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have dedicated this portion of TBL website to building
a foundation of Western New York tamburitza history
.In time I will continue to build and add information
within and outside of the Western New York Area).
Its purpose is to "preserve and elevate"
the Western New York history of tamburitza music through
its origins, musicians, teachers, instruments, generational
impact, articles and photos, societal contributions,
personalities, and visibility locally and nationally.
The Western New York area is rich in its history of
tamburitza music made possible by the "MASTERS
AND PIONEERS" of tamburitza music-Some of those
pioneers are still with us-and some-have passed on-sadly
missed-but not forgotten. Within these pages you will
also find additional sections that give a general
history of Tamburitza music and I have included photos
and descriptions of the instruments and additional
commentary. Some of this commentary will be in regard
to the efforts of American tamburitza craftsman in
their quest to provide the large and ever-growing
tamburitza community with quality hand-made instuments
and what is the future regarding the tamburitza craftsman
profession. The site will be ever growing and expanding
and for now-we will "scratch the surface "
if you will-of Tamburitza music in Western New York.
NICHOLAS "TILLIE" KLAICH! One man-and one
name-synonymous with Tamburitza music and the influence
of the nationally known tamburitza group The Balkan
Serenaders. Could one man like "ATLAS" lift
the massive world of Western New York Tamburitza music
on his shoulders -get it off the ground-lay the foundation-the
history and origins of Western New York Tamburitza
music-and make it sustainable? I can assure you that
HE DID! He is and will forever be-a TITAN in the world
of Tamburitza music-a COLOSSUS of heart-talent-personality
and vision-that made him a GIANT in the tamburitza
community-loved and respected by all who knew him.
Nicholas "Tillie" Klaich was born August
7,1925 and died October 1,1989. What he did in-between
"the dash of life" laid the entire foundation
of tamburitza music in Western New York. To my minds
eye-he is the Founding Father and Godfather of Western
New York Tamburitza music. This is some of his story.
Tillies music career started with the choir under
the direction of Hugo Talbert when he was age 12 in
1937. Tillie started on prim when the Kosta Choir
started a tamburitza orchestra within the choir. The
first orchestra consisted of 28 members.
In 1939-1941 Tillies first tamburitza combo consisted
of Tillie on Bugarija, Leo Germanovich on lead, Nick
Kosanovich, on terc (harmony) George Kosanovich cello,
and Nick Vasilovich on bass. They played for local
taverns and church social functions of the time.
Every group has someone they admire during those years
of the 30s and early 40s-Mali Rade, Djoko Dokich (father
of Tamburitza Hall of Fame maestro and musician Mel
Dokich) and Milan Verni were popular names on the
tri-state area tamburitza circuit of New York, Pennsylvania
These were the war years of 1932-1945 and 50/54. Tamburitza
players came and went as the call to arms and service
to our country was needed. It was difficult to sustain
groups and Tillie had to struggle through those years
of come and go.
In 1944 at the young age of 19 Tillie once again formed
another tamburitza group consisting of 14 members
and the group became known as "Veselo Srce"
The Happy Hearts Tamburitza Orchestra. The popularity
of the group became well known throughout Lackawanna/Buffalo/Western
New York , Niagara Falls, Hamilton- Ontario Canada,
Weirton West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Aliquippa Pennsylvania,
and Detroit, Michigan. The group was so popular that
on December 14,1947 radio station WWOL (still in existence
today) offered the group a chance to play for a half
hour time slot on a Sunday morning.
For the next FIVE YEARS-the Veselo Srce Tamburitza
Orchestra played every week on the WWOL Sunday morning
radio program. They also did a live television program
with WBEN-TV. The International Institute Costume
Ball event held at the prestigious Statler Hilton
in Buffalo was just one of those 40s events that ended
with Veselo Srce playing kolos and the crowd joining
in on the energy of the music and its youthful moment
of tamburitza history.
In the middle of it all-was Tillie. In 1945 while
Veselo Srce was just starting to grow Tillie formed
another tamburitza group-The Balkan Serenaders. By
1947 Tillie recruited Charlie Smilinich of The Smilinich
Brothers Tamburitza Orchestra to play prim-Tillie
went to bass-Danny Cugalj on brac-Steve Vranjes on
cello-and Peter Milosevich on bugarija. The Balkan
Serenaders performed throughout the United States
1952 they recorded three 78's featuring the voices
of Tillie Klaich and outstanding tenor Charlie Smilinich.
(Of note-the fine prim playing of Smilinich and the
tight harmonized sound of the entire group.) In addition
one of the songs "Gde Si Marcello" included
a cello solo by Steve Vranjes -a pioneering effort-becoming
the first known recorded tamburitza cello solo in
In those beginning years instruments were hard to
come by and Tillie had two problems getting the tamburitza
group Veselo Srce started. First-he was only 19 at
the time and had to command a lot of respect from
youthful teens and second-he didnt have the instruments
so he started the tamburitza group first and got the
instruments later. It wasnt an easy stunt to pull
off-teaching the theory and then getting the instruments.
It meant that Tillie had to get the music-do his written
work for the group- teach his basics and get results.
