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Bob Lalich on the Popovich family and Tamburitza music

A 2008 phone interview by Dan Patterson

Bob Lalich gave the information that follows in an interview in April, 2008. It comes from his knowledge of the music and of the Popovich family. He performed with the Popovich Brothers in the last scenes of the film and continued with the group for twenty more years. Although he lives in a northwest suburb of Chicago, on the opposite end of the city from the Popovich brothers, he has a cousin who married a daughter of Adam Popovich. Bob further describes the two families as having kumovi connections, a term Serbians apply, he says, to relations with godparents or people who "stand up for somebody's wedding." In the workaday world Bob Lalich holds a Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois and has been employed by Hewlett Packard and Agilent Technologies. Adapted by Dan Patterson from the 2008 interview.

On Tamburitza Orchestras:
They have no particular number of instruments, but there must be "at least a couple of tamburitzas. That's about the only requirement. Some orchestras have a violin. Some have an accordion. But there are always a couple of tamburitzas at least." The tamburitzas include "different members of the family, with different ranges and timbres." The instruments include the prima, the brac, the c'elo, the bugarija, and the bass. (See the Menu for an Overview of Tambura Instrumentation with photographs and descriptions.) The tamburitzas resemble a guitar, except in "number of strings and tuning." The players "don't normally change the tuning for specific pieces. Mikey fooled around with that a little bit. On the prima he had a doubled-up D string, his highest string. Occasionally, he played a couple of songs where he would tune one of those strings down a minor third, and then he'd be playing one string and one fret but two notes. Some of those thirds were out of tune, so it sounded really interesting."

The Members of the Popovich Family who Made Music:
Nicola Popovich, the father, "sang, but he didn't play anything that I knew of.". They "always said their father taught them the war songs-the nationalistic songs. There were a couple of historical-type narrative songs that they used to do." And "they always said their mother taught them all the love songs. Usually there was some element of sadness in the love songs."
The sons were:
Eli (the eldest): "He was a bass player."
Adam: "When he started playing, he played brac. Then he switched to the c'elo.Then he went back to the brac when Mikey died. But he could play anything."
Teddy: "He was strictly a bugarija player. His main role was as the singer."
Mikey (also called Marko): "Mikey played the prima, and Adam just didn't want to play that, I guess. So he played brac instead. Brac is the lead instrument. After Mikey died no one played the prima. He had big shoesto fill. He was really an outstanding player."
Pete: "The fifth Popovich brother actually played with them for some period of time-Pete Popovich-but not that long. I guess he wasn't as interested in the music as the other four brothers were. And he died young too. But he hadn't been playing with them for probably thirty years when he died. He played brac also."

Other musicians who played with the Popovich brothers:
Pete Mistovich: "Peter Mistovich was a bass player from the same church, same area, and they just recruited him when Eli joined the CIA and moved away. Eli played with them earlier."
Bob Lalich: "I started with the c'elo and then I switched to second brac."
George Ivancevich: "He played the c'elo."
John Lazich: "He was a c'elo player too."

How Bob Lalich and the younger men began to play with the Popovich brothers:
"I started playing when I was about 8 years old. They had a church group-junior tamburitza group at the church-and I started playing there. But before then I was already interested in their music because I grew up hearing their records at home, and seeing them play at the church all the time. They knew me. I've always been really interested in music and served two years in the junior group. I got into a group with some of the older guys in the group as a combo, playing on our own. They always knew I was interested in them, and they would see me and knew I was playing. Eventually they just asked me to play-after Marko died. At first they weren't going to play any more. But eventually just the love of the music overcame them, and then they wanted to get back and sing and play again. I think I started rehearsing with them in 1977, toward the end of the year, and then I played that first job with them in January, 1978."

"When I first started playing with them I was still in college," and the orchestra consisted of four musicians. "Occasionally I couldn't make a job that they had booked, so they would get another young guy from the area, John Lazich, to play. Then they decided to take everybody-all five of us-on a job in California. So after that, we just played with five from then on. And then John moved at some point-around 1990-and George Ivancevich joined the group at that time."

"I played with them twenty-plus years until they hung it up for health reasons. They were getting in their nineties. I think the last time we played was right before Eli, the oldest brother, died. And after that Adam got sick again, and then he died, and that was it. Adam died in 2001."

"I still play, but not very often, not regularly. After the Popovich Brothers quitplaying, I played with a different kind of Serbian band-more of a contemporary, electrified band. But pretty much the guys in that band have scattered now. So I just play here and there now, and I've got two young girls, so it's better for me to just play here and there now anyway."

