Jerry Grcevich is a master of Croatian string music, or tamburitza, his skills celebrated both in the U.S. and Croatia. The Pittsburgh-area native and longtime resident of North Huntington performs regularly with The Jerry Grcevich Orchestra, and every Tuesday night with his Gypsy Strings at the South Side's Gypsy Café. In September, Grcevich, 53, became the first Western Pennsylvania artist to receive the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the nation's highest award for traditional arts.
What is tamburitza?
It's the Croatian national instrument. It's a family of instruments. There's a small prim, there's a brac, tamburitza cello, bass and a bugarija, which plays rhythm. It goes back 250 years. I think that it was used as a herd instrument. Guys were watching sheep or passing the time of day, and they developed the instrument so it would be more appropriate for an orchestra.
How is your family connected to the music?
My grandparents brought the instrument over with them from the old country. They all played kinda just to pass time. My father and my uncle had a bar and they played. The bar was in Turtle Creek. People ask, "Why was this music popular, and why were people gathering in these places?" It's all because of the mills and the coal mines. That's where all the Croatian clubs were located.
How were you exposed to tamburitza?
They would practice at the house. There wasn't babysitters like there is today. I went everywhere my dad was playing. I just got in the car, and I went on the job. They would put these chairs together and I would fall asleep on the chairs. Mostly Croatian clubs. They played in bars, sometimes in restaurants and concert halls. They played everywhere. Mostly in the '50s and the '60s. They recorded their first record in, I wanna say, '48. The name of their orchestra was Sloboda Tamburitza Orchestra.
How did you start playing?
I was just recruited [at age 11]. My dad needed someone in his orchestra to fill in. I was there and I already started playing, so he said, "Hey, you, come on and play."
How was it playing traditional music in the '60s?
It was harder to be accepted. Probably it would be easier today, in some ways, because people seem to be a little more open to other things. They would say, "He's normal for doing his culture." Whereas back then it was like, "If you're not listening to the music that is popular, you're an outcast," a little. It was hard growing up through that period.
Did you listen to popular music?
Not so much. It's not that I don't appreciate other music. I used to like to listen to music that was gonna be a learning process for me, something that I could use.
You're missing a finger on your right hand.
I wanted to be like Django Reinhart [laughs]. I was really little and I had it cut off. It was an accident.
You teach and perform in Croatia. How alive is tamburitza there?
It's not the most popular as far the money it brings in, but it is part of [the culture], something more similar to bluegrass [here]. A typical band that plays over there, whether they play rock 'n' roll, they're gonna play some of the same songs that we play. They're popular, they're expected at weddings.
And you wrote some of those songs?
There were some of my compositions that I did with [top Croatian performer] Miro Skoro. He actually came here in 1990, and married a second- or third-generation Croatian girl. We did have some No. 1 hits together. I did an album of my own, and I still hear that today on the radio in Croatia.
So you're famous?
To a degree. I'm on television over there.
Is it strange to offer Croatians their own heritage?
No, because they accept me as a tambura player above and beyond anything else.
How many people play tamburitza in the U.S.?
Not as many as there were before. When I was growing up, on a particular Friday or Saturday night, I could go to Wilmerding, Versailles, Monroeville, Clairton, McKeesport, Duquesne, New Brighton, Monaca -- anyplace where there's a Croatian club or another ethnic club, like a Serbian club. Sometimes Sundays too. In McKeesport I could go hear three different tambura bands playing. That's not happening any more. That's one reason why I came to the place where you're sitting right now [Gypsy Café].
How do younger musicians learn about tamburitza?
It's usually from their parents. If I had kids -- which I don't yet -- when I do, they'll probably play.
Do people confuse you with the Duquesne University Tamburitzans troupe?
That has been a matter of confusion that I grew up with. Or I'd say, "I play tamburitza," and they'd say, "Oh you bang that little thing around, the tambourine."