Thats exactly what happened. Tillie was able to secure
instruments made by Hlad-Bencic-Valentich and Kovacevich-the
known tamburitza crafstman of those times. They were
some of the pioneers of American tamburitza craftsmanship
as we know them today. It is a moment in time for
me to pause and thank our American tamburitza crafstman-the
LUTHIERS of yesterday and the present-for their outstanding
contributions to Tamburitza history as we know it.
In 1952 after The Balkan Serenaders recorded their
three 78s tragedy struck the group with the death
of Danny "Dusan" Cugalj in an auto accident
at age 24. Charlie "Blaze" Blazina became
the groups second brac player to fill in for the sad
void left by Dan Cugalj.
In 1957 as everything from post war growth-to employment-
education- and careers were expanding it was time
for The Balkan Serenaders to reorganize again. This
time Tillie recruited Vlad Popovich as their lead
brac player-an outstanding graduate of Duquesne University
Tamburitzans who had completed two European tours.
Fortunately his roots were in the WNY area! Charlie
Blazina remained at second brac, Steve Vranjes on
cello, Charlie Smilinich switched to bugarija and
Tillie played bass. Under the leadership of Vlad Popovich
and the superb combined talents of technique, voices,
and personality The Balkan Serenaders became the single
most dominant pure tamburitza group in Western New
York tamburitza history . They were to become nationally
known throughout the United States and Canada. The
group played with the same five men until the mid
60's when Charles Blazina retired. During the latter
1950's, Walter Pravica also joined The Balkan Serenaders
After the retirement of Charles Blazina-The Balkan
Serenaders recorded and released their first LP album
"A Continental Toast." The album was a smash
hit among the tamburitza community locally and nationally.
The album consisted of Serbo-Croatian songs-Greek-Spanish-Macedonian
and included Miserlou made famous by Xavier Cugat.
There is an excellent instrumental "Granada"
featuring the groups technical expertise and Vlads
outstanding brac playing and arrangement From the
beginning powerful sounds of "Oro Se Vije"
to its final song of "Kazi Leno." It was
the first of its kind featuring the distinctive trademark
sound of The Balkan Serenaders.
Today-5 decades after the release of this album tamburitza
groups still play and fans request Miserlou-Oro Se
Vije-Cesto Mi Dragi-Lence Bre Duso-White Ribbons-
Vrati Mi Srce and more-and only Tillie-could sing
"Kazi Leno" with his style and I hear his
voice in my ear-even now-as I write this historical
perspective. (Yes it brings a tear to my eyes and
that hurtful lump in my throat when I look back at
those early years-being 12 years old when I first
started to play tambura and that was in 1965-the time
of The Balkan Serenaders-and I wanted-to be-one-of-them!)
The album "A Continental Toast" was entered
into The Library Of Congress. A distinctive honor
as a testimony to the impact, professionality and
expertise The Balkan Serenaders made on tamburitza
music locally and nationally. In time there would
be much more to come.
For the year 1965 I wish to take this time to note
an extraordinary event in the history of WNY tamburitza
music. It is the combined efforts of Steve Vranjes
& Stanko Gjurich-co founders of St Stephens Tamburitza
program and both men were original members of Veselo
Srce founded by Tillie Klaich. Steve Vranjes is also
a member of The Balkan Serenaders from 1945-1992 playing
47 years with the Serenaders.
.At one point in 1972 the St Stephens Tamburitza program
of Lackawanna NY had as many as 42 members. An additional
note- Nada Milosevich also was instrumental teaching
music theory in those early years as the tamburitza
program was just beginning.(shortly afterward Nada
became the choir directress of St. Stephens and produced
several albums with the Kosta Choir-all with tamburitza
accompaniment featuring the combined efforts of many
musicians all from this area--she was selected by
the Serbian Singing Federation as "Woman of the
Year" for her fine efforts.)
These tamburitza performers-the beginning students
of the 60s were the "next generation" to
come out of the St. Stephens group through the fine
efforts of Steve and Stanko. ( Steve gets his just
due here from me for all the extra work he did helping
to form the first "combos" out of that group).
Dance instructors over the years that helped to give
St. Stephens their fine choreography foundation were
Charles Notess, John Andreef, Jane Saheed and Dennis
The first spin-off tamburitza group out of St. Stephens
were "The Blue Water Tamburitzans" and the
orchestra consisted of yours truly- Ray "Rajko"
Ranic on lead brac-George Medakovich on second brac-Milan
Mirolovich on Cello- Ron Conrad on Bugarija and Don
Milosevich on Bass. We actually selected the name
because our first job that we got "paid"
was at this restaurant with the same name-(no longer
in existence today ). The story is-there wasnt enough
money to pay us-and there were two groups hired that
night-and the name stuck.
Yes-we got "shafted" on our FIRST job! (not
by the restaurant-it was a private function!) -I guess
we werent that creative for names back then. There
was another group that spun off but only for a short
time with John Simic- they had a good sound and there
was some "competition" in those early days-we
had fun and it was an era of growth in music, singing
and dancing during those times. It is the graduates
of this 60s and early 70s class that I will discuss:
Don Milosevich-(son of
Kosta Choir Directress Nada Milosevich and Peter Milosevich
former Veselo Srce member and Balkan Serenader) has
continued to play bass with Braca Adriatica, has played
with Orchestra Niagara
& The Blue Water Tamburitzans, accompanied Kosta
Choir on several recordings and served as a board
member for the Tamburitza Association of America.
