For those of you who have never seen anything of Croatian folklore or examined Croatia’s anthropology and ethnology, it might seem like a really modest area (due to the small size of Croatia) compared to some other world regions famous for its tradition and music, like South America, Asia or Africa. But, oh boy, you’re wrong! Croats are one of the oldest cultural groups in Europe. Today’s Croatia is placed on the crossroads of traditional European and exotic oriental civilization, with strong ancient Slavic, Mediterranean, central and eastern European influences.
Since the early centuries, as ancient Croatian tribes moved across Europe, they adopted characteristics and traditions from many other regions. Also, throughout the history, Croats came in contact with many neighbors, nomads, and invaders and took part of numerous empires, monarchies, and kingdoms.
The result is that Croatian culture today is characterized by exceptional diversity. That diversity is particularly evident in the wealth and variety of Croatian folklore music, dances, and costumes. Croatian folklore has a richness that still captivates domestic and international audiences.
Ecological and climate conditions and the influences of the cultures with which the Croats have come into contact throughout the history – Turkish, Roman, Greek, Hungarian, Austrian, German, (Mediterranean, Central European, Ancient Balkan, Oriental, etc.), have resulted in the development of three specific regional cultures: Pannonian, Dinaric and Adriatic.
Croatia has 13 cultural elements inscribed in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage:
- two-part singing and playing in the Istrian scale (Istria and Croatian Primorje)
- the Festival of St. Blaise, patron saint of Dubrovnik (3 February)
- the annual spring procession of the Kraljice or Ljelje from Gorjani
- the annual Carnival procession of the Kastav bellmen
- the Za Križen procession on the island of Hvar (Holy Week)
- traditional manufacturing of children’s wooden toys in the region of Zagorje
- the Sinjska Alka, a knights’ tournament in Sinj
- the gingerbread crafts in northern Croatia
- Bećarac singing and playing from Slavonia, Baranja, and Srijem
- the Nijemo Kolo (Silent Reel) of the Dalmatian hinterland
- Klapa singing
- Ojkanje singing.
I have to warn you I am not a real expert on theory – my knowledge on this matter is based on pure experience, huge personal interest, and long-term practice. Also, you have to be aware of the fact that Croatian folklore is too rich, complex, diverse and vast for just one simple article like this one. It would be simply impossible to mention and thoroughly examine just every little detail of it, so, guys, please continue reading and definitely expect the sequel to this theme!
National Costumes – Priceless Pieces of Art and History
The diversity of Croatian folklore is also evident in the traditional Croatian costumes or nošnje. Croatia has an unusually big range of different costumes. Although there are some common characteristics visible in all Croatian national costumes, each region (and in many cases even every district, even every town or village in the same district), has its own original embroidery, designs, materials, and colour combinations, as well as its own dances, songs, rituals and different costumes. Multicolored threads, skilled handwork, and unique fabrics are used to create what is not only clothing but pieces of art and history.
Croatian national costumes can be divided into three types: costumes of the interior, costumes in the mountains and near the cost, costumes on the coast and islands. Regardless of the area they come from, national costumes are made at home and from natural materials, and their beauty depends on the wealth of the family that wears them and the occasion, of course. Besides everyday costumes, there are also special festive costumes worn on special occasions like weddings, catholic holidays, annual feasts, etc. There are also the so-called golden costumes that are decorated with gold threads – zlatovez in Slavonia Region. They are known for its extreme value.
National costumes are considered an integral part of a nation’s culture and heritage and a family heirloom, treasure and pride. Most of the costumes and parts of the costumes you can see today are well preserved and authentic originals. In most cases, they are a part of the family heirloom and some of them are 150-200 years old.
Music and dances – symbol of united strength of Croatian people
The richness and a wide variety of dance styles, including the accompanying songs, music, and instruments which can be examined only after exploring the specific characteristics of each region. Central European cultural influences were of crucial importance for lowland and central Croatia as well as for its Mediterranean part. The mountainous region of Croatia fell under Southeast European and Oriental (Balkan) influences.
Dancing tradition mainly includes the wheel dances and the dances performed in the past with certain ritual meaning at traditional annual events such as Catholic holidays, family events, particularly weddings and specific jobs like harvest. Folk dances also vary according to music accompaniment – they can be without it, as the soundless wheel dances with vocal accompaniment, as the so-called šetano kolo, or they can be accompanied by vocals and instruments or only instruments. According to the number of dancers, the wheel dance can be solo, in twos, threes, or fours and can be open or closed.
The “tamburica” is a common expression for all instruments that exist in a tamburica string orchestra. Tamburica is an instrument with strings, closely related to the Russian balalaika and the Italian mandolin. Prim (bisernica) is the smallest instrument in a tamburica-orchestra with very high, fine sound and it plays the first or highest voice of a musical piece. Brač is a little larger than the bisernica, but it produces a deeper sound than the bisernica. This instrument usually plays the main melody of a song. Bugarija is very similar in shape, size, and tuning to a guitar, but it has fewer strings and it plays only chords. Berda (bass) is the largest instrument in a tamburica-orchestra played while standing.
Other traditional instruments worth mentioning are definitely bagpipes (gajde), folk instruments made from animal skins and lijerica – three-stringed bowed instruments played in Dubrovnik area and some parts of Herzegovina. There’s also a cimbal – an instrument found in folk groups in regions/parts near the Hungarian border (Međimurje and Podravina). The sopile is an old traditional instrument similar to today’s oboe and it can be found in the areas of Istria, Island of Krk and Kvarner.
