When I am feeling deadened by the toll of fibro on my body and weighed down by all the obligations of life, I fall back into the comfort and inspiration of music. Today, I broke my latest writer’s block with a souvenir from Croatia – a CD of the klapa group Cambi.
Through the harmonizing of Croatian klapa, I reconnected with a time and place from a year ago – standing within the remnants of the Roman emperor Diocletian’s palace on the shores of Dalmatia as a local klapa group performed for the tourists. Just like that, no worry, fatigue or pain could touch me; it was a distant throb beyond the veil of musical time travel. The swell of harmonizing voices, the rumble of the bass in my gut, the weaving of stories of heartache, loss, love and triumph in a language I did not understand but that still whispered to my soul – for the length of a 40-minute compact disc I relived my too-brief time in Split, Croatia on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.
Klapa is a form of folk-singing indigenous to the region of Dalmatia, located on the coast of Croatia. It is a compelling mix of medieval monastic music, local story-telling, and more recent Mediterranean influences. Traditionally sung by men in acappella, klapa focuses on pure chords and harmonizing. There is an improvisational element, as each voice follows the lead of the first tenor, with the goal of achieving perfect harmony as they sing about love, life, and the local gossip.
To the American ear, klapa at first sounds like our Norman Rockwell-esque version of the barbershop quartet, but klapa is so much more. It started in the Middle Ages as the Reformation and the Catholic Church’s Counter Reformation grappled for the soul of Europe. As secular language began to filter inside the walls of the cathedrals of Christian Europe, this language, as well as local oral traditions of storytelling, mixed with the monastic music of the church, especially the tradition of harmonizing chords, such as Gregorian chants. Klapa was born. As Croatia experienced centuries of foreign rule, conquest, and threats from outside by the Venetians, Ottoman Turks, and Hapsburg Empire, klapa became a subversive way to lament the hardships of the Croatian people, as well as explore the birth of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, klapa continues its tradition of innovation, by adapting beats and influences from the Mediterranean regions, including pop music. At various times, klapa reminded me of an enticing and salty mix of Gregorian chants, barbershop quartet, Latin pop music, and crooning ballads. It is ever changing and adaptive.
There are klapa festivals and competitions all over Croatia today, but while I was unable to attend any in my short stay, I was privileged to stumble across a local klapa group inside the grand domed entrance of Diocletian’s palace. Somehow it was a perfect harmony of moments and space in which to swell with the music of the Croatian people. The chords reverberated off the eons-old stones of a Roman palace up into the sky where the ceiling of an emperor’s home once stood. As I let the harmony envelop me, I contemplated how the people of the city of Split had built and rebuilt their city many times in the midst of the palace’s foundations. Just as I could turn a corner in a tiny medieval lane and stumble upon a forgotten and forlorn Roman mosaic floor in the path, so could I imagine that in the corners of the chords, I could hear centuries of stories that the Croatian soul has to tell. That is the power of klapa.
Enjoy the video I took on my camera of a klapa group while in Diocletian’s palace in Split, Croatia.