He has performed over the years at TAA extravaganzas
and his tamburitza career spans nearly 40 years. He
continues to play for jam sessions at the American
Serb Club in Tonawanda NY while continuing his career
in electronics and computer repair.
Milan Mirolovich did not
stay with the tamburitza phase but went on to become
a doctor and pursues his medical career to the present.
Ron Conrad-recently retired from active duty as a
police officer. In those early years he performed
with The Blue Water Tamburitzans and played with Adriatica
and Braca Adriatc-he has also accompanied Tillie Klaichs
Balkan Serenaders-has accompanied on a Kosta Choir
recording-and continues to jam at the American Serbian
Club in Tonawanda. He has been involved in tamburitza
music for nearly 40 years.
George Medakovich became
a Duquesne University Tamburitzan and has performed
with the Blue Water Tamburitzans , Dunav and Aman
in California and other groups.. George has an excellent
background in sight reading and music theory-is an
accomplished piano player and plays many instrurments
within and outside of the tamburitza family. He has
been to music camps and more throughout the years.
His involvement in tamburitza music is nearly 40 years
in duration. Mark Medakovich-Georges brother also
played cello with The Blue Water Tamburitzans on occasion.
Diane Pappas Sullivan went
on from St Stephens Tamburitzans to become their Directress
and produced the St Stephens Tamburitzans first and
to date-only LP album. Diane is an outstanding composer
and arranger whose volumes of written music are still
being played by todays St. Stephens tamburitza groups.
I cant say enough about the wonderful job she did
for the students of tambura music at St Stephens-one
of those musicians Mark Vranjes-who performed on her
album production-plays bass with Orchestra Sokoli
and is an excellent tamburitza bass player. He has
also played with Kumovi Tamburitzans recorded with
Kumovi & Sokoli and currently serves as president
of the St Stephens Tamburitza program. Darleen Pappas-
Dianes sister is a graduate of St. Stephens tamburitzans
who went on to become an accomplished musician and
professional singer giving solo performances of her
fine work in the Western New York area.
Erica Nedelkov is an outstanding
teacher of beginner tamburitzan students and for years
has been a foundation for the next generation(s) of
tamburitzans. A job well done. Shelly Vranjes and
Stacey Delmont-are sisters who have done an excellent
job with the choreography and dance instruction of
junior and senior dancers. Jim Radetic Jr-is an excellent
bugarija player with Sokoli who has also played with
Kumovi Tamburitzans and recorded with both groups.
Bob "Bozhi" Ranic-in
the past has performed with Blue Water Tamburitzans
& Kumovi Tamburitzans, is currently with Sokoli
as their cello player-has recorded with all three
groups, is the current director of the St Stephens
tamburitza program and is also an excellent craftsman
and repair technician of tamburitza instruments, mandolins,
violins and guitars. No matter how busy Bozhi is-with
his energy-charming personality and wit-he gets the
job done and then some. He is definitely a force to
contend with and a light for the tamburitza community
at St Stephens. (they owe him a huge debt of gratitude
for all of his efforts).
I wish to mention Nick
for his fine past efforts in dance choreopgraphy at
St Stephens. Marko Wuslich is an excellent recent
tambuitza graduate who does a fine job on bugarija
and over the years has jammed with musicians at the
Serb Club-all accomplished by the age of 22! Our youth
are the future and time waits for no one!
Last of all-a little history on yours truly. Ray"Rajko"Ranic-I
have performed with St Stephens Tamburitzans-The Blue
Water Tamburitzans-recorded with The Blue Water Tamburitzans
on a Kosta album back in the 60s-Founded the Kumovi
Tamburitzans from 1977-1986-Performed with Kumovi
at my first Extravaganza in 1978 at Niagara Falls.
In 1980 at the Chicago TAA extravaganza Kumovi performed
two instrumental compositions both original by your
would be TBL to be-(Serbian and Russian compositions)
. I recorded an LP in the early 80s with Kumovi having
original compositions for "Cigani Zivot"
and other kolos on the album-all arrangements were
my own and not from any sheet music or composer.
In 1997 I released "Messiahs Rhapsody" a
recording of original tamburitza music combined with
Messianic styles of Christian music. Ten songs were
original compositions and arrangements. In 1997 I
received in Pittsburgh PA "The Presidents Award"
for my efforts on this project from The Tamburitza
Association Of America. From 1995-1998 taught tamburitza
music with Vlad Popovich (The Balkan Serenaders) and
Dr. Danilo Yanich (Sviraj) at the East European Folklife
Center camp programs. One of those years tamburitza
music was honored and the three afore mentioned names
taught in California (Mendocino) and Maryland repectively.
am an EEFC member from 1995-present.
