The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)
Dobar Dan Tamburica Orchestra
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Reminiscences of an Ethnoid
Eight folks in white pajamas and black vests stand on a stage plucking odd-looking stringed instruments. The seven tall Scandinavians six men and a woman are looking at their instruments, and the short guy in the middle grins out at the audience.
What is this group? Some sort of cult? Out-patients from a moral reupholstering session? No, this was the Dobar Dan Tamburica Orchestra, 1976 to 1986, and on odd occasions thereafter. It's principle function was generating musical fun and sharing it.
How did this all start? For me, it started with my mother didn't everything start with her, after all? All the Polish, Russian, Croatian, Serbian, Greek, and other Balkan music she used to play in the house got stuck in my ears and never left there. Eventually there were bound to be repercussions.
Another important influence was Dennis Boxell, magician and director of the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble, of which I was a member in the early 1970s. Dennis used to teach the Croatian "Drmeš" and explain that it was the "quickest way to nirvana." Anything connected with nirvana (this was before the grunge band by that name was even an idea) was interesting to me.
In those years I had the opportunity to see up close a tamburica band from Gundinci, a town in the eastern Croatian region of Slavonia. Dennis had recorded this group earlier, and I came across them in 1973, playing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. They gave me a feeling of the irrepressible exuberance associated with tamburica music. Hearing the Popović Brothers from the South Side of Chicago inspired me also. These folks had been playing since 1925! It looked like they were never going to die, as long as they had those instruments in their hands.
One day I was sitting in Dennis Boxell's office at the Koleda center on Lake Union. Next to me lay a little tambura, left over from when the ensemble had live music. I picked it up and tried it out. Plink, plink. It intrigued me. I had the thought that maybe I could play this. The tambura looked like it would not be too hard to learn, as you could see all the notes: one for each fret. Little did I know that it would take me longer to learn to play than I ever imagined.
I bought the instrument for $40 in 1974, and had one initial lesson from Hank Bradley. Soon, Koleda disbanded, and the next two years were sparse as far as interesting folkloric activity in Seattle.
To console myself I sat in my room listening to tapes of the Lado Folk ensemble from Croatia and learned to pick out their songs on my tambura. Plinkety plink.
Salvation came along in 1976 when Glenn Nielsen and twelve of us wayward folkies founded the Radost Folk Ensemble, and along with it, the tamburica band. We gave Alex Eppler $100 for four sessions to teach us some arrangements. He taught us "Mista" what was known as a "stupidly simple" tune in our in-group parlance. However, Alex's arrangement contained more notes per bar than there are stars in the galaxy, so we never got that one down. But the band got rolling. It included me, Glenn, Jill Johnson, Al Swensson, and Al Pratt on bass (an instrument he had never touched before in his life, but soon proved quite capable of touching). Our great debut arrived in the fall of 1976 when we played for a Radost performance in Tacoma, for attendants to the "P-I Travelogue."
From there on the path to glory was ever upward. We played regularly with Radost, entertained folkdancers on special occasions, performed at festivals, and played at an occasional wedding or other special party.
Playing for the ensemble was sometimes problematical. We were essentially a dance band, so it made sense. And the difference between an ensemble with and without live music is like night and day. However, the audience was there to watch the dancers, not us. What's more, we were required to play the strangest arrangements of passages cut and pasted together to fit the choreographer's fever dreams. Rarely was there anything natural or spontaneous about playing those arrangements. So we sometimes felt like a record player (remember those?) that you didn't have to plug in.
We got our biggest satisfaction from playing for dancers, especially when we were on the dance floor with them dancing around us. We were no Gundinci, but the energy generated around us was still something close to nirvana.
We were one of the first tamburica bands to play for dancers on a regular basis. There was the ZMO (the Zagreb Municipal Orchestra) before us, and the Tammies (Seattle Junior Tamburicans), who were around already when the Dead Sea was sick. The "Sinovi" were hot. The latter two groups primarily played in the ethnic community. With our arrival, together with Izvor (another Radost-affiliated band), Seattle's folkdancers had live music available on request.
There was an adjustment for the folkdancers to make. Live music is different from the canned variety. Folkdancers had to learn that we were not going to play the exact same number of measures as on the records that they were used to. Many of the dances they had learned from folklorists were really choreographies, and we were a step away from that, back towards a spontaneous way of playing and dancing.
The adjustment was difficult, and sometimes we lost the competition with the record player. It seemed on occasion that people wondered why bother to replace a perfectly good source of music. Another problem was that of remuneration. It always seemed perfectly logical to us that musicians should be paid. That's how it's done in the rest of the world. But somehow, in those years at least, we generally received enough to pay for our gas to and from the gig.
We had fun, though. Weddings were always special. I remember Mike Brufo's second wedding. Our bas-prim player was gloating because of his big instrument case, and was thus able to fit more sarma and baklava in it when he left. At that wedding, as we liked to say, we "played all night, drank the whole bottle, and ate the whole chicken." Mike's third wedding was just as great.
Dobar Dan witnessed a cultural change during those years. We would occasionally buy some refreshment to lift the morale at a gig. This acquired the code name "Dan," as in, "Didja bring Dan?" This was around the time we were playing Banatsko Nadigravanje for Radost, a choreography that featured an inebriated kafana-dweller who rose to the occasion and out-danced his partners (there'll never be another John Paulos).
This was before anybody ever heard about Mothers Against Drunk Tamburitzans, and the general shift towards family-oriented presentations took place. With time, Nadigravanje became politically incorrect, and Dan stayed home.
There were other high points in our history. One was playing with the women's choir, Ruzice, founded by Mary Sherhart and Jill Johnson. Eight talented women with world-class voices. The sisters Alma and Binky gave new meaning to the phrase "stage presence."
Once we played at the QFC on Mercer Island. In the QFC. But probably our high point was when we were hired to play for a week at the Port Townsend Folk Dance Festival (Centrum Port Townsend) in 1984. Dick Crum brought us out to add an ethnic twist to the event. We had our own house, and got paid real money. We even had groupies.
In 1986, the band went into remission. Perhaps it was time. Later we got together and played a reunion. In fact, we got together at just the right intervals so that it seemed we were a Reunion Band. One of the high points of this period was taking in our friend Damir Jerković, a dentist from Zagreb with one of those real powerful Slavonian voices. They say he once knocked a barn over at thirty paces, just by yelling at it.
Old tammies never seem to die-they just plink away. So don't be surprised if you see a bunch of tall folks and one short one in white pajamas generating nirvana one day in your neighborhood QFC.
Musicians who played with Dobar Dan at one time or another:
Peter Lippman, May 2000
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