On their musical arrangements:
"They generally did them the way they heard them." That might mean"playing a record once or twice." If they heard somebody else do it, "somewhere in the translation they might do it a little different, give it their own spin. By the time I was a kid, you know, listening to them, if they were doing a new song, it was because Teddy wanted to do it. Adam would have not been too interested in anything new by then."

On the size of the repertory of the Popovich orchestra:
"Oh, gosh, I don't know! It's hard to say, but this little story can illustrate, and give you an idea-more than hundreds. By the time I was playing with them Pete Mistovich had played with them for forty years or thereabouts. And on more than one occasion they played a song that he never heard before. They played lots of songs I never heard before, of course. They had a kind of core repertoire, that may have shifted over time, but there were probably a hundred songs that they did in a normal rotation, and then there'd be a few old nuggets that they'd sneak in here and there. They had their favorites they liked to play, and then other favorites their regular listeners would ask them to play."

On changes in the repertory or performance style:
"I would say it would change slowly. They'd add a new popular song here and there. And sometimes the old ones, they'd just stop playing them for one reason or another-no one asked for it, or whatever. But if somebody asked for a song they hadn't played in twenty years, they could still do it." Like any kind of folk music, the songs had certain patterns that were familiar, if you could remember the words. "What always impressed me the most was that Teddy would remember all the words to songs he hadn't sung in twenty or thirty years and he never used any book or anything-just out of his head."

On individuals with strong influence on the group and its repertory:
"That would be Adam, Teddy, and Mikey, and their mother too." Adam was highly musical. "He studied music. Actually he started playing the violin when he was young. He studied with various tamburitza players, and then when they moved to Chicago, he studied with the man who was directing the Sloboda Choir at the time [at St. Archangel Michael Serbian Orthodox Church]. He was I think a music professor. His name was [Joseph] Kindl." Adam studied piano with him too. Adam "had a very good ear. There was a record that somebody gave him" of "Albanska Golgota." And Adam "just pulled out the parts" by ear from that recording for the performance in which he conducted the Sloboda Choir in the film. "He could write music."

On the reaction of the Popovich family to the film:
"I think they were very, very pleased with it. When it premiered here in Chicago, a huge group from the community down there went up to see it, and everybody thought it was great. The last time I saw this movie, one thing that struck me is how many of the people in here are gone. It's been over thirty years now." There "might be some old 8mm movie footage without sound here and there," but "most people didn't have videotape recorders and cameras back then." The film gives us "a chance to see them perform, at least a little bit."

On other occasions that Bob Lalich remembers:
"We had a number of very memorable trips that I made with them. We played in Washington, D.C., a couple of times. Adam was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts [Folk Heritage Fellowship] in 1982. And we played for some Balkan Arts group in New York in 1980. I think Ethel Raim, who was involved with this film was involved with that group. And we played for the Statue of Liberty centennial in New York-in Manhattan. And then we played for President Clinton's inauguration ceremony-not in the White House, but they had the big set-up in the Mall there, and we played for that. That might have been the most memorable for me. But there were a lot of them. When Adam got honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, we played in the Library of Congress theater, and on the same stage there was a whole bunch of other folk musicians, like Bill Monroe-I got to meet him-and Brownie McGhee, and it was really cool."

On the best recordings of the Popovich Brothers:
"I think their best record was the first LP they recorded, Sing along with Teddy and the Popovich Brothers." A re-recording of it is included with another of their best LPs in Balkan Records CD3035/551: The Popovich Brothers 40th Anniversary Edition.

Balkan Records has issued two other "Anniversary" CDs of the Popovich Brothers and also four CDs of Adam Popovich directing the Sloboda Choir of South Chicago. Earlier-in the 1930s and '40s-the Popovich Brothers recorded 78-rpm discs, but mostly backing up other Serbian singers.

On the standing of the Popovich Brothers Orchestra:
"In the Serbian circle the Popovich Brothers were the most well known, I would say. In the Croatian community, maybe not, but in the Serbian community they were. It's subjective and a matter of opinion, but I think they were the best."

A last comment by Bob Lalich on the music itself:
"The immigrant communities-it's probably a common theme-centered around the music, and in our case the church was kind of the center of everything, including the music and singing and dancing."

Acknowledgements to: Adapted by Dan Patterson from the 2008 interview.

For rights and permissions contact: Daniel Patterson

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