From 1992 to the present I have been a member of Tillie
Klaichs Balkan Serenaders playing brac and prim, In
my background I have played many different types of
instruments ranging from the complete tamburitzan
family of instruments-brac-prim-cello-bugarija-bass-to
bazouki-baglamash(Greek) balalaika,domra (Russian
)mandolin-Italian- Macedonian tambura, guitar and
violin and several additional styles of bass instruments.
My area of expertise is the family of tamburitza instruments.
I have also written articles for The American Srbobran
and won a nationwide writing contest sponsored by
the Srbobran in 2002 for a family story and ironically
tamburitza music was a big part of the background
for the article. (the article in its entirety is posted
on this website-The Miscellaneous Lion-The paper chase
Today as of 2004-I am your web site host-The Balkan
Lion. During the years of 1986-1992 I spent a great
deal of time performing with adult and childrens groups.
I went to hospitals and nursing homes and took my
instruments to the bedsides of many that were senior
citizens, ill and terminally ill. Ive played
and have performed for Tamburitza Extravaganza events
over the last 4 decsades (78-2004) and performed for
The Arizona Slavic Music Association, Serbian and
Croatian sponsored events and international festivals.
Ive had the opportunity to accompany and jam
with many fine tamburitzan musicians throughout the
United States and Canada. Some of those names over
5 decades are: Tillie Klaich, Vlad Popovich, Charlie
Smilinich, Steve Vranjes and Chuck Vukovic- (Tillie
Klaichs Balkan Serenaders) Frank Jovanovich , Walter
Pravica, John Gorman, Mike Hairlich and John Miksich
(Dunav Tamburitza orchestra of Chicago) Dr Danilo
Yanich, Raczar Lopatich and Lenny Tepsich of Sviraj-
Orchestra Sokoli of Western New York-Mel Evanovich-Paul
Milanovich-Beau Markulin and Pajo Adamovich-(The Balkan
Serenaders of Youngstown Ohio) Joe and Jerry Grcevic-Peter
Kosovec ( and members of the Duquesne University Tamburitzans)
-Mike Loncarich, Bob Potocic ( The Silver Strings
Tamburitza Orchestra of Canada) Nick Skertich of The
There is also The Continental Strings with Alex Machaskee-
George Machaskee-Lex Machaskee-Steve Mraz and the
Arlow Brothers Bob and "Uncle Miltie" Milt
Arlow-Andy Kosovich-Roy Kudrin, Ljubica "Libby"
Fill-The Trivanovich Sisters and Sarena with Honey
Zimmerman & Mickey Aranjelovich, Lou Ann Chmura,
Denise Mulac and Marcy Coleff-Mirko Roknich and his
orchestra, Sanda and Pero Pavlovich and Billy "Bogdan"
Topolski of Lira in Detroit.
I remember the times with Butch Kresovich at Hucksters
in PA (times shared jamming with his brother Chick
Kresovich-) Steve Namesnik who played with Fred &
Rosie Husnik- Mark Forry at EEFC camp and remember
those days with Becari-Ken Ban- Dave Dopuch-Glen Polovich
and Frank Jovanovich) Pete "Animal" Plechas
and members of Jedinstvo.
Other fine musicians like Milan Opacich ,Joe Peritin
and George Ivancevich (Drina) Bob Susnjer, Nick Jovanovich,
Missy Eremic and Ken Herak from the Pittsburgh areas
have all crossed paths at festivals and events throughout
the years. Walt Mahovlich and members of Harmonia
have been in some of those Cleveland jam sessions
and Walt and I jammed at the 1998 EEFC camp.
At present, there are still those Friday night jam
sessions-monthly lamb roasts and more. In this area
present and past tamburashi-Charlie Kristich (TAA
board member)-Milo Wuslich, Marko Wuslich, Don Milosevich,
Steve Swagel, George Arbutina-The Kristich brothers
(Mike and Rudy) Frank and George Rovison, Steve Schultz.
Charley Kristich, Norbert Remus, and tamburitzan friends
from Toronto-Dan Yaksimovich-Bratz and Bocco-so many
names, friends and marvelous personalities throughout
It has been MY HONOR and priviledge to witness, share
and accompany these fine orchestras and musicians
preserving the sounds of tamburitza music and history
for the next generations to come. Some are with us
today-and those who arent-are sadly gone but not forgotten.
Since 1995-present The Balkan Lion Recording Co. has
evolved into the personality and guise of "The
Balkan Lion." In earlier years I was able to
receive college level credit for several courses through
Empire State College (www.esc.edu)
as part of my degree program by writing my tamburitza
background into collegiate level course equivalents
with the recommendation of Vlad Popovich.
It amazes me to see where tamburitza music has taken
me from age twelve-to 2004. In addition with the internet
today anything is possible! The growth of tamburitza
music nationally within the Unites States has been
phenomenal and the music has changed much in style
and presentation over the last seven decades. From
the 40's-to the present millennium.
I remember the live radio programs performed with
Kumovi tamburitzans (nervously I might add). I've
always been grateful to Bernie Lukatich CFU president
for his efforts promoting tamburitza music and giving
the Kumovi Tamburitza Orchestra opportunities to play
in Cokeburg and on those live radio broadcasts.
