its premises in Aberdeen Street, Northbridge and had in its repertoire the melodies of American folk song writer, Stephen Foster. The ability to play not only Croatian music but also a selection of popular anglo saxon music would have appealed to the wider Australian community when the band gave performances in Perth as well as in country areas. The Oreški String band was known to travel by train and make impromptu concerts at every railway station along the journey.

In 1941 The Oreški String Band recorded a 78rpm record with “Marijana” on one side and “Hrvatsko Kolo” on the other. The recording assisted in popularizing Croatian music in Western Australia as well as consolidating the status of “Oreški” as a showcase of Croatian talent in Western Australia. The group performed at the opening of radio station 6KY.

March 1942 saw the establishment of a Yugoslav Week by the Jugoslavenski Narodni Odbor. During the week a 30 minute Jugoslav Radio Programme featured The Oreski String Band who performed at 8.30pm on 26th March 1942. They played the Jugoslav National Hymn as well as “Oj Slaveni” and three other melodies.

The Wartime saw continued cultural activities in the Croatian Community. The “Oreski” club held lectures on their premises every second Sunday evening. It was reported that Andrija Silic spoke one evening on the theme: “ From the beginning of the war to now” whilst Mrs. Boris Marian presented a paper on another occasion on “Women of Yugoslavia”. Embracing other Southern Slav nationalities, the Club also invited Vaso Vukmanovic, a Montenegrin, to deliver an address entitled “Jugoslavija, War and Emigrants”.

Early in 1945 a group of youths performed a kolo dance “Oj Slavenko” on the stage of the Sloga hall in Main Street Osborne Park. The Choregraphy was by Dina Martinovic and musical accompaniment by Piano Accordianist, Cedomir Klarich.

In a letter to the newspaper “Napredak” dated 12th May 1945 Croatian Pioneer Ivan Vranjican noted that Tamburica organizations in Western Australia were weakened by the fact that many of its members were absent due to enrolment in Australia’s armed forces. He was pleased to see the return of Ivan Kovacevic who continued to rebuild the organization. Mention was also made of the Tamburica group from Osborne Park who were tutored by Ivan Kovacevic and Strika.

In an attempt to better coordinate future activities tamburica groups from Perth, Spearwood and Osborne Park held a meeting under the chairmanship of J . Katavic and with the speakers being A. Silic, J. Kovacevic, T. Ursic & M. Djakovic. The meeting supported work done so far and voted to form a 7 member group to co ordinate the work of various tamburica groups in Western Australia and to consider combining with other groups from Australia and New Zealand. A decision was also made to prepare for a combined groups concert.

The Napredak Newspaper of March 1946 prominently displayed a photograph of the Tamburica group “Sloga” which was formed under the conductorship of the ever popular and talented Ivan Kovacevic.

On 30th March 1946 Yugoslav Day was celebrated at Leederville oval. The festival was organized by the Pokrajinski Odbor Jugoslavenski Savez. The festival brought together Croatian dancers, musicians, singers and sportspersons to display their and other south slav cultures.

The festival was opened by Dori Pervan who also explained the origins of the kolo dance and “Kumpanija” dance from Korcula which was to be performed later that day. Following the speeches of Dori Pervan and Andrija Silic the Croatian youth from the Swan Valley performed the “Partizansko Kolo”. Leading the kolo was the Accordianist R. Tomasic who was dressed in Partizan uniform with a red star on his cap. The male dancers were also dressed in Partizan uniform whilst the women were dressed in the colours of blue, white and red with red stars embroidered on both lapels of their blouses.

Following the kolo the Oreski Tamburiza Orchestra performed a number of folk songs. The youth from Spearwood under the directorship of M. Separovic then performed the “Novosadsko Kolo”.

Now it was time for the Athletes to display their prowess. S. Ilic lead the Swan Athletic Club in a display of gymnastics with 12 year old George Bebic being the star performer.

Accordionist Cedo Klaric lead the mixed Choir from Osborne Park in a rendition of the folk dance “Oj Slavenko”.

The Climax of the festival saw the performance of the “Kumpanija” which is a folk dance from Korcula. The captain of the dance was Marko Andric whilst the drummer and accordionist were respectively F. Kovacic and R. Tomasic. The dancers were dressed in folk costumes and all carried swords. The “Kumpanija” dance symbolized the battle between the peoples of Korcula and the Venetians.

Before the festival closed a team from the Swan Athletic club and a team from Osborne Park played a friendly soccer match. The game ended in a 2 all draw.

The hungry audience was fed by Mirko Bobanac and J.Butorac who prepared Lamb on the Spit. Mrs. Candell and other members of the Nedlands Roads Board prepared Afternoon tea of which the proceedings went to the fund for the building of the Children’s home in Bihac.

