Walter Susanj 1923 - 2016

< Walter Marcija, Walter Šušanj, Peggy Šušanj, Charles Šušanj

By Walter Šušanj
How the Tamburitza got its name

In a little over a century, tambura has been developed into a musical instrument where it can compete with the organization of the first Tamburitza orchestra in 1882 in Zagreb, Croatia. 

                                    An old Tambura (Gusle)

Since that time, many people, including those in the musical field such as players, composers, arrangers, historians, and also the general public, have wondered how this instrument got its name.

Historians traced its origin to Persia; however, no one has been able to determine whether the original maker named it tambura or whether it was given that name by the player when it was brought to Croatia.  Even today, all those involved with this instrument do not have a clear-cut answer to this question.  Tamburitza was brought to Croatia many years ago and it was used by individual players who made it for themselves to entertain themselves and others.

While in primitive stage, the instrument was known as gusle (violin).  A possible reason for that name may be in the fact that a bow was used to play the instrument, just like the violin.  With the passage of time, the method of playing was changed to use a pic.  When this change occurred, the instrument was called danguba, and then samica.

During these name changes, the word tambura came into being.  How did the name tambura get into the picture?  When the method of playing was changed from a bow to a pic, the instrument could no longer be called gusle because it was not played in that manner any longer.  Man probably knew from the very beginning that this instrument was called tambura, but because of the way it was played, the more appropriate name for it was gusle.

There is proof that the original name of this instrument was tambura, named so by its original inventor in Persia or wherever it originated.  The photo above shows us the ancient instrument from which our present tambura was developed.  Next to it (which did not show up when the photo was copied), is the name tambura.  With this proof, there can be no doubt about how this instrument got its name.  Its original maker gave it the name tambura

We should be grateful to the original developer of this instrument and our forefathers for the brilliant idea of developing it further which resulted in a music that is a perfect match to our culture.  Can you imagine our Croatian culture without our Tamburitza music?  Unimaginable!  San Francisco Tamburitza Festival, 2012

The original instruments we use are Biścerniča, which is the highest pitch of all the instruments, and is pear shaped about the size of a mandolin.  The next instrument is the Brač, which is somewhat larger with a deeper tone.  It is a melody instrument.  The Biścerniča and Brač are played by Walter Šušanj.  The Bugarijia is a guitar-shaped instrument, which plays the rhythm and is played by Peggy Šušanj.  The Berde is similar to the Bass Viol only it is a fretted instrument played by Charles Šušanj.  All the instruments combined are called the Tamburitzas.

 Anton Šušanj and His Tamburitza
Article was written prior to 1975

When Anton Šušanj came to Washington as a Yugoslav immigrant nearly 50 years ago, he brought with him a pair of strong hands and a love for the Tamburitza folk music of his native land.

< Anton Šušanj in the doorway of his shoe repair shop.  The shop was a few doors down from Finnegan’s Drug Store in Fairhaven

It wasn’t long before he found use for his strong hands in Cle Elum, mining coal by day and playing the stringed instruments by night and on week-ends.  Ever since then, Šušanj, 68, now of Enumclaw, has been playing, teaching, and directing Tamburitza groups.  He has kept music ringing through his adopted homeland in Washington State.

Tamburitza music is a gay, colorful, and sometimes a beautifully melancholy reflection of a people.  It has the soul of the Slav and he lilt of the Latin.  It is the native music of Yugoslavia, which means "South Slav."

Šušanj is tall, sandy complexioned, and has neither the jet-black hair nor the volatile temperament often associated with Yugoslavs, but his music has all the traditional fire of the Serbs, the Croatians, and the Slovenes.  He has large, strong hands that have mined coal, pulled commercial fishing nets and plucked a rapid pizzicato on many a fine, imported instrument.

When Šušanj (pronounced with the "j" silent) was 19,  he left his home in Fiume Rijeka on the Yugoslav-Italian border and came to work in the Cle Elum coal mines.  There he met other Yugoslav immigrants and soon organized a tamburitza group.