Thanks also go to Bob Stone SNF president (deceased)
for his efforts promoting tamburitza music and giving
us younger guys a break back in those early years
( the up and coming generations of the late 60s 70s
and 80s) There were Toronto and other Canadian festivals
that held live TV broadcasts as well as the occasional
charity functions that were televised locally. Quite
a few memorable moments over the years.
One of the earlier groups in Western New York tamburitza
history in the 50s "The Monsters" as they
were affectionately known in the Lackawanna tamburitza
community consisted of Peter Vranjes-Sam Gjurich-Jim
Radetic Sr. and Pasquale (Pat Mistretta). Ive
heard it told by many-they made for a lot of fun in
those days . All of these families had an effect on
subsequent generations of tamburitza students that
have given their efforts back to tambura history in
Western New York passing it on-from generation-to
The names listed as tamburitza students from the 60s
generation and on are the roots of the next and next
and the next generations (started through Tillie Klaich)
that will continue filling the need for tamburitza
teachers, instructors and performers who can raise
the bar and go to the next level.
In 1975 Steve & Stanko both received "Parishoner
of the Year" honors from St. Stephens for their
co-founding efforts with the St Stephens Tamburitzan
program. This year Steve Vranjes will be inducted
into the Tamburitza Hall Of Fame October 2004. Congratulations-long
overdue and thanks for a job-well done!
Continuing the history of Tillie Klaich and The Balkan
Serenaders-the time is still the mid 60s and with
the release of "A Continental Toast" The
Balkan Serenaders became the "Toast of the town
and the tamburitza community" The Serenaders
were well known for their expertise in professional
styles of tamburitza music. The four man style of
Klaich-Smilinich-Popovich and Vranjes is at their
Now it is 1971 and Charlie Smilinich makes a difficult
decision and because of the demands on him for his
career-he has to leave the orchestra. The Balkan Serenaders
have to reorganize again. This time they select Nick
Germanovich to play bass and Tillie went back to bugarija.
He would continue to play bugarija wih the Balkan
Serenaders for the remainder of his career.
During this time the Serenaders released a second
album "Continentally Yours." The album had
a new sound featuring the fine voices of Klaich and
Popovich showcasing the talents of Vlads leadership,
superb brac playing and song selection. Tillies "For
The Good Times" struck a collective note in the
tamburitza community-and its sound-still reverberates.
It was THAT powerful. Mori Mome- Bul Bul- Zorba The
Greek-Dolazi, Vlajna and "La Malaguenja"
are just a few of the excellent numbers played on
this album providing the tamburitza community with
another success-Serenader style.
In 1972 tragedy struck the group-again-with the untimely
death of a youthful Nick Germanovich and in a moment-The
Balkan Serenaders had lost their bass player and needed
to re-organize again.
For a moment-I was there-at age 19 filling in and
playing cello-while Steve Vranjes played bass at a
job for a social event in Hamburg New York. Tillie
was all dressed in a black suit & it was a somber
evening. Millie Zupkovich-wife of the late great Dave
Zupkovich was at that event I often wondered what
went through her head that night watching tamburashi
come and go over the years. Her late husband-Dave
Zupkovich died when he was in his early 40s.
I still remember it was a social event-primarily American
music and Vlad asked me to pick a song. We did "Orient"
kolo and I thought maybe we shouldnt do the song-The
Serenaders never gave it a second thought and it was
how we began our performance for the evening-and the
memory-just like it happened yesterday. This time
the Serenaders went to Charles C Vukovic as their
bass player. The Serenaders were on the move playing
again as they began the road to the height of their
career from 1972-1989.
In 1973 The Smithsonian Institute sponsored a celebration
of Tamburitza music called "Old Ways In The New
World." Four groups from the United States were
asked to perform in Washington D.C. They were The
Balkan Serenaders (Charlie Smilinich also performed
with them) of Western New York-The Popovich Brothers
of Chicago (1972 TAA Hall Of Fame-who have entertained
before three United States Presidents) Joe and Jerry
Grcevic of The Sloboda Tamburitzans of Pennsylvania
(Father & Son TAA Hall Of Fame) and The Royals
from St Louis. There were two groups from Siskovici
Yugoslavia and Janika Balaz (TAA Hall Of Fame) and
his tamburitza ensemble from Novi Sad.
A week of pure tamburitza artistry and our own Balkan
Serenaders-the pride of Western New York were selected
among the finest company of tamburitzan musicians
to represent our country-a monumental moment in tamburitza
history and it should NEVER be forgotten.
The Serenaders also found time to record two more
LP albums Sve Nase (ALL OURS) dedicated to the memory
of Nick Germanovich and Cabaret-a selection of The
Balkan Serenaders American repetoire. Both albums
were a success with songs like "U tom Somboru"
" Srem" "Kazi Kazi" and Vlads
outstanding leadership in the selection of songs on
both albums. The Cabaret album featuring Tillies fine
voice and style are incomparable and memorable-to
say the least for selections of "Sunrise Sunset"
"Beautiful Girl" and "My Way."
The Balkan Serenaders continued their "tour de
force" by playing at Kleinhans Music Hall for
the Shrine Chanter Concert Series.. There were the
night clubs, restaurants, hotels and so much more.