The Pannonian – river and lowland region
The Pannonian cultural zone has always been known for grain, vegetables and corn growing as well as for breeding larger domestic animals (horses, cattle). That affected its customs, traditions, costumes and feasts. Annual processions of young people through the village on feast days, collecting gifts, were common (kraljice or ljelje, ladarice, betlehemari on Christmas Eve, etc.), as were lavish wedding customs.
Music and dance traditions also varied greatly. Međimurje is unique for its specific form of unison singing based on medieval scales. The instruments played there were cimbalom and violin, to which couples would dance (the influence of the Alpine zone). The most famous dance in northwest and central Croatia was the drmeš. Reel dancing was characteristic in Slavonia and Baranja, accompanied by bagpipes (gajde), folk instruments made from animal skins, which by the 20th century had mainly been replaced by the tambura.
The most popular, and prevalent, folk dance in Croatia is kolo, a circle dance. These dances, either in the city or the village are usually accompanied with instrumental music, usually featuring the Croatian national instrument the tamburica, and singing. Over hundreds of years, the kolo has symbolized the united strength and lively spirit of the Croatian people.
Now, concerning costumes of the Pannonian zone, women wore beautiful, rich necklaces made out of coral beads and in Slavonia, out of gold coins. Feet are covered with flat shoes called “opanci” or with boots that are worn in northern parts. As you can see, women’s costumes are decorated with floral and animal motives, decorative silk ribbons and bows, lace work, gold or silver jewelry, corals, necklaces, and pearls. Hair is interwoven into one or two braids and decorated with red ribbons for women that are unmarried, while wedded women wear high braided buns and woven or silk kerchiefs over it, on their heads. Costumes of brides consisted of a crown and a lot of jewelry.
Especially famous and nationally and internationally attractive are traditional, doll-like costumes of Bizovac Area in Slavonia.
The Dinarian – mountain region
In the Dinaric cultural zone (highland Croatia and the Dalmatian hinterland) shepherds spent the summers in the mountains with large flocks of sheep or goat, and in winter, moved them to the coastal areas. Since there are many sheep in the mountainous areas, wool is the basic material for making national costumes. Due to cold winters and harsh climate, national costumes consist, apart from linen and wool, of fur, and of thick vests, coats, and cloaks. Darker colors are dominating on male and female costumes (black, brown, red, purple, dark blue and dark green).
Both men and women wear embroidered red hats, sometimes having a peacock feather that is believed to protect from evil and spells with its colorful eye. Belts, aprons and blue dresses for married women and white for unmarried are worn over the long women’s blouses with geometric motifs. They always wear silver jewelry, hairpins, earrings, silver coins and so on. Men normally tie red belts around their waists and use them to hold their guns. Winter accessories are made of lamb fur.
The musical tradition was characterized by a specific type of singing, ojkanje. The typical dance was the nijemo kolo – Silent Reel, which was performed in large steps and leaps with no musical accompaniment whatsoever.
The Adriatic – coast and island region
In the Adriatic cultural zone, the population was engaged in fishing and cultivating olives, vines, figs and almonds. Shipping and trade were historically very important. Adriatic houses were made of stone and their elegant and elite costumes, dances and tradition developed from their urban milieus. So, basically, we consider them ”urban”, ”city” dances.
At Christmas and the New Year, it was customary to process through the streets, greeting the neighbors with songs (koledanje). The Carnival customs were widespread, too. Klapa singing is considered to be a particular characteristic of Dalmatian folk music – male singing in small groups with no musical accompaniment.
Rural dances, such as linđo, were accompanied by ljerica – three-stringed bowed instruments, while in the towns by guitars or mandolins. The traditional music of Istria and the Croatian Primorje were characterized by chromatic scales, upon which songs and music played on sopele, (wood instruments with piercing, almost uncomfortable tones) were based.
Women on the coast wear long skirts/dresses with an exception of the Island of Susak where woman mini-skirts were worn. National costumes from Dubrovnik are richly decorated with gold embroidery on men’s vests and trousers, while women wear fine jewelry: earrings, luxurious necklaces and hair clips.
Fun Fact Alert!
Along with many amateur folklore groups, the only Croatian professional national Ensemble Lado is particularly dedicated to nurturing the Croatian folk tradition. National Folk Dance Ensemble of Croatia Lado was established in 1948. and ever since then it represents the rich and diverse regional musical and choreographic traditions of Croatia. The ensemble consists of 37 dancers who also sing while they perform and a group of 15 musicians who play traditional and classical instruments. They had toured all around the world and they have numerous albums, rewards, performances, TV appearings and various dancing and singing projects behind them (and surely, in front of them, too!). Feel free to visit Lado’s page , start following it on social media and enjoy its art!
You should definitely check out the Croatian amateur/student folklore group – FA SKUD Ivan Goran Kovačić, too! Folklore Ensemble ”Ivan Goran Kovačić” was founded in 1948 under the auspices of the University of Zagreb. Devoted to traditional music, songs, and dances, the Ensemble gradually created an integral collection of choreographed folk dances from all parts of Croatia, brought to realization by researchers of folk tradition from all around Croatia. The great treasury of the Ensemble and one particularly valued, are more than 500 individual pieces of traditional costumes from various parts of Croatia. Most of these costumes are genuine pieces of traditional clothing with an estimated museum value. Find out more about it on their Facebook page and discover where you can enjoy their performances!
As you can see, Croatians have continued to honor their culture by practicing and preserving Croatian traditions and folklore. Actually, it has its own scene and it is considered to be quite popular in Croatia, compared to the underestimated folklore scene in the rest of the world. Lively music, melodic voices, intricate dance steps, and vivid, colorful costumes will blend harmoniously to offer the audience an audio-visual feast for their eyes, ears and souls. So, open your eyes, listen carefully and let Croatian folklore capture your soul.