by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Their ages span several decades, and they might — or might not — have crossed paths in the past. But about two dozen people come together several times each month to tell a story — a love story, to be exact..
Their story is one of love for their Croatian heritage, traditions and music — the latter of which tells its own love stories of the land and its people.
They’re part of a group called the Hrvatski Obicaj Tamburasi.
“Hrvatski Obicaj” means “Croatian Traditions,” and the musical group is rooted not only in Croatian history, but in the Kansas City, Kan., area as well.
It formed in 2007 and brings together a lively group, including members of the one-time junior performing group, the St. John’s Catholic Club Tamburitzans of St. John the Baptist Parish in on Strawberry Hill.
Kristina Mikesic, who handles public relations for Hrvatski Obicaj, is married to the group’s director, Rick Mikesic. (They’re just one family unit among the performers; several sets of siblings are members.)
As kids, both played in the St. John’s Tamburitzans and cherished those experiences.
Although Mikesic wasn’t born in Croatia, her parents were, and she jokes that she should have been.
The traditions run that deep.
“I just grew up listening to the music,” she said. “Somehow it was a part of me.”
Decades of grade school and high school students grew up learning and playing songs from the Slavic cultures under the tutelage of Don Lipovac, who directed the folk orchestra at St. John the Baptist.
Mikesic remembers starting with the basics on the mandolin and progressing from there. Later on, there were kolo dances to learn, and older kids were trained to perform the songs, which Mikesic relished.
Matt Thomas, a longtime parishioner of St. John the Baptist, danced in a kolo group in high school. Later, although he was in his 20s and older than the kids in the performing group, he joined them in song and playing the tamburitza.
They called him “Grandpa,” he said, and today at 72, he’s also the most senior member of Hrvatski Obicaj.
“Don had a beginner’s group and a performing group,” he said. “You had to prove yourself musically that you knew what you were doing.”
They gave an annual concert and produced six LPs.
But as the years went on, the kids grew up and started college, careers and families, and newer generations didn’t fill the ranks. Eventually, the Tamburitzans as a group faded into history.
Yet many former members maintained magical memories of those performing days and the bonds they formed.
Then, in 2006, a group from Kansas City took a bus to St. Louis for a Croatian Fraternal Union of America festival.
“There were several of us from our group who had performed as juniors and saw the adults performing,” said Mikesic.
And they started thinking, “We used to do that. We had fun and enjoyed that. What if we did it again as adults?”
“And that got our blood a-boiling,” said Thomas.
They held a couple of round-table meetings to share ideas.
Mikesic had helped on a committee for the 40th anniversary of the juniors group — 40 years of kids who were now all adults — and she decided to send a letter asking, “Do you guys miss this?”
And people did.
Now, about 21 active members — and an occasional drop-in — gather twice a month or more to rehearse.
“It’s about your homeland, it’s about your country, it’s about the pride that the Croatians feel,” said Mikesic, describing the music.
Not all of the group’s members are generations removed from the Old Country.
Vocalist Mario Viskovic is now a parishioner of St. John the Baptist. But he did not come to Kansas City until July 2000. Like so many immigrants before him, he came seeking peace and opportunity.
Yet even with family and friends here, he still misses his extended family and his homeland. So he was thrilled when the music group formed.
“Yes! Finally, live Croatian music!” he said.
Singing the songs of his country in his native tongue can’t help but connect him to the land where he grew up, where relatives still live today.
And more than once, the music has brought tears to his eyes.
Hrvatski Obicaj has released one CD, and its members play at festivals, weddings and other events during the year. Proceeds help pay for bus fare to events such as the CFU Adult Tamburitza Festival, which was held in early November in Pittsburgh.
Music festivals in other cities are a high point of the year for the group, and they were particularly pleased to make the Pittsburgh one.
“That’s really neat, on the national stage, to see everyone in the United States and Canada preserve our Croatian heritage,” said Mikesic.