Croatian music in the land of salsa
JENNIFER MOONEY PIEDRA
HIALEAH, Fla. - They sit in a half-circle, in the middle of a barren room, with music stands in front of them. When Charles Mrazovich gives the go-ahead - a faint "one, two, three" - their fingers begin plucking away on the strings of their instruments.
There's Mrazovich on the brac, an instrument used for the melody parts. And Curt Pollack on the prim, a small, mandolin-type instrument that makes a very high, fine sound.
The bugarija, an instrument similar to the guitar but with fewer strings, is played by Wally Hertsch. His backup is Lorenz Gludovatz, the band's newest member.
Mike Feduniak, sits off to the side, methodically plucking the strings of his berda, also known as the bass.
They call themselves "The Tamburitzans Trio," although there are five of them. And, they say, they're Miami-Dade County's only Croatian band.
"We use Croatian instruments, but that doesn't mean we only play Croatian music," Mrazovich said. "We can play just about anything from 'Silent Night' to 'Guantanamera.'"
And he has proof.
Mrazovich keeps notebooks full of sheet music in an old-fashioned luggage. The music is categorized by type, including Italian, Greek, Jewish, Irish, Lithuanian and Russian.
But their most requested songs are somewhat surprising: The Disney classic "It's a Small World" and the Tennessee anthem "Rocky Top" are among the crowd favorites, Mrazovich said.
"It's fun to play different kinds of music," added Pollack, "That way, things never get boring."
Pollack, a former music specialist for Hialeah, plays about 20 instruments, including violin, banjo and guitar.
But in 1996, he was approached by Mrazovich, a former Hialeah High teacher whom he remembered from his days at the school. Mrazovich needed a place for his band to rehearse - and Pollack had just the spot: the Victor Wilde Adult Center.
Then Mrazovich issued a new challenge to Pollack: Play the bass in the Croatian band. Because of his familiarity with string instruments, Pollack quickly took up the Croatian instrument, too.
"Each instrument is strung differently," Pollack explained, "but I had a feel for how to play them."
Learning a new instrument hasn't come as easily for Feduniak. It's not because he's not Croatian - Feduniak is actually Ukranian - but because of the instrument's bulky size and his lack of musical skill, he said.
Mrazovich recruited him after the band's regular bass player died. The two were longtime friends who taught together at Hialeah High in the 1960s and 1970s.
"We enjoy playing together," Feduniak said. "It keeps us busy."
Gludovatz, a native of Croatia, is also new to his instrument. Day by day, practice by practice, he gets a little better on the bugarija.
"I had always heard about these guys," said Gludovatz, a retired Florida Power & Light supervisor. "Now, I am one of them."
The band's legacy has lived on for more than four decades, though it has seen members come and go. The only two original members of the group: Mrazovich and Hertsch, a retired industrial fireman at Miami International Airport.
Hertsch emigrated from Croatia as a child and spent much of his life living in Canada, where he learned how to play the bugarija and the prim.
In the late 1950s, soon after moving to Florida, Hertsch and Mrazovich met and became fast friends.
They began making music together in the garage of Mrazovich's Hialeah home. Hertsch's wife, Nella, often joined them, playing the tambourine.
The five men get together for three hours every Tuesday, playing music, nibbling on doughnuts and reminiscing about their childhood, World War II experiences and the changing community around them.
Their wives sit nearby, tapping their feet to the beat of the music. During some songs, the women serve as a chorus, humming the lyrics.
With the exception of Pollack, 50, the rest of the men are retired octogenarians.
Besides their weekly jam sessions, the men perform at city events in Hialeah, holiday functions, retirement homes and birthday parties. The style of music they play depends on their audience - but Croatian instruments are always used.
Finding bandmates among South Florida's small Croatian community hasn't been easy. The Croatian Embassy in Washington, D.C. says there are about 2 million people of Croatian descent, from first to fourth generation, living in the United States. But no stats are kept on the numbers of Croatians living in Florida.
Still, each Christmas the band plays at the Ranch House, the Hialeah landmark eatery.
"The customers and employees love them. It's something everyone looks forward to," said cashier Ruth Finnell.
The band members are gearing up for their busy season: they expect to do about a dozen performances this fall and winter.
"This music has been a part of my life forever," said Mrazovich, the son of Croatian immigrants. "It reminds me of my childhood."
Growing up in Pittsburgh, which has a large Croatian community, Mrazovich recalls his mother enrolling him in orchestra at age 9.
"I was embarrassed to go out in our band uniforms because I looked like a sissy," he said, "but we knew how to play the music and people really liked it."
It wasn't until 1964 that his passion to playing was rekindled when he moved to Hialeah and visited a Croatian club in Hollywood. Mrazovich joined the man onstage and grabbed an instrument: "Once you learn, you never forget."