Sounds from Croatia: Traditional Croatian music
We’ve already introduced you to a couple of mainstream Croatian musicians (Darko Rundek and TBF), but Croatia also has a rich culture of traditional folk music. Some styles, in fact, are so unique that they have been recognized by UNESCO. Here’s a run-down of the most prominent folk music styles.
Istrian scale singing
Inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, two-part Istrian singing and playing employs its own, unique scale. Non-tempered tone relations and distinctive, partially nasal singing give it a distinctive sound. Istrian scale singing actually draws from several musical genres and performance styles and includes an array of traditional instruments, such as mih and pive (clarinet-type aerophones with windbags) and dvojnice (a flute-type aerophone), along with the tambura, a two-stringed instrument.
Around 100 performers keep this traditional alive today, having learned their art through oral transmission from previous masters. They are highly regarded in their communities and considered expert singers and musicians, and they often perform at weddings, family gatherings, and religious events.
Another style inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, ojkanje two-part singing developed in inland Dalmatia and is performed using a unique voice-shaking technique created by the throat. The length of each song is determined by how long the lead singer can hold his or her breath, and performers sing about anything from love to social issues and local politics.
The skill is passed on orally from generation to generation, but unfortunately, as the rural population has relocated to more urban areas, several sub-styles of ojkanje singing have been lost.
Tamburica is a musical style that focuses on an individual instrument – the tambura, one of the most popular traditional instruments in Croatia. It allegedly comes from Bosnia, but was embraced by Slavonian musicians, who began to form tamburica ensembles taking off by the mid-19th century. Since then, the skill has been passed down from generation to generation.
Though the tambura is popularly associated with traditional folk music, several tamburica composers have written and adapted classical compositions for the Slavonian stringed instrument.
Becarac singing and playing is the third type of music inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It comes from Slavonia and is often set to music performed by tambura bands. The relationship between performers is especially fascinating and points to notable sensitivity and perceptive communication, as group members simultaneously try to out-sing one another while working together to create ten-syllable verses and a cohesive melody.
An improvisational style, becarac requires the lead singer to allow context to guide his or her performance, which lasts as long as the group successfully pairs lyrical couplets that address anything from community values to personal sentiments that would be inappropriate to express if uttered explicitly, in another context.
Klapa singing is perhaps the most widely known type of traditional music from Croatia. Originating in Dalmatia and performed on the Adriatic coast and the islands, klapa songs celebrate subjects such as the sea, fish, wine, homeland, and loving Dalmatian mothers. If you happen to have visited Dalmatia, you’ve almost certainly heard klapa, whether while dining, while strolling through town, or during an evening concert. Everyone in Dalmatia knows and loves klapa, so it’s not unusual for Croatians to spontaneously break into song wherever they happen to be. (Although usually some quantity of wine is involved.)
Traditionally, Klapa is performed a cappella by a group of men, without the accompaniment of instruments, but now it’s not unusual to find klapa singing accompanied by music and performed by female singers or by groups of men and women.
Zagorje, the hilly region north of Zagreb known for its hot springs, castles, and Neanderthal museum is also home to hodge-podge musical ensembles consisting of various combinations of violins, accordions, clarinets, drums, and tamburas. The ensuing tunes are jolting and jovial and extol love, homeland, and wine. Of course, variable amounts of alcohol also contribute to the Zagorje sound.
Though the folk ensembles of Zagorje play traditional instruments, they do not strictly adhere to a traditional sound, producing instead lively, popular, jaunty tunes.
Like the tambura, the gusle is an individual instrument – this time, a single-stringed instrument resembling a mandolin, but played with a bow while resting between the musician’s knees. Played throughout Southeastern Europe, in Croatia, the instrument is associated with Lika, the mountainous region of inland Dalmatia where Plitvice Lakes National Park is located. Gusle playing is also popular among Croats living in Hercegovina.
Traditionally, the gusle accompanies epic poetry celebrating folk heroes and legendary battles, often detailing the lives of hajduk fighters who defended Croatia from the Turks.
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