Over the years from 1972-1989 they amassed an unmatched
repetoire for Irish ,classics, ethnic, American and
international styles of music. They performed for
The Lancaster Opera House, and played for every major
ethnic community within Western N.Y. On St Patricks
day for many years The Balkan Serenaders played for
the South Buffalo Irish Center doing strictly Irish
music. Thinking of it-a tamburitza orchestra of Serbian
and Croatian musicians playing strictly Irish music-The
Serenaders did and the crowd LOVED it!
At present in March the American Serbian Club features
an Irish night serving Irish food (and has done so
for many years) and it has been customary for Irish
dancers to perform. The Serb Club has art paintings
of Vlad Popovich and Charlie Smilinich with Irish
/American Western New York personality Jim Brennan.
It is again--a testimony to the POWER of crossing
lines of ethnic nationality and communicating the
sounds of tamburitza music in a way that has created
friendships and love among friends and the community-in
ways undreamed of.
The Serenaders have over the years accompanied the
Kosta Monojlovich choir for continental nights that
were blockbuster events on the tamburitza scene. In
addition celebrity names accompanied by the Serenaders
over the years were Vinka, Angelina, Tosho Erdel and
Nada Milosevich. Donna Kokanovich is a local talent
who has had the accompaniment of The Balkan Serenaders
over the years.
The Serenaders have performed many years for Tamburitza
Extravaganza events from 1978 through this years event
at Harrisburgh PA that will see Steve Vranjes inducted
into the TAA Hall Of Fame October 2004. The Serenaders
belonged to the local musicians union-performed for
The Knox Family, The Buffalo Sabres Organization,
Performed for Mia Mulroney-wife of the Prime Minister
Of Canada-Executives like Alex Machaskee Publisher
of The Plain Dealer, and Bill Salatich President of
Northwest Gillette Corporation.. They have played
for Serbian and Croatian events east to west coast
throughout the United States and The Balkan Serenaders
name is synonymous with Tamburitza music on both a
national and local level.
It should be said that each man had a career-yet found
time to play on average 60-150 jobs per year as demand
varied. They also found time to teach-to record-to
organize and to perpetuate tamburitza music and they
gave to us their finest efforts. The results not only
in music but in the subsequent generations of musicians
speaks as a testimony to the efforts of Tille Klaich
and The Balkan Serenaders.
The Tamburitza world was rocked on October 1, 1989
with the death of Nicholas "Tillie" Klaich
In the 60s and even now-we called Tillie "The
Man". When I was a kid I was captivated by the
sounds of The Balkan Serenaders and listening to Klaich
and Smilinich sing was like stepping into "heaven"
if but for a moment. Tillie-was one of a kind and
there will never be another like him. Whether he was
pounding out tunes on bass-or singing to the crowd
with his bugarija in hand-no one did it better and
no one sang the old tunes at the bar the way Tillie
did. One of the local restaurants in Lackawanna (
JJs-Corner of Ridge and Abbott in Lackawanna)) even
had a mural on their wall for many years of Tillie
serenading with his bugarija in hand. (I would love
to know if a photo of that is still in existence and
if so-with a copy-I will publish it on this website).
Tillies passing left a huge void-one that we still
feel 15 years later. I was recently talking to Don
Milosevich -a lifelong friend and tamburash as we
were sitting on a Friday night after jamming for about
three hours and Tillies name came up in the context
of conversation and Don said it best-" We still
miss him and we still love him-it still hurts".
At Duquesne University "The Tillie Klaich Endowment
Fund" was established by Vlad Popovich and Alex
Machaskee as a tribute to Tillies contributions to
tamburitza music. For information go to the following
He was in effect one of the leading pioneers of tamburitza
music in North America-in short-a man of LEGENDARY
stature and status.
I remember a night back in the mid 80s at St Stephens
when the St. Stephens tamburitzans were performing
and I said to Tillie"does it remind you of the
old days" he said to me-"You bet it does
Kum-because I was there!" You dont realize
a statement like that had nearly 50 years of living
in it-only now does his statement hit me with its
I'm reminded of a time in the late 90's when I took
a bus trip to Ohio with members & friends of The
American Serbian Club in Tonawanda. We were taking
one of those trips organized so well by Mr Alex Machaskee(
publisher of The Plain Dealer, TAA Hall of Fame member
and Continental Strings tamburash) where you travel-sightsee-eat-drink-play
tambura-wake up the next day and do it all over again
while meeting friends from the Ohio area. This has
been occurring annually for nearly 20 years between
friends of Cleveland Ohio and Western New York.
one of those annual trips to Ohio-we had done our
sightseeing-had our meals and played for 3-4 hours.
Its time to head for the hotel. As the bus pulls out
and were leaving-the bus driver turns on the music
system and Tillies voice was unmistakeable-"Dont
Look So Sad I Know Its Over" "For The Good
Times" was playing and you could hear a pin drop
as the bus wheels on a silent night rolled over the
highway. I saw many of us wiping tears from our eyes
and yes we had that lump in our throat-I know I did-and
we remembered-one -of -our -own.