On the 17th April 1946 Tamburica groups under the Yugoslav Savez performed a concert in the Perth Town Hall. The master of Ceremonies, Augustin Marusic introduced the program in both Croatian and English. This was followed by the Yugoslav National anthem “Oj Slaveni” which was performed by the tamburica group “Oreski” and conducted by Ivan Kovacevic. Amidst a big round of applause for the new Yugoslav National anthem the group played the ever popular “Marijana” and a potpourri of Croatian National songs. The Istrian Choir, conducted by J. Surina followed with a rendition of “Pjesmom Marsalu Titu” or in English “A song of Marshall Tito”. Maestro Kovacevic then introduced and conducted the Tamburica Youth Orchestra “Napredni” in a rendition of “La Paloma” and “Junak iz Like”. A Miss Gerovich from Spearwood entertained the audience in english by singing “The Little Love and the Little Kiss”.

The concert continued with M. Goricanac conducting the S.N.D. Tamburica Group from Boulder. They performed to the enthusiastic audience a version of “Svadba u Starom Gradu” and “Cokacko Kolo”. Again the Istrian choir entertained those present with “Drugovi I Drugarice” and “Zabe”. In the seventh event of the evening, Ivan Kovacevic conducted the Tamburica Group “Sloga” playing “Uspomene iz Beca” and “Oj Hrvati oj Junaci”. No doubt happier with her earlier performance Miss Gerovich performed “My Hero” possibly a song about Marsal Tito.

Bringing a political element into what was mainly a cultural event a local Montenegrin, Luka Markovic lauded the praises of Stalin, Dimitrov and Tito. The mention of Tito brought with it a strong applause. It is rather sad that the organizers of the event sought to mix culture with politics as if to say that Stalin and Tito were liberating forces to people who weren’t able to express their culture under previous governments. Markovic went on to tell the audience that such a cultural event was great despite the peasant backgrounds of the performers and their lack of opportunity to lift their own cultural niveau. Markovic was clearly out of his league and showed a complete lack of understanding of the Croatian people and no doubt his own people. The essence and fountain of all great Croatian culture emanated from the peasantry and the village.

The concert closed with all of the Tamburica groups performing together (65 players in all) “Sokolsku Koracnicu” and the “Cekoslovak” melody “Jeroslavski”.

1946 continued to be a successful year culturally for our Community and now it was the children’s turn to display their talents to the wider community. 50 children under the guidance of Ms Bumbak and Ms L. Marinkovic presented a program at the Sloga Club on 21 September 1946. The event was entitled “Children of the World” and the stage was adorned with flowers, the moon and the stars and a throne befitting a Queen. The children called the backdrop “The Enchanted world”. The program included songs, recitations, dances and a display of Croatian and other national costumes. The concert proved to be a resounding success.

In an open letter to Napredak Ivan Sepic lamented the demise of the tamburica in Western Australia due to the mass return of Croatian Migrants and therefore a significant amount of .tamburica players to Yugoslavia earlier in 1948. He appealed to the remaining tamburica players, both young an old, to renew their enthusiasm for playing tamburica.

Sadly, even though the tamburica survived through the enthusiasm of certain people, the tamburica playing community could never match the pinnacle of success that was reached in 1946. The return to Yugoslavia, growing assimilation, the birth of Rock n Roll and the introduction of Television did much to ensure that tamburica playing and other cultural manifestations were kept to a minimum over the next ten years.

The postwar community saw a polarization of the active Croatian community based on political lines; those who supported the newly emerging Titoist government and those who were against the Communist dictatorship. The latter consisted in the main of postwar refugees and some economic migrants all from a more wider geographical area than the pre war migrants. Isolated from the well established mainstream community the 1950’s postwar émigré’s began to create informal cultural and political groups. Folk dancing, singing became an integral part of their community activities. The 12th April 1952 saw the formal establishment of the Croatian Club, Fremantle. The group consisted of Croats from Dalmatia, continental Croatia and Bosnia & Hercegovina. Among its leaders were Josip Grguric and Stipan Brbic an energetic and focused young man from Tucepi. Both men and their compatriots saw the need to maintain Croatian culture among its group and to promote it in the wider Australian Community. Another postwar enthusiast was Mladen Car from Crikvenica who conducted the Church Choir at St. Jerome’s in Spearwood. The Choir later merged with the Croatian Club and the now wider ensemble performed at functions of the Good Neighbour Council and Migrant Emergency Fund. Dressed in Croatian costumes the group participated in various processions, both religious and community as well as the annual Blessing of the Fleet. It is recorded that the folklore group consisted of Tonica Kostrencic, Ivica Kostrencic, Olga Starcevic, Danica Cace, Toni Penko, Franjo Katalinic, Mijo Simic, Vlado Piscetek, Cvija Piscetek, Josip Grguric, Domena Grguric, Stipe Brbic, Nada Levar, Jadranka Levar, Ante Simic, Vjekoslava Simic, Nada Brajdic, Ana and Ivan Stedul.

Neven Smoje