"There was little entertainment in those days, so we practiced almost every night."  Šušanj recalled.  "Soon we played for dances, weddings and gatherings of all kinds.  Some of those old-time Yugoslav wedding celebrations lasted two days," he said with a tone of nostalgia, "nobody gives parties like that anymore."

Although tamburitza music has always been his hobby -- seldom a full-time job -- Šušanj has directed groups in Seattle, Tacoma, Bellingham, Aberdeen, Cle Elum, and Enumclaw, entertained servicemen in two world wars, and taken tamburitza groups on concert tours of the Western states.

Šušanj also has been active in the Fishermen's Union.  From 1943 to 1945 he was business agent and from 1945 to 1949, secretary-treasurer of the International Fishermen and Allied Workers.  He is a member of the Croatian Fraternal Union and twice has be delegate to the lodge's national conventions.

One tamburitza performance Šušanj remembers fondly was the time his group entertained President Woodrow Wilson at Tacoma in 1914.

"I was still new to this country," Šušanj said, "you can imagine what a thrill it was."  The other players were Matt Mladenich of  Seattle, Frank Furlong, now living in Yugoslavia, and the late Joe Marcelja.

In 1921, Šušanj married a pretty blond, Sofie Gongo of Peel Point, near Cle Elum.  "Sofie is not Yugoslav, but she took to tamburitza immediately." Šušanj said.

Later, when their sons, Walter and Charles were old enough to read music, they learned tamburitza.  The boys are now in their 20's, and the Four Šušanj's are known as popular entertainers.

In 1945, they added Tony and Andrew Vitalich, John Cvitkovich and Lubi Cheskov, all of Seattle, to their group.  They called themselves The Serenaders and toured the West.  They were chosen to represent Yugoslavia at the United Nations Festival at the University of Washington in 1947.

Walter Šušanj, 37, his wife, Peggy, and their children, Linda, 11, and Bruce, 10, live at 1506 - 14th Avenue South.  Walter studied music at Cornish School and is a well-known professional  musician and teacher.  He helps perpetuate the family tamburitza tradition  by directing the Tacoma Junior Tamburitza Ensemble, a popular group of 13 players, aged 10 to 16.

Charles, 34, a commercial artist, and his wife, Betty, live at 5315 - 30th Avenue NE.

A tamburitza orchestra has string instruments unlike those from any other part of the world.  They are refined versions of those made and played by the Carpathian shepherds 1,500 years ago.  In size they resemble everything from a small ukulele to a bass fiddle, and they have a comparable span of pitch and tone quality.

When a tamburitza orchestra goes all out on a gay old dance, it has the color and effervescence of sparkling burgundy.  People clap their hands and stomp their feet in rhythm, and an audience of Yugoslav-Americans may sing along or take to the dance floor in the lively steps of a kolo or polka.

Šušanj described the instruments, using his own valuable collection as examples:

"This is a Biścerniča (pronounced bitzernitza), wihich is high in pitch and usually carries the melody." he said, holding up what looked like a small ukulele.  "Sometimes it carries harmonies and is called a kontrasica."

"The bugarija (pronounced bugaria) is shaped something like a guitar, carries harmonies and is usually used largely for rhythm.  The largest instrument is the berde (pronounced ber-de), which looks and sounds much like the bass fiddle."

While tamburitza is popular wherever there are Yugoslavs, it's unfortunate that relatively few other people are familiar with it," Šušanj said, "we've kept it too much to ourselves.  There are a few groups in the West, but there are many in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other places where there are lots of people of Yugoslav origin."

The best-known tamburitza group in the United States is at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, where credits are given in the music department, scholarships awarded to talented players and where a new tamburitza building was recently erected.

This famous company tours parts of the United States and Canada every year with a program of singing, dancing, and instrumental numbers.  They have made several recordings and a number of national television appearances.

Anton and Sofie Šušanj now operate the Wishbone, a popular nightclub near Enumclaw.  Often Šušanj lays down his bartender's apron, and he and Sofie entertain customers.  At home, they play for their own enjoyment.

Although to him, tamburitza music is sheer joy, and he doesn't think of it in terms of a cultural contribution, Anton Šušanj has added many bright threads to the vari-colored fabric of our American culture.