I discussed that very moment in time with a young
Marko Wuslich in his early 20s who made that trip
and if the moment struck him as it did me with its
impact-we werent alone. What impressed me about this
moment was Marko mentioned it first-like a confirmation
of a thought process-and I brought it to you because
some moments in time are meant to be captured and-remembered.
I have mentioned so many places that we as tamburashi
have played over the years. There is one more place
that tamburashi take their instruments to. It is usually
reserved for a cherished tamburash and someone who
understands tamburitza music will understand my next
comments. It is the one place that tamburashi dont
want to take their instruments to-because it is sacred
and hallowed ground and it is done out of respect.
is to the gravesite of a beloved tamburash. I was
there at Tillies funeral and it was painful as the
tamburashi present took out their instruments to play
"The Farewell Song." Ive had my instruments
at the gravesites of tamburash and I can tell you
this with absolute certainty--no words-can convey
the feeling that goes through you. The first time
I ever played at the gravesite of a beloved tamburash-I
shook uncontrollably and if emotion was agony-trying
to play and sing-may seem an impossibility-yet you
find what it takes-to pay your respects to your fallen
musician-gone to the great Tamburitza Orchestra In
The Sky-and you look at "The Open Chair"
left by an irreplaceable soul.
So it was with Tillie-amd many other tamburitzan musicians
over the years .Once I asked Tillie how he did it-as
he was playing shortly after the passing of a sibling-
and how he got through it all? He turned and looked
me straight in the eye and said "Hey kum-thats
show biz" and in a moment he was doing what he
did best-singing to the crowds that loved him for
the size of his heart.
Even with Tillies death-the Serenaders did what many
thought was impossible-The Serenaders did reorganize
again with Chuck on bass- Charlie Smilinich returned
to play bugarija-Popovich on brac and Vranjes on cello.
They played for three years from 1989-1992. Steve
Vranjes played his last job with The Balkan Serenaders
in 1992 and after 47 years as a Serenader and 50 years
as a tamburash-it was time for him to retire. I have
a tape of a portion of that performance and The Serenaders
had an excellent sound.
The Serenaders decided "one more once" as
Tillie would say and in 1992 yours truly Ray "Rajko"
Ranic TBL and your web site host-(at age 39-27 years
after I began to play tambura) got the nod to become
the lead brac and prim player of "Tillie Klaichs
Balkan Serenders"- I played cello my first job
for Irish nite.(That almost sounds humorous if you
think about it a bit!) WE didnt stop and picked up
Rudy Kristich who played second brac from 1993-2002.
Today as of 2004 The Balkan Serenaders are four men
strong (Popovich-Smilinich-Vukovic and Ranic)and have
over the last 12 years since Tillies passing played
for weddings-dances festivals-extravaganzas-Irish
nite events and concerts in the United States and
Canada. One of my favorite performances was "The
First Sundays At Four" program and we did a complete
concert of international classics. My first wedding
that I performed with the Serenaders started at 5:30
on a Saturday afternoon and had Smilinich trying to
get that "one more song" in and it was 3:30
AM. Forget age and being tired-we were having fun!
There are still those weekly Friday nite jam sessions
much of the time and were still learning new songs
and keeping the spirit of tamburitza music alive.
As you walk into the American Serbian Club in Tonawanda
in its main hall you will see a one-of-a kind work
by Sam Mondich who installed a stained glass window.
The figures are unmistakable. Left to right-Chuck
Vukovic-Steve Vranjes-Tillie Klaich and Vlad Popovich
have their own "shrine" of sorts as a testimony
to the groups popularity.
In a corner of the bar area are two round tables 60ish
in style next to a juke box with songs in it from
decades past both American and tamburitzan. It is
around these tables that friendships have been made
and the camraderie and bond of Tamburashi past and
present are forged in the music that we share. It
is an exclusive club of musicians in its own right-yet
the doors are wide open to anyone with an instrument
playing tamburitza music.
Once in the late 70's I received a call from Tillie
to bring my instrument and come to the club. We didnt
sit around the juke box tables as we normally did--we
stood at the bar all night. I remember we played until
after 4 AM. Tillie did something Ive never seen
duplicated by anyone. Hed start off each song with
"its (1955 in Cleveland and theres Dave and George"Blimp"
Zupkovich and Lardy-lets go Ej Bono Jano".and
we would play the song. He would pause-then pick another
era in time-and describe the names and wed play another
song. When the evening was over-I figured out that
all the times in the past that he picked and all the
songs we sang were in memory of DECEASED friends and
Tamburashi .An unforgettable evening more than 25
years ago! He did it on other occasions as well.
On the walls at "The Club" hang photos of
eras in time that have passed. The photos are of musicians
and friends over the years- some sadly not with us-while
others are moments caught in time-usually surrounded
by the lively sounds of tamburas! As I look back-The
American Serbian Club- where I first went as a young
teen-holds the spirit and memories of times past-and
those yet to come-It is and always will be the home
of Tillie Klaich and The Balkan Serenaders.
In 1984 Nicholas "Tillie " Klaich was inducted
into the Tamburitza Association of America Hall of
Fame. The first TAA Hall Of Fame recipient in Western
New York History and deservedly so. In 1987 Charlie
Smilinich was inducted. In 1993 Vlad Popovich was
inducted and in 1993 The Balkan Serenaders received
the prestigious "Presidents Award" for their
lifetime contribution to the preservation and elevation
of Tamburitza music. As stated before in October of
2004 Steve Vranjes-the last of the four original Balkan
Serenaders will be inducted into the TAA Hall Of Fame.
