Friday, November 09, 2007
Hearing Our Spirit Voice
Music is a spirit voice. My neighbor Millie keeps the memory of the music of her father’s fretted bass, a folk instrument one plucks with a pick and whose rhythm forms the strong backbone of Serbian tamburitza music. Until recently, she possessed only a few scratchy recordings taken from 78-speed records of the 1940s, and these have the faded quality of a party going on across the hall, in a room to which you weren’t invited – and the bass is barely audible. Then something like a miracle occurred.
Millie also has the bass itself, an imposing, dark figure standing in her living room, decorated in inlaid mother-of-pearl, its belly faded red, the varnish there beaten away by decades of constant use. She can’t bring herself to lend out this gift she received, upon her father’s death, from Mike Polovina and Steve Mandich, the two men who had joined with him to purchase it during the Great Depression.
In 1931, at the age of 17, Millie’s father, Louis Yazich, became a founding member of the Orao Tamburitza Orchestra. “Orao” means “eagle,” and the orchestra’s sheet music and promotional materials are emblazoned with this symbol of liberty. The group was active throughout the middle decades of the last century, playing weekends at dances and other social occasions in South Bend’s Serbian Hall. Immigrant societies dominated the era (Polish, German, Belgian, Hungarian, Serbian, Italian) and each had its musicians – who sometimes crossed ethnic boundaries to learn from one another.
Millie is a musician herself. This rich history had not been altogether silenced in her life, like the standing bass. But a wonderful thing happened to her this fall when a man entered her shop to have a switch repaired on an amplifier. Looking at her, he asked if she was Serbian. Once he’d heard her name, he said, “I knew your father.” Then she recognized Mitch Medich – whom she hadn’t seen in 25 years – as the son of one of the Orao musicians. Mitch was clearly excited. “I have something for you,” he said.
It turns out that he had just discovered some reel-to-reel recordings of the orchestra’s practice sessions from the ’50s and ’60s and converted them to CD. The music ranges easily from light-hearted dance tunes, played trippingly on the prima above the raucous string orchestra, to soulful, heartbreaking love ballads for which the men sometimes join voices. Serbian folk songs are about love and family, about the country, even about a single mountain, and about the people who went away. Departure and loss are recurrent themes.
Louis Yazich, Bob Medich, Dave Durock, Fred and Steve Madick, Jimmy Lambick, Walter Medich, Mike Polovina, and Steve Mandich are among those who have left us. Only Tom Grbich remains. But suddenly, here is their music, the very echoes of their souls, returned to my friend and neighbor, to her house, to her life. The musicians talk between numbers, conferring, joking. And here’s her father’s voice – and here’s his other voice, that old bass that today stands by itself in her living room.