<  Orchestra practice at the Karuza home in Fairhaven, WA  in about 1919.

Back:  Fred Starkovich
(Berde), Frank Muljat (Bugarijia), Jack Radisich (Brač), Minni Kuljis  (Brač), Olga Sepich  (Brač).
Front: Mitchell Kuljis (Brač), Vincent Karuza (Biścerniča),  Anton Šušanj (Director), John Starkovich (Biścerniča), Paul Kink (Biścerniča). 

Anton's only pay for teaching and practice sessions was a glass of home-made wine.

< The Šušanj family:  Bruce, Sofie, Chuck, Walt, Anton, and Linda. 

They are dressed up in their gay, colorful costumes for a practice session on their tamburitzas from their native Yugoslavia.

< Director, Anton Šušanj with his early students in Bellingham, WA.

Back:  Frank Muljat, Peter Zuanich, Andrew Kuljis, Minnie Kuljis Woods, Sofie  Šušanj.

Front:  Mitchell Kuljis, John Starkovich, Emil Mardesich, Paul Kink, Vincent Muljat, Andrew Karuza.

Not pictured was Fred Starkovich who was in the orchestra off and on.  Fred and John's two brothers were lost at Pearl Harbor, they were on the Arizona.

< Walter, Anton, Charles, and Sofie  Šušanj.  They were set to entertain at a celebration on November 30, 1975 in Seattle, where the two elder Šušanjs were to receive pins marking their 50th anniversary with the Croatian Fraternal Union.

Croatian Lodge to Honor Enumclaw couple on Sunday

Mr. & Mrs. Anton Šušanj of Enumclaw will be among the nine members receiving 50-year pins when Seattle Lodge 439 of the Croatian Fraternal Union honors 47 of its pioneer members on Sunday, November 30th. 

The Šušanjs and their sons,Walter and Charles, will entertain with their special brand of tamburitza music that brought crowds of visitors to the Wishbone Tavern in Enumclaw, which they owned for many years.

Šušanj who came to the U.S. from a small village near Rijeka, Yugoslavia in 1913, has been playing or instructing in the tamburitza style ever since.  One of his favorite memories is the time he and several other immigrants played for President Woodrow Wilson in Tacoma in 1914.  "You can imagine how proud we were," he says.

Billed as The Four Šušanjs or The Serenaders, the Šušanj family has played at special gatherings as well as their own tavern, attracting many of their fellow Yugoslavians.  "Our people would come from miles around to hear us play," says the elder Šušanj, "you must understand that what the mandolin is to Italy and the balalaika is to Russia, the tamburitza is to Yugoslavia."

Also featured at the anniversary celebration will be the Seattle Junior Taburitzans, a troupe of 40 youngsters, all of Yugoslavian background, who perform songs and dances from the old country.

<  Walter Šušanj with his daughter, Linda

Walter Šušanj joins the Tamburitza Hall of Fame

Seattle WA:  It is with pride and appreciation that Seattle Lodge 439 announces that brother Walter Šušanj has been inducted into the Tamburitza Association of America's Hall of Fame.  Walter was one of six "tamburasi" so honored at the Associations Extravaganza 2000 held in St. Louis this past September 7-10.

Brother Šušanj, the first son of Anton and Sofie Šušanj, was born July 13, 1923 in Bellingham, WA.  He was soon joined by his brother, Charles.  The boys' father, Anton, was the driving musical force in the family.  He hailed from the small village of Blazici in the Kastav region near Rijeka, Croatia.  In due time, Anton taught his wife and sons how to play the "tambura."   Together they constituted the family group variously known as The Serenaders or The Four Šušanjs.   For years the family owned and provided musical entertainment at the Wishbone Tavern near Enumclaw, WA.  Aficionados of fine "old country" music came from miles around to hear the group.

In addition to his first instrument, the  biścerniča, Walter also started playing the clarinet in the fourth grade.  In high school and college he added the saxophone and violin to his instrumental repertoire.  Brother Šušanj served in the U.S. Coast Guard in the South Pacific during WWII.   Having taking  his biścerniča with him, he somehow rounded up the drums, guitar and an accordion to form a combo that played for the U.S.O. sponsored events throughout the war.

