To watch Braca perform, visit www.youtube.com/user/kumrichie, or visit the band’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tamburica-Orkestar-Bra%C4%87a-of-Chicago/128327917284744?ref=hl
Updated: September 26, 2013 6:17AM
Rich Krilich took a sip from his Jack and Coke and looked me square in the eyes, with heartfelt conviction from one Croatian to another.
“It’s all about the music, always has been. It’s the music that keeps our culture alive,” the 62-year-old Krilich told me at Bronko’s Lounge in Crown Point.
Krilich should know. He’s been playing tamburitza music — our culture’s soul music — for half a century. He was inducted into the Tamburitza Hall of Fame a couple years back.
These days, he plays in the band, Braca Tamburitza Orchestra, billed as “Balkan music at its finest,” which played its first gig on Dec. 5, 2009, right here at Bronko’s Lounge.
Earlier this week, I met with Krilich, who plays the bugaria (a rhythm instrument), and two other Braca band mates, Frank Mosca Jr. of Schererville (who plays bass), and Rudy Grasha Jr. of Valparaiso (accordion), who’s being inducted into the Tamburitza Hall of Fame next month in Phoenix.
We shared a corner booth, a large pizza with the works (a late-night ritual after gigs, to sober up) and delicious memories of the old Croatian church picnics of our youth.
Those picnics showcased tamburitza music. Always tamburitza music. Its distinctive sound is as familiar as our own childhoods, and as enduring as our Eastern European culture, which has gradually mainstreamed into the melting pot called America.
It’s no coincidence that this column is running Sunday, the day that Croatian Lodge 170 is hosting its annual daylong picnic at the Croatian Center, 8550 Taft St. in Merrillville. Maybe I’ll see you there, enjoying barbecued lamb, homemade strudel, stuffed cabbage and other ethnic dishes I can’t pronounce and you wouldn’t understand.
“We grew up in this culture. It was a part of our life,” explained 65-year-old Grasha, who graduated from East Chicago Washington High School while already playing tamburitza music for a pretty penny across our region.
“Our parents were first generation — Croatian, Italian, Serbian or whatever — and our grandparents were immigrants, speaking Croatian or Serbian in the house daily,” explained Krilich, the bandleader who also leads most every conversation. “So we were ensconced in the culture by birth. It was tight and family-oriented.”
“Our parents told us that as long as your grandparents are alive, you’re going to learn the music, and to dance and sing,” Krilich said firmly.
“But we were ready to quit this music in the 1960s when the Beatles and Rolling Stones came to America. We wanted to play rock ’n’ roll music. Why play the accordion when you can play the electric guitar?”
Krilich’s father told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had one grandfather still alive and he wants him to keep playing tamburitza music, for just one more year.
“It was always for just one more year,” Krilich said with a smile.
That generational mantra of “one more year” kept the music alive and eventually led to the banding of countless tamburitzan music groups through the decades, culminating with Braca, which is still playing gigs across the country. (For booking info, contact Krilich at (630) 832-8914 or email@example.com.)
“We got to play at some of the most famous places that promoted our music, and when we made our first dollar playing it, we thought there might be a life here after all,” Krilich said laughing before finishing off his Jack and Coke.
“These days we play the pure gypsy music,” said Grasha, the band’s music arranger.
“We’re trying to play it in the old-country style,” Mosca added.
“We’re proud to play it,” Krilich added, complementing his band mates’ words like he’s been doing with their music for decades.
The tamburitza music has always been a “chick magnet,” said Grasha, while recalling his younger years. “It still is.”
To a band mate, if you asked them which they loved more — their wife or their instrument — they would refuse to answer, probably to not upset their beloved instruments.
The band’s other members include 80-year-old John Gornick of Chicago, who plays the tambura c’elo and who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988, and violinist Wally Pravica, 79, of Des Plaines, Ill., who also will be inducted into the Hall of Fame next month.
“We are one of the only active tamburitza bands in the country with this unique distinction,” Krilich said amid the noisy chatter in the crowded lounge. “We are proud of our heritage and our steel-industry roots.”
“Sadly, though, our proud, rich culture and its traditions are diluting,” he said.
“Meals, holidays, celebrations — everything was culturally oriented,” Grasha said, referring to his youth. “But as we had children, they grew away from it and became more Americanized. Today, my grandchildren have almost no knowledge of our culture that I love so deeply.”
But all is not bleak, thanks to the music, that beautiful music, which still ignites young lovers, serenades longtime couples and extracts tears from old ladies.
“It’s our great pleasure to make grandmas cry,” noted 62-year-old Mosca, the more reserved band mate who spends words like $50 bills.
These days, Grasha’s grandson, Rudy Grasha IV, is a recording engineer who works with his grandfather and the other band mates to keep the old music alive. And, through the music, the culture, too.
Krilich’s 15-year-old daughter will soon perform with her father, a first for them. And the other band mates’ children and grandchildren are being reintroduced to the culture, one musical note at a time.
“If it wasn’t for the music, they wouldn’t know about our culture,” Mosca said. “They see us practicing and playing and sharing that warm feeling of closeness.”
Krilich said proudly, “My son, Johnny, and Frank’s son, Frankie, are our stage managers when we go out of town for big jobs. They’re our roadies. This is how we’re dragging them back into the culture.”
Mosca took his last sip from a shot glass, saying wistfully, “Our ancestors always wanted us to be more Americanized. Maybe they’re getting what they wanted.”