This song takes me back to some of my first experiences in the Balkans. In 2010, I enrolled in a summer course in Dubrovnik, Croatia, knowing nothing about where I was going or what I was about to learn, and it changed my life completely. Ten years later, I’m still writing about the Balkans, still listening to songs from the Adriatic coast.
I first heard klapa music live when Danny, my friend and collaborator, and I took a vacation to Zadar. One night, on a stroll through the old town, we came upon two klapa groups, singing a cappella in a cobblestoned square. Despite a hugely embarrassing tourist who insisted on disrupting the singers, the music was perfect. We were full of good food and rakija and sun and sea salt and then music wafted across the square and it felt like a dream. I sang a cappella in college, so I have a soft spot for vocal harmonies unburdened by instrumentation. We stayed there and listened to them sing about love and the sea until they finished their set and left the square.
Obviously, this is the feeling the tourism board of Zadar wants you to have. Croatia’s coast has emerged as a global tourist hotspot in recent years, and capitalizing on certain elements of its cultural heritage have been a part of commercializing the country. In addition to rakija and lavender and folk embroidered fabrics, one should certainly take home memories of klapa music.
The ills of modern society aside, klapa music is beautiful. Although traditionally a cappella, it can also be sung with instruments, and today’s recordings usually do feature mandolins, guitars, and basses. Detailed information can be found in this ethnomusicology article from Joško Ćaleta. Sung in a major key with themes of love, town gossip, homeland, and/or the sea, these songs exude the atmosphere of the Dalmatian coast like juice from an orange. [Side note, and something worth further exploration: In 2013, Croatia selected a "klapa" song as its Eurovision entry with the song “Mižerja,” ("Misery") performed by the klapa “supergroup” Klapa s mora (Klapa from the sea). I say "klapa" because the song utilizes the klapa style, but seems far from what most would call klapa. The fascinating output, complete with nautical-looking costumes, placed 32nd in the overall ranking.]
The song we will discuss today from Velika Narodna Lira is “Daleko mi je biser Jadrana,” or “The pearl of the Adriatic is far from me.”
Daleko mi je biser Jadrana,
Daleko mi je moj rodni kraj,
A još je dalje moja mila draga,
Koju sam vjerno ljubio ja!
Ja morem plovim, zvjezdice brojim
I stalno mislim na rodni kraj.
U nadi živim mladosti puna,
Da l’ ću te ikad vidjeti ja!...
The pearl of the Adriatic is far from me,
My hometown is far from me,
And still further is my dear darling,
Who I faithfully loved!
I must sail, I count the stars,
And I constantly think of my hometown.
In hope I live, full of youth,
Will I ever see you?...
This song hits many of the key klapa themes: longing for love and homeland, and, of course, the sea. The singer is a sailor who must sail far away from his woman and his hometown—Dubrovnik is usually called the “pearl of the Adriatic,” so this might be the specific hometown the song is referring to, but I can’t be sure since YouTube users seem to think a lot of different towns are “the pearl of the Adriatic,” and really, I’m willing to let anyone from the Dalmatian coast call their town a pearl.
We can hear Klapa Šibenik, in the most popular version on YouTube, perform the typical four-part harmony, accompanied by mandolins, guitar, and contrabass. It’s impossible to miss their very classical vocal performance and the vibrato sung by each voice part. The group adds some additional verses along the same themes.
Klapa groups were traditionally male, with women singing klapa in a less formal context in the past; today, both men and women sing klapa, but usually in single-gender groups. This song has mostly been recorded by men, but a few woman recorded the song: one is Tereza Kesovija, in 1982 on her album Sinoć Kad Sklopih Oči. It’s a chilled, legato, very ‘80s take on the song.
There are a ton of different recordings, many of which can be found on YouTube and on other streaming services. There are even some live versions by amateur klapa groups. What I love about this song is the melody—it sounds like a boat rocking in the waves, rocking me to sleep. In particular, I love when the melody glides up on the third beat of each measure, and then comes back down over the course of the final two beats, and on the second and fourth line of each verse instead of going straight down the scale as it does in the first and third lines it jumps a third. It has this very lulling feeling.
The song is usually attributed as a traditional song without an author or a location of origin. There seem to be some who attribute the song to Vjekoslav Knežević, but I could not confirm whether this was true. Most of Knežević’s other songs seem to be attributed to him in discographies and the like, but this song was not.
It’s well worth exploring the different versions of the song to hear slightly different arrangements of the instrumentation and to hear how different vocal timbres bring out different elements of the harmony. I particularly like the version I’ve included on my Spotify playlist, from Toni Kljaković and Grupa Dalmatinaca Petra Tralica. But listen only if you’re sure you can handle feeling a great longing for the sea!
You can find a collection of all the songs from Velika Narodna Lira that are available on Spotify on my playlist.