Discharged in 1945, Walter attended the Cornish School of Music in Seattle, where he completed a program in music education.  As one facet of his work, he organized tamburitza groups that played on stage and on radio and television in many Washington and Oregon communities.  He also taught high-school music, gave private music lessons and sold musical instruments for many years.   Walter is a life member of both the Seattle Musicians' Union and the Croatian Fraternal Union -- having recently begun his 60th year of adult membership in our great fraternal organization.

Šušanj, joined his wife, Peggy, on the bugarijia, and continues to entertain audiences throughout the Seattle area.

Congratulations, brother Šušanj!  Your fellow CFU members are truly happy that you have achieved the honors and recognition by the Tamburitza Association of America.   Moreover, we are proud that you have done so much to perpetuate the awareness of  Croatian music and culture throughout the Pacific Northwest.  (Richard L. Major, Secretary Treasurer).

Walter Šušanj said that his dad, Anton, received the Presidential Award from the Tamburitza Association of America.  He and his wife, Peggy, now live in Federal Way, WA.   He said that he fished one season on the Uncle Sam, with Jack Radisich as his Skipper and  also said that he fished on the St. Paul for the summer and fall season of 1943.  They used to anchor up off South Beach at Point Roberts.  Anton, his father, Paul Kink, and he played their tamburas out on deck and had an audience on board.  They came out in their row boats to listen.  His skiff partner was Anthony Dulcich and he said that they had a lot of fun on that boat.

< L-R:  "G" Brac, Berde, Prim I, Prim II, "D" Brac  Bottom:  Bugarija, Berde, Celo

The Tamburitzas World by: Peggy & Walter Šušanj

General background:  In the Croatian language, the accent marks over any of the letters c, s, or z denotes that these are to be pronounced ch, sh, and zh.  The letter c alone is always pronounced as a ts combination.  The letter j is like the American Y.  The aj combination is similar to the ie in the word pie. Thus we see the brac is pronounced brach, while the word kontrasica is like kontrashitsa, and bugarija becomes bugariya.

Tamburitza and Tambura

The terms Tamburitza and Tambura are interpreted as meaning identically the same thing; that is, that stringed musical instrument which has been adopted as the national instrument of the Croatian people  and which has gained much popularity in America, not only with the Croatian speaking, but also with those of the Serbian nationality.  Tamburitza is the Americanized version of the word Tambura, or Tamburica.  The origin of the word itself seems to find its roots in the Turkish word Tambur, which is a very similarly styled musical instrument. 

The Tamburitza besides meaning one single instrument also envelopes an entire family of instruments.  The smallest of these are called the Bisernica and Kontrasica or, more recently, simply Prim I, Prim II, and Prim III.  These instruments are high pitched and usuallly do the high obligato work in the orchestra along with doubling on the melody and harmony lines.   Next in size is the Brach I, Brac II, and Brac III.  These Bracis usually play the lead melodies and harmony parts in the orchestra complement.  Some musicologists of Croatia sometimes refer to this instrument with the title Basprim.  The Celo or Cello is comparable to the Cello of a Symphonic Orchestra, playing a very similar roll in adding depth and body to the entire ensemble.  Then there is the Bugarija, which is similar to the tenor guitar in that it is utilized to play accompaniment and rhythm with various chord progressions.

The largest of the Tamburitza family is the Bass or Berde which is most like the well-known Bass Viol.  All of the Tamburitza instruments are strung with steel or wire strings and are played with  pic or Plectram.  These are the instruments you see when the Zive Zice Tamburitza Orchestra comes to play.

<  Zive Zice Tamburitza Band:  Back:  Walter Šušanj; Middle:  Pauli Boroevich, John Radeosevich, Peggy Šušanj, Katie Vukelic; Front:  Shirley Rancich, Joan Bjeletich.

NOTE:  Anton Šušanj passed away December 18, 1975 at age 82; Charles Šušanj passed away June 10, 1997 at age 70; Sofie Šušanj passed away September 18, 1999 at age 98; and Walter Šušanj passed away November 10, 2016 at age 93.