The Tamburitza: Tamburitza History and Music

The Tamburitza: Tamburitza History and Music

Tamburitza Music
and the Tamburitza Family

by Karen White


Tamburitza music has come to the United States by way of Yugoslavia, where its principal instrument, the tambura, is looked upon as the national instrument of the Croatians. The tambura family comprises a large and diverse group of instruments, for which there are a variety of tuning systems.


The tambura has evolved from before the 19th century, when it was used as a solo instrument, to the present day, where in its many variations, it is played in large groups of from 3 to 40 players. The various instruments, their names and tunings under different systems (from lowest pitched to highest) are as follows:

  • Srijemski Jankovic Farkas Brac I, II, III EADGGDADG
  • Bisernica (Prim) I, II EADGGDADD
  • Bisernica (Prim) III BEADCGD-- Kontrasica used DD
  • Bulgarija I DGBDCEGGBD
  • Bulgarija II GBDGGBDBDG
  • Bulgarija IIIF#DAF#DF#AF#AD
  • Celovic DGCCGD-- Celo EADGGDADG
  • Berde (Bass) EADGGDAGD

These tunings in no way represent all of the many systems adopted by tambura players. In some circles, for instance, followers of an influential gypsy group tune their prima (Prim) instruments to the pitch of E. Other groups will tune the entire orchestra to the key of E, D or other tonality. The Farkas system has all but died out due to its limitations for playing a wide variety of music, whereas the Srijemski system (and its variations) has become the most widely adopted.

The instruments used for playing music in each tuning system are constructed differently. Farkas system instruments have two courses of double strings, Jankovic system instruments consist of three courses of double strings tuned in fifths, and Srijemski system instruments are made with two courses of double strings, and two single strings, all tuned in fourths. There exist variants of all the above.

The parts played by the tamburitzas can be compared to those found in a modern orchestra. The Brac, Bisernica, and Kontrasica instruments are used for melody, counter-melody and harmony parts. The Bugarija is a chordal instrument used to keep rhythm for the group. The celovic, celo and berde correspond to the cello and bass in a modern orchestra.


How did tamburitza music come to be? This question is dealt with fully in History of the Tambura by Walter Kolar (who has kindly provided us with the information and assistance in preparing this article). In partial answer to the question, one version of the following story (taken from the book mentioned) is found:

"In the year 591 A.D. the Byzantine King Mauricius was contesting the Roman Empire in Thrace. Here he captured three Slavs. To the astonishment of Mauricius, he found these Slavs unarmed, carrying with them only a tambura. With surprise he asked these Slavs who they were and what was that in their hands? They replied, 'We are Slavs and we live along the Western Seas (Adriatic). We play tambura because in our country there is no iron and we live in peace. We do not know the meaning of war bugles.'"

At that time the tambura was exclusively a solo instrument. The music was played to accompany singing and dance. It was purported, in folk tales, to be so beautiful that even the goats would dance when it was played.

Formation of tambura groups in the 1800's paralleled the growth of similar groups in other countries. In Russia and the Ukraine balalaika and domra groups were started and in Italy mandolin orchestras came into being. The same occurred in Austria, Switzerland and southern Germany.

In Croatia, the first group of six tambura players was said to be formed by Pajo Kolaric of Osijek in 1847. The first tambura concert was given by Ivan Sladicek with a group of four players in Zagreb in 1879. In 1882, the first studies of the music were begun by Mijo Majer with a group of four students at the University in Zagreb.

In the U. S. today, tamburitza music is alive and thriving. In fact, it is claimed by some to be the single most prevalent ethnic instrument transplanted to America from a foreign land.

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