Over its seven decades the ensemble has been led by instructors, choreographers and musical directors Bernard M. Luketich, Mary C. Luketich, John Gregurich, George Merlin, Chuck and Barbara Muchnok, Joseph Grcevich and Marlene Luketich Kochis. Helping out with the choreography for a time were specialist folklore artists and choreographers with the Lado ensemble out of Zagreb: Nevenka Vujčić Dubyak, Ivo Šulina, Nenad Breka, and Ivo Kirinčić from Karlovac.
As a result of the pandemic COVID-19 scare we missed this year’s St George’s Day festivities in Cokeburg (Pennsylvania, United States of America) and the annual concert featuring the beloved St. George Junior Tamburitzans (https://www.facebook.com/St-George-Jr-Tamburitzans-136784588450/) that was to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the activity and work of this junior ensemble, which was rather disappointing!
The children, leadership and the parents were all ready to present, with pride and joy, their programme, and to present bouquets and commendations for all those who have worked tirelessly with this youthful folklore and tamburitza ensemble. The concert and festivities were to have been joined by the Hoosier Strings Junior Tamburitzans and the Hoosier Hrvati of Merrillville, Indiana and the Nova Nada Croatian folklore ensemble out of Detroit in the state of Michigan.
On its seventy-year journey this tamburitza ensemble has taken into its fold hundreds of children, teaching them the skill of playing the tamburitza and related instruments, Croatian songs and round dances. In fact, it all started with round dances. The ensemble began its work on 14 May 1950 as the Kolo Tamburitza Group. The tamburitza group was led and instructed by the late Bernard M. Luketich. He was elected in 1947 at the age of 16 to the post of president of the Croatian Fraternal Union’s Lodge 354 and led many of its activities. Thus, the Kolo Tamburitza Group became a trailblazing torchbearer, disseminating the wealth of Croatian folklore, its diverse and wonderful folk costumes, its songs and its tamburitza music.
In 1955 the name of the Kolo Tamburitza Group was changed to the St. George Junior Tamburtizans and it came under the leadership of John Gregurich. The ensemble also broadened its activities: besides offering instruction in the playing of the tamburitza and related instruments, songs and dances, the organisers saw a need to improve the participants’ knowledge of the Croatian language. The lyrics of the songs chosen for programmes and performances on stage had to be properly pronounced and understood if the performer and audience were to know what a song was about. Children from ages 4, 5 and up joined their parents at the St. George Croatian Home to learn about and learn to love tamburitza music and Croatian cultural heritage.
And so, the St. George venue became a true home for the tamburitza and a school teaching children and encouraging them to better understand the culture and the customs of the Croatian nation from which they drew their roots. And while the initial phase of the ensemble involved the work and activities of first-generation American Croatians, it now brings together second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans of Croatian background.
One of the results of all this work is a house in the neighbourhood of the Croatian Home in Cokeburg that is home to numerous folk costumes, stored and safeguarded, from all the distinct cultural regions in the Croatian ancestral homeland. Most of the costumes are authentic. Ms Martha Luketich heads the committee responsible for the house of folk costumes and is intimately acquainted with all of them. Parents are always on hand to check how a costume has been fitted before their children take the stage. It all has to reflect the refined elegance and pride of the ancestral region whose cultural legacy is part of the artistic programme being performed. The children of the St. George Junior Tamburitzans always wear the costumes typical of the region featured in a performance.
Over its seventy years of activity the St. George Junior Tamburitzans have appeared at numerous events, festivities and ethnic Croatian festivals in the United States of America, neighbouring Canada, and in the ancestral Croatian homeland. The group’s first ever visit to the homeland was in 1969, followed by visits in 1972 and 1974. The St. George ensemble has performed at all fifty-three festivals of the Croatian Fraternal Union’s Junior Cultural Federation staged across the USA, Canada and in Zagreb. The Croatian capital has, in fact, played host to seven CFU junior festivals, in 1976, 1981, 1986, 1997, 2004, 2013 and 2018.
The ensemble is active in the fold of the CFU’s Lodge 354. It works with the parents’ association to see to it that every journey made by the children to perform at various culture events is fully funded. It is an amateur culture and arts group that is led at a truly professional level with the volunteer efforts of many individuals, its leadership, and the parents.
The St. George Junior Tamburitzans Ensemble has been graced by many energetic, talented, dedicated and knowledgeable leaders that have undertaken to teach musical notation reading, the playing of the tamburitza and related instruments, singing and round dancing. Over its seventy years the ensemble has been led by instructors, choreographers and musical directors Bernard M. Luketich, Mary C. Luketich, John Gregurich, George Merlin, Chuck and Barbara Muchnok, Joseph Grcevich and Marlene Luketich Kochis.
There has also been specialist assistance from the ancestral Croatian homeland. Helping out with the choreography for a time were specialist folklore artists and choreographers with the Lado ensemble out of Zagreb: Nevenka Vujčić Dubyak, Ivo Šulina, Nenad Breka, and Ivo Kirinčić from Karlovac. They made a number of trips to the United States of America to provide their advice and expertise in preparing performance programmes. The Cokeburg group has also developed good collaboration with the Zagreb Folklore Ensemble and numerous other tamburitza groups, especially in the Slavonia and Podravina regions of northern and eastern Croatia. Their tour of the homeland and other parts of Europe in 1972 saw the group stage 22 concerts in 24 days, along the way striking up numerous friendships and relationships in the field of culture and tamburitza heritage.
The ensemble is currently led by its musical director and choreographer Marlene Luketich Kochis, joined by Daniel Kochis and assisted by Bernadette Luketich Sikaras and Derek Hohn, with Croatian Fraternal Union national president Edward W. Pazo serving as the head of the parents’ association. The CFU St. George Lodge 354 is led by its president Bernadette Luketich Sikaras, who also serves as the CFU national secretary/treasurer.
The current leadership acquired its knowledge and tested their musical talent in the ranks of the St. George Junior Tamburitzans and have developed as excellent musicians and leaders. Daniel Kochis joined the team upon graduating from Duquesne University. The entire leadership team deserves more than just our appreciation. They have imbued the ensemble with their natural talents, expertise, energy, time and patience in working with the children and have leveraged pedagogical methods and motivation to produce marvellous tamburitza players and folklore enthusiasts.
The members of the St. George Jr. Tamburitzans are immediately recognisable by the elegance and discipline of their stage appearances and the smiling faces that speak volumes as to the confidence they enjoy in the quality of their excellently crafted programmes and the beauty and love of the art they radiate—the music, songs and dances of the Croatian people.
Also noteworthy is how the lodge adopted the name of its patron St. George. Many of the founding and current members of the Croatian Fraternal Union’s Lodge 354 in Cokeburg draw their roots from Zagorje, a rural settlement in central Croatia near the town of Ogulin that is home to a church dedicated to St. George (Sveti Juraj). They adopted the moniker in remembrance of the land their forebearers left in search of better opportunities and standard of living. They never forgot the picturesque region they left, overlooked by the ancient town of Modruš and the heights of Mt Klek and Mt Veljun. Back in 1997 the late Bernard M. Luketich, then serving as CFU national president, organised a wonderful event, memorable for both the hosts and the visitors, in rural Zagorje and nearby Ogulin, featuring four St. George (Sveti Juraj) tamburitza ensembles: from Zagorje, Draganić, Hamilton in Canada, and Cokeburg in the USA.
The St. George Junior Tamburitzans have recorded two albums: Golden Memories and Echoes from Our Happy Village. We all wish a happy seventieth birthday to our dear tamburitzans and folklore enthusiasts!
By: Franjo Bertović