One of the world’s best tamburitza players and , for sure, best-known Croatian string music player in the States, Jerry Grcevich showed us kindness and hosted us in his home in Zagreb where he currently lives. He is the third generation of his family in Pittsburgh, USA. Croatian language is something he mastered and Croatian tradition, tamburitza and Croatian folklore are in his blood. Grcevich, who is always ready to crack some joke up, told us who thought him music and how he fell in love with tamburitza which he hadn’t put down during our interview.
You haven’t forgotten your roots, you teach young people how to play string Croatian instruments and you are an active member of Croatian brotherhood in the States. How are things in the States?
Today’s situation is not the best when comparing it to some past years. Fewer people are interested in keeping the tradition alive and learning about Croatian past. For example, few years ago there were 14 Croatian churches in Pittsburgh but today there is only one and, even, without Croatian priest. What is good is the fact that we have a few Croatian clubs where we hang out, organize Christmas parties or picnics when the weather allows it. There are a lot of tamburitza groups what is, for sure, connected with the fact that the most Croatian immigrants came to Pittsburgh.
How many people do you teach and what was the key for them to come and learn to play tamburitza?
Currently in Pittsburgh I teach two groups and I have a bend whom with I play music. My frist group has about 8 to 10 members and the second one has a bigger number of 25 tamburitza lovers. It is not neccessary that the group member has Croatian roots but they must have love for tamburitza, instruments and Croatian songs. My groups have shows and they perform on different festivals. They appreciate and love this special form of music and that is for me the most important thing. However, traditon and world, itself, depends on young people. We have luck and can say that young people are curious about their roots. The key thing in connecting the past with the future is the Internet. Today young people and people in general can just go online, go to YouTube and check what’s new in Croatian, what is popular and what new songs came out. For example, ‘Zorica’ from Mejaši is extremely popular overseas.
In order for you to be a good perform and a player you had to have a good teacher. Who did teach you how to play and how many instruments do you play?
I play tamburitza from a very young age. The love for this instrument runs in the family. My father, my uncle and my grandfather played tamburitza and loved Croatia. It was clear that I am the heir to this love. When I was younger I went to Croatia where I learnt from the best. Antun Nikolić and the famous Janika Balaž were my teachers. Well, I can say I play all Croatian string instuments and I enjoy playing each and every one of them.
Many times you came to Croatia. What Croatian artists did you work with ad share the same stage with?
Miroslav Škoro is one of the Croatian musicians I played with the most. We worked together on his first album and recorded many famous songs like Ne dirajte mi ravnicu, Moja Juliška, Šumi, šumi javore and many others. Other perform whom I had great time working with is Zvonko Bogdan. This cooperation was great because of his great talent, his voice and the charm he just can’t switch off.
What do you think is making music from simply commercial reasons good? Do you think it shows somehow?
I think it shows. Especially, in music and the arrangement of the song. It is crucially important to know what do you want to get from the song. Do you want the fast money or you want to make history? When you approach the song with love you can make is significantly different from anything else out there. However, I think everybody should have and have their own voice and, in the end, we can see the love or the money in the final product.
What does the festival in Pitomača mean to you and why did you come back?
I love dearly the festival in Pitomača. It has a special place in my heart. My granny is from Podravina so there will be many relatives and family present at the festival. It is my great honour that I perform again this year and I just want to make everybody proud. Getting to the festival wasn’t the simpliest task. It was very hard to make the song in the States, send it back here, let someone else sing it and present it to the jury but I have no doubt that everything will turn out great in the end. I wanted to perform again this year and my wish came true.
There is a question about Croatians not appreciating their tradition and past enough. What do you think about that?
It is very easy to say that we should keep the tradition alive but to make this goal come true, it is extremely difficult. Past, customs and tradition are all very fragile things. One day they can simply fade away. It is critically important for the Croat to not forget their past because our past and culture fascinate not only us but the entire world. You have to remember that no future can live without the past.
What is the future of Croatian people in the States?
There are few important and key people who hold this tradition and community together. Croatian brotherhood is one of the organization but we need more, much more. We need more native Croatians to teach the language because if you don’t know the language how can you sing the song and, even more important, how can you connect with the song. Unfortunately, we don’t have any language classes and that is a thing that bothers me. We hope we can keep the tradition alive and preserve our costumes.
Together with the group Tamburgeri Jerry Grcevich will perform at the first night of the festival, night of Podravina. They will sing the song Maruška written by Darko Dervišević. (translation: V.Škrlin)