Folksongs bring back memories of Balkan traditions


tamburitza rehearsal minA bit of Steelton came to Homeland Center on a Wednesday evening, when Balkan folk songs played by the St. Lawrence Tamburitza Orchestra conjured memories for residents who grew up in the ethnic mill town.

The nearby borough of Steelton is one of those Pennsylvania enclaves where immigrants found work in steel mills and mines. Many Homeland residents grew up there, amid the Eastern European traditions that their parents and grandparents brought from the old country.

The Steelton-based St. Lawrence Tamburitza Orchestra keeps alive the tunes and lyrics precious to people from the Balkan countries of Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Slovenia. For their performance, residents filled Homeland’s dining room, and there were smiles all around.

The night’s theme was “love,” said the orchestra’s assistant director, Mark Kresho, who conducted the performance.

“It’s about love for a person,’’ Kresho said. “It’s about love for your country, and longing for your country.”

One song from the Dalmatian Coast related the tale of young fishermen who sign on for long sea voyages, “and whenever they do, they get lonely for their home,” Kresho said.

“This is about the Bay of Kotor and the villages that surround that bay and the beautiful scenery and the beautiful mountains,’’ he said. “The song after that is about a guy longing for his girl.”

Kresho also introduced the Balkan instruments known as tambura, from the smaller, higher-pitched strings that give tamburitza its distinctive sound, to the larger cello and bass playing rhythm.

In answer to a question from the audience, Kresho rattled off the ethnic makeups of orchestra members. “You have Croatians up here,” he said. “You’ve got Serbians up here. You have Slovenians here. I’m half Greek. We’ve got Germans up here. What’d I miss?”

“Irish!” said a singer, to laughs from the audience.

“I’m second-generation,” added Kresho. “As we marry and have children who have children who have children, we become a melting pot of America, which makes us great, but we love to keep our culture alive and promote our music, our dancing, our singing.”

For many Homeland residents from the Steelton area, the evening brought back memories. Frances Hernjak went to church with many of the musicians. She spoke a bit of Croatian when she was growing up. “It was nice to relive the memories,” she said.

Tamburitza band playing minAnother resident, Mary Yanich, said she could “almost find the words that went with the music.” Her son played the tambura, and her husband played the piano, so there was always music around her home.

“My father worked at Bethlehem Steel,” she recalled. “He worked in the open hearth. He would come home from the 11-to-7 shift. He would be so sleepy, and my mother insisted that all of us kids go to Sunday Mass, and my father usually slept through the whole thing.”

Fern Sucec knew most of the orchestra members from their church, and she was active in her town of Bressler, next door to Steelton, as the treasurer of her fire company’s ladies’ auxiliary. Like many in the audience, she kept time to the music.

“My hands were clapping and my feet were going,” she said. “I wish I could still do that polka. I’d get out there and dance. Every time there was a polka dance, I’d get up there, and they used to have a lot of them.”

Fern has lived at Homeland for four years and has never missed a St. Lawrence Tamburitza Orchestra appearance: “They’re very popular because they’re so good!”