Tamburaški Sastav Ponoć represents a new generation of brilliant players of tamburitza music, the traditional string band music of the Balkans. Tamburitza music has flourished for over a century in ethnic communities across the industrial Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest where Eastern European immigrants flocked to work in the region’s factories and mines. Until recently, it has had limited exposure beyond these communities. But that is changing as this cadre of virtuosic young musicians bring tamburitza out of neighborhood taverns and community halls and onto concert stages across America and the world.
Tamburitza instruments have been played in the Balkans for at least 500 years. The five primary ones are the prim, brač, čelo, bugarija, and berda, all fretted, steel-stringed acoustic instruments in the lute family, as are mandolins and guitars. The smallest of them, the prim, is a soprano instrument employed primarily for melody or harmony. Next is the brač, an alto-voiced instrument twice as large as the prim that is used for melody, harmony, or counterpoint. The čelo plays counter melody. Unlike an orchestral cello, it is held like a guitar and picked rather than bowed. The bugarija (or kontra) is similar to the čelo in size and design; it provides rhythmic chording. The berda is a fretted bass and, like the čelo, played with a pick rather than a bow.
The members of Ponoć (“midnight”) grew up surrounded by Eastern European culture, Peter Kosovec in Detroit and Mark Stafura, Ben Wagner, Nikola Vranesevic, and John Huckle in the Pittsburgh area. Peter, Mark, Ben, and Nikola come from families heavily involved with maintaining Balkan music and dance traditions in their communities. Peter released his first solo album by age 17, cementing his place as one of the finest young primaši of the tradition. Mark’s father was the longtime director of the famed Duquesne University Tamburitzans (DUT). John was a latecomer to tamburitza, joining the Junior Tamburitzans of Duquesne at age 16, but he was already an accomplished jazz trumpeter. The five musicians met when performing with DUT during their college years in Pittsburgh. They all now make their homes there and are respected performers and teachers of the tradition. Peter, Mark, Ben, and Nikola have all been honored with the Lou Cavic Founder’s Award, presented by the Tamburitza Association of America to a young person who demonstrates an outstanding devotion to the preservation of tamburitza music and Slavic culture.
While in DUT, all five members of Ponoć studied multiple instruments in the tamburitza family; in this sastav (“ensemble”) audiences will see Peter on prim, John and Mark on first and second brač, Ben on kontra, and Nikola on berda. The ensemble’s repertoire focuses primarily on music from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. However, in their performances they also draw on Gypsy, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, and Italian influences.