I learned that Milan Opacich, tamburitza musician and luthier passed away Monday morning (January 21, 2013) at his home in Schererville, Indiana. Many folklorists who worked in Indiana will be familiar with his work, he was a key collaborator in the Gary Project and was featured by Richard Dorson in his classic Land of the Millrats. In 2004, he was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship. The son of a Croatian mother (Roza) and a Serbian father (Mile), Milan Opacich was born in Gary, Indiana in 1928. Religious and political conflicts between Serbians and Croatians were persistent when he was growing up in