The Tamburitza
and the preservation of Croatian folk music

Written by Michael B. Savor (Canada)

The Tamburica Croatian Orchestra, 1887
County of Buffalo, Nebraska, USA

The Tamburica Croatian Orchestra, 1887
County of Buffalo, Nebraska, USA

Wedding in Zumberak (near Zagreb), 1930.

The tamburitza is the most popular and most common of the national instruments of the Croatian people. It is a stringed instrument related to the Russian balalaika, the Ukrainian bandura and the Italian mandolin. Its name originated from the Turkish language and made its first appearance in the Balkan region in the 14th Century. The tamburitza is said to have first appeared in Bosnia, and from there it appeared in the regions of Slavonija and Backa.

Photo from

Learning to play the tamburitza was passed down from one generation to the next. Every village had their share of musicians who performed at every festive occasion. The formation of tamburitzan groups began in the area of Backa in the first half of the 19th century.
Omaha Tamburitzans, USA
Omaha Tamburitzans, USA
Omaha Tamburitzans, USA

Omaha Tamburitzans, USA

The first amateur Tamburitzan orchestra was formed in Osijek in 1847 by Pajo Kolaric, who was the first well known composer for the tamburitza. In 1882, Kolaric's student Mijo Majer formed the first tamburitzan choir to be led by a conductor called "Hrvatska Lira". Majer was the first composer and arranger of concert works for tamburitzan orchestras. The formation of amateur tamburitzan orchestras soon spread throughout Croatia and Bosnia, as well as Slovenia, Austria and Czechoslovakia. For Croatians living outside of Croatia, the tamburitza was a cultural symbol binding them to their homeland.

Croatian tamburitzans in Slovenia around 1910

Growing interest in the tamburitza resulted in the publication and circulation of newsletters on the instrument. In Croatia, the newsletter "Tamburica" was published and circulated, and in Slovenia, a newsletter titled "Slavonska Lira" was published before the First World War. The tamburitzan federation of Czechoslovakia also had their own newsletter. Croatians in the United States first published a newsletter in 1937 called "Tamburitza News". In the same year, a tamburitzan federation was founded in Osijek. In 1941, the Croatian Radio-Television Tamburitza Orchestra was founded as a professional ensemble of the Zagreb radio station. This orchestra is currently led by the head conductor Professor Sinisa Leopold.

Mixed tamburitza orchestra , 1908, from Kresevo, BiH (photo from the Kresevo Franciscan monastery)

Mixed tamburtza orchestra from Kresevo, 1908, BiH

Mixed tamburitza orchestra from Kresevo, BiH (photo from the Kresevo Franciscan monastery)

Even though the tamburitza was always regarded as a national folk instrument, many serious compositions have been composed for the instrument. For example, Josip Canic composed overtures for tamburitzan orchestras. Vinko Vodopivec composed various suites for the instrument, and Gjuro Prejac composed the first tamburitza operetta "Vinkolozin". Other well known tamburitzan composers in this genre include Josip Andric, Ivan Zajc, Bozidar Sirola and Emil Adamic. Even arrangements of classical music have been written for tamburitzan orchestras. Mozart's famous Rondo alla Turca (originally composed for solo piano) has been cleverly arranged for tamburitza orchestra by Bozo Potocnik, which has been recorded by the Croatian Radio-Television Tamburitza Orchestra. Dvorzak's Humoreska for violin and orchestra has been recorded with tamburitza accompaniment, arranged by Zlatko Potocnik. Even works of Beethoven and Verdi have been arranged for the tamburitza, giving this folk instrument an international appeal.

Hajo (third from the right) with his orchestra
in Langolen, England, 1952

Reference to tamburitzan composers and arrangers would not be complete without mentioning Julije Njikos and Sinisa Leopold. The formation of tamburitza ensembles in Croatian communities around the world, reflects the desire of the Croatian people of keeping their musical heritage alive for future generations.

Croats in Punta Arenas, Chile, with their tamburitzas
(photo from Lj. Antic, Hrvati u J. Americi,  Zagreb, 1991)

Croats in Punta Arenas, Chile (Magallanes region), with their tamburitzas
Croatian tamburitza band Tomislav in Punta Arenas, 1905
Hrvatsko tamburasko drustvo Tomislav, Punta Arenas, 1905
(photo from Lj. Antic, Hrvati u J. Americi, Zagreb, 1991, pp 182 and 266)


North Hills Junior Tamburitzans, USA

Before discussing folk music in Croatia, it is important to deal with the term ethnomusicology, and its development. This term is used to describe the division of musicology in which emphasis is given to the study of music in its cultural context. This includes the study of folk music, as well as the study of the function of music society. Formal study in the field of ethnomusicology is relatively recent, however, interest in folk music dates back to the Age of Enlightenment. Folk music found its way in the works of composers of the 18th century. For example, in Haydn's London Symphony No. 104, Haydn uses a Croatian folk song as the theme for the fourth movement.

Tamburitza orchestra "Zivila Hrvatska" (Long Live Croatia), USA,
performed in White House for president F. Roosewelt in 1900.


Licka vecer

The Lika Night in Bazenheid, Switzerland
two generations of female players of tamburica

Croatians have always been dedicated to the preservation of their folklore. In the field of music, the first Croat to pursue the study of Croatian folk music was Franjo Saver Kuhac. In the 1870's, Kuhac studied the piano with virtuoso Franz Liszt in Weimar, and then pursued his study of folk music publishing many books on Croatian folklore.

Croatian Tamburitza players from Johannesburg,
South Africa, 1940s

The most well known Croatian ethnomusicologist was Professor Vinko Zganec. He was born in the village of Vratisinic in Medimurje, where he jotted down his first folk song in 1908. Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Bela Bartok, kept in close contact with Zganec while collecting folk songs along the borders of Hungary and Croatia. Bartok respected Zganec because of the accuracy of his research and notation. Zganec's research took him throughout Croatia and even among the Croatian minorities of Austria and Hungary. This research enabled Zganec to collect over 19,000 Croatian folk songs which have been recorded and written down. These folksongs have therefore been preserved for future generations, to see and study from. Due to his extensive research, Zganec became the first director of the Institute of Folklore Research, and was an active participant in The Folklorist Society of Croatia. He also became active in teaching at the Academy of Music in Zagreb where Zganec was a great influence on his colleagues and students.


Croatian Tamburitza Orchestra Zvonimir, 1900, San Francisco, USA,
photo from Croatian American Web


Fabian Koss, John Hrvacich, other unknown


  1. Leopold, Sinisa: "Tambura u Hrvata". Golden Marketing, Zagreb, 1995.
  2. Bezic, Jerko: "Some Comments on the collection of Medimurian songs, its author, and the way the collection came into being", Zagreb, 1990.
  3. Myers, Helen: "Ethnomusicology: An Introduction", New York, W.W. Norton & Co. 1992.

Croatian music

Chords for Croatian folk songs

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