My mother’s father, Ivan Matijevich, came from Senj, a small city on coast of Croatia across from the Island of Krk.. He came to America by himself about 1900 as a stowaway, got off in New York City and worked his way down to Corinth, Mississippi. Shoemaking was his trade.
My grandfather was very musical and played a French horn. I think he was part of a brass band in Mississippi. When I went to some of the villages in Croatia, I heard these same brass bands practicing in the evening.
My mother, has always been interested in the culture. Her father died young, so maybe that peaked her curiosity about her Croatian past. She passed this love of history on me with stories about the pirates of Senj.
My parents and I came to California in the mid 50s when I was in fourth grade. We would go to dances and to the Croatian picnics at the old German Hall in San Francisco. Everyone would be polkaing and waltzing and having a good time. I think my mother joined the Slavonic Cultural Center several years later.
In college I took all of Sunny Bloland’s folk dance classes at UC Berkeley. I wasn’t too good a student, I was more in it for having a good time. After college I danced in a Croatian group based in San Jose, called Matija Gubec, named after a Croatian martyr from the Middle Ages. This was a group of twenty or thirty people. The dancers were all first or second generation Croatian. We did dances from different regions such as Banat, Medjemurija, Posovina and Slavonija.
Some of these dances were famous choreographies created by dance groups in Zagreb. A couple of the people in this group had danced in ensembles in Zagreb. Other choreographies were created from scratch using what ever resources the group could find here, books, tapes and old musicians in the community.
I’ve been to Croatia three times, in the 80s and early 90s. In 1994 Betsy and I visited Senj, the village of my people. I walked into the local office to ask for a room to stay in and I asked if they knew of anybody by the name of Matijevich, my grandfather’s name. The woman said, “Oh, just a minute.” She disappeared and came back five or ten minutes later with a young woman in tow, who greeted me saying, “Cousin! You’ve come back!”
So they took us in. The two sisters were Croatian; one had married a Serbian, and one had married a Bosnian. I really enjoyed my stay there. It was ironic and symbolic. It was the last time that family was together before the civil war broke out. And I was there too. It was like a symbol of unity and they’ve never had anything like that since. Everything’s been split apart since that point.
When I was in Korcula I saw the Moreska dance and was tremendously impressed. I saw it on an amazing night. It was raining or something and they had to do it inside. Sparks were flying off the swords and the people were dancing and every once in a while they’d break a sword and the guy would run off with it. Then I went back and saw it again several years later, outside, and it was just as impressive. (John later revived the Moreska in San Francisco where it had been done at the turn of the century)
So by the third trip, in 1994, I had it in mind to actually learn some dances to bring back to the Croatian American Cultural Center. We learned some dances from Macedonia at a special seminar in Ohrid, Macedonia. And I saw the dances from Cilipi, Croatia, as they do it for tourists in the village square, with the children and adults dancing together with live tamburitza music. I later put on the dance from Cilipi in San Francisco, but added songs, poetry, and slides because Cilipi had been destroyed.
When Betsy and I got married I rented a Croatian Hall in South San Francisco for the wedding. We had a procession, and a priest, and traditional live music. The Croatian dance group came and performed at the wedding and I got to dance the “Bachelor’s dance” for the last time. For me it was one of the high notes of the wedding. We also had a Cajun band and live music for traditional Croatian line dances.
My mother actually got me into the Croatian American Cultural Center about the time I married Betsy. The first thing I organized there was some kind of social dinner with my mother.
When I showed up at the Center there wasn’t much cultural activity. People were having a good time. They had pictures on the walls of Croatian things but there was not what I would consider traditional music and dance happening on a regular basis. Then I got to know Adam Eterovich, who was interested in preserving the old culture. So we got together and formed a committee, we called it the Cultural Committee. And the rest is history.
My first exposure to Bosnian culture was through the music. In the songs Croatians sing you can always hear songs from Bosnia, and everybody loves it! It’s such great music. Through this dance from Glamoc, Bosnia, called Starobosansko, I became interested in Bosnian people. When the crisis happened in Bosnia, I started looking for Bosnians, who had come to the Bay Area. And I remembered a guy who came up to me at one point when we were performing the Glamoc dance. He said, “I’m from Glamoc.” I met him once more just before he was going back to Bosnia to see if he could get his family out.
We changed the Glamoc dance and put in dialogue in English in part of the choreography.. We walked about, as if we were on a village square, asking each other if we had heard anything about the people we knew in Bosnia. Then I heard about him again, later. Migdat was reading poetry in coffee houses in San Francisco.The war was just starting. There were several years when horrible things were happening. He was one of the lucky ones because he had a job, and brought his family over here. We put on several evenings together where he would read poetry and my friends would play music, and what Bosnian songs we knew.. We called the evenings “Ivo’s Diaspora Cabaret”.
As for music, well, I played the guitar for a long time. I enjoyed folk singing, country western and protest songs. Things like that. When I would go to visit my grandmother in Tennessee I would ask her, “where are the musical families?” And I would try to spend time with them singing on their porches. I remember going back to this one place — didn’t have any air conditioning, there was a fan in the window — and the old time banjo player would just sit there looking at the fan playing his banjo.
I’ve always had a love of the music, this traditional kind of stuff. That’s why I helped get the Slavonian Traveling Band together. (The Slavonian Traveling Band uses traditional instruments such as tamburizas to play old as well as original music).
I think that dance and music comes from food. First of all you’ve got to have good food, then you need to have the music for the dance to come from. So it was always important for me to have a group of people who could play the music. Because then the dance would happen. If you have people who want to dance and there’s no music, then nothing happens. But if you have a celebration, food, music, people dance, that’s when there is magic.