All the members of The Balkan Serenaders that made
the album "A Continental Toast:" will be
forever enshrined in the TAA Hall Of Fame. As it should
be-their work and dedication has paved the road for
the "Next generation" to carry on the "torch
of tamburitza music."
In my earlier comments I had stated it took a Giant
of a man to lift the Tamburtza world onto his shoulders
like an ATLAS and lay the foundation of Tambura music
for the Western NY community-TILLIE KLAICH was THAT
kind of man.
website section is dedicated to the memory of Nicholas
"Tillie" Klaich with gratitude to The Balkan
Serenaders known today as "Tillie Klaichs Balkan
Serenaders". My thanks to them for their contributions
to the history of tamburitza music in Western New
York and so much more. On the subsequect pages you
will find the Tamburitza Association Hall Of Fame
write-ups and additional sections on general tamburitza
history and much more with photos and articles as
is available to the website. This is a perpetual site-your
support, (historical and financial) help and input
are welcomed and needed.
My final comments regarding Tillie come from his obituary
published by the Tamburitza Association Of America.
As published in the Tamburitza Times "NICK "TILLIE"
KLAICH-A MAN AND HIS MUSIC."
Oddly on Friday evening September 29,(1989) the usual
compliment of musicians was not present. The jam session
went on as usual with 4 musicians. He was to play
his final performance with none other- than his original
Fate-perhaps-and the final line from the TAA in Tillies
Hall Of Fame Write-up in 1984 stated it best:
"He is in so many ways-MR. TAMBURA"
Balkan Serenaders-Highlights, Awards and Accomplishments
1952- Three 78s recorded
1966 "A Continental Toast" recorded and
entered into Tha American Library Of Congress
1975- Steve Vranjes receives "Parishoner Of The
1975-1983- 3 LP Albums released "Continentally
Yours" "Sve Nase" and "Cabaret"
1984 Nicholas "Tillie" Klaich inducted into
the Tamburitza Of America Association Hall Of Fame
1987 Charlie Smilinich inducted into the Tamburitza
Of America Association Hall Of Fame
1993 Vlad Popovich inducted into the Tamburitza Of
America Association Hall Of Fame
1993 The Balkan Serenaders receive "The Presidents
Award" from The TAA for Lifetime Achievement
1996 Vlad Popovich 50 year award presented by the
1997 Ray "Rajko"Ranic received The Presidents
Award for his original work on "Messiahs Rhapsody"
2000 Vlad Popovich received The Presidents Award from
2002 Charlie Smilinich received his 75 year Award
from the TAA
2002 Vlad Popovich Honoree 7th Annual Arizona Slavic
2004 Steve Vranjes Inductee into the Tamburitza Association
Of America Hall Of Fame
closing comment regards the tamburitza community of
Serbian and Croatian performers in the Western New
York area. The following groups have played or continue
to play within the tamburitza community:
The Balkan Serenaders
The Smilinich Brothers Tamburitza Orchestra
Veselo Srce Tamburitzans
St. Stephens Tamburitzans
The Blue Water Tamburitzans
Kumovi Tamburitza Orchestra
The Slav Serenaders
Ruzmarin Tamburitza Orchestra
Friday Night Jam sessions at the American Serbian
ALL tamburitza orchestras in the Western New York
area past-present and future-owe a HUGE debt of gratitude
to Nicholas "Tillie" Klaich. He is the founder
of tamburitza music (from my perspective)in Western
New York and our world has never been the same. The
lifetime contributions of The Balkan Serenaders are
second to none.
should be noted that it took an extraordinary effort
on the part of these fine musicians to dedicate their
lives to the higher pursuit of Balkan Tamburitza music
and the Serenaders raised the bar quite high. Their
unmatched American repetoire made it possible to communicate
to people of all socio-economic and ethnic/nationality
levels. They have been an inspiration in my life ever
since I was a young boy-hopefully The Balkan Lion
will be able to continue the efforts of promoting
and elevating tamburitza music by performance-by writing
and communicating the importance of this music -musical
programs and so much more.
There is much to write about and it is not possible
to cover all the names, personalities and history
that have given much back to the Serbian and Croatian
communities and more at this time. Thats why this
site will be perpetual and on-going. Your help-support
and passion for chronicling Western New York Tamburitza
history in photos-recordings and articles is important
and needed. During my comments there are times when
I may add personal comments. It is not meant to take
away from information-but to deliver facts and figures-and
leave out the FEELING-I believe I would be leaving
out the depth and character of those special moments
in time as I remember them or they are passed onto
me by others.
I hope you have a sense of what it took for Tillie
Klaich and the tamburitza community to come together
and grow. Thank YOU for visiting this website. I truly
hope you enjoyed this walk with me through "Tamburitza
Time And History In Western New York" as you
read this information provided for your education
Sincerely and Hvala,
Ray "Rajko" Ranic "THE BALKAN LION"