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Croatian Musician Passes on Traditions - 2002-10-06


The ties that immigrants to the United States have with their native traditions usually weaken with each succeeding generation as it becomes absorbed in American society. However, Oksana Dragan introduces you to a third-generation Croatian American who is an active member of the Croatian community of Seattle, in the northwestern state of Washington, and a teacher of Croatian music and culture.

John Morevich says he first realized that he was different when he started school. "It didn't really hit me until grade school, I guess. Having a funny name, and being that there were other Croatian kids in my class that also had funny names. And the food was different at school than at home," he says. "As American as we were, as my parents kept the household, we were very ethnic, too, and it didn't really occur to me until elementary school that, oh, yeah, I'm different from everybody else."

John Morevich's great-great-parents immigrated to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. Like many other Croatians, they gravitated to the Pacific Northwest, where they could find work that they were familiar with from home. "The Croatians that came to the Puget Sound to fish were all from the Dalmatian coast. Those that went into coal mining were from coal-mining regions, and the logging people came from logging areas," he says. "And so they took their skills from their homeland, came here without any education, not knowing the language, with very little in their pockets, but they were able to survive and educate their kids. And that was the most important goal for them."

John Morevich says members of the large and strongly-knit Croatian community of Washington state are quite Americanized, on the one hand, but on the other retain a strong sense of ethnic identity. "They are a very assimilated group, and so people are not going to immediately recognize they're Croatian. But if they know one of us, they know the whole community. You know one of us, you know everybody," he says. "They still live in those fishing towns on Puget sound, where you'll have streets named after prominent Croatian-Americans, where Croatian-Americans are the civic leaders, the business leaders, doctors, lawyers, they're very assimilated and they know who we are."

Growing up in this community, John Morevich learned the Croatian language and traditions. He also learned to play the tambouritza, a guitar-like instrument that is considered the Croatian national instrument. "As a kid growing up I always had this appreciation for tambouritza music. It's very happy music, it's very expressive music, and there's always a lot of joy, happiness and dancing that's associated with it," he says. Mr. Morevich now is the director of the 50-member strong Seattle tambouritza ensemble, which, he believes, plays an important role in passing on traditions to new generations of Croatian-Americans. Indeed, says Mr. Morevich, the traditional songs the ensemble performs, and that Seattle Croatians enjoy as part of their heritage, are often not familiar to new immigrants or visitors from Croatia.

"Because a lot of the people who live in the cities, in Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnick, whatever, their exposure to rural culture is about like my exposure to rural culture in America. So they come to the States and they meet one of us, and we'll say, 'Oh, come on over to a party', and there will be traditional Croatian folk music being played, and they'll say, 'What is this?!', but they'll get into it. I think they appreciate that this is a way for us to express our cultural identity. It's something that's not necessarily applicable to them, because they live in that country," he says. "There they listen to American music, they always have."

Even though his parents and grandparents were born in this country, John Morevich is steeped in his Croatian heritage. He has become a folklorist. He sings, performs with bands, and also teaches singing at an annual Balkan camp attended by Americans interested in folk music and dance. Although the Americans have to learn the words to the songs phonetically, the sound is authentic.

In teaching Croatian music, Mr. Morevich says he tries to open up the whole world of Croatian culture to his American students. "I try to give an overview of what that culture is like, what that culture is made up of. It's not just the songs, it's not just the dances, there's a lot more that goes into it," he says. "There are rituals, the religious holidays, the family structure, the history, all these things that make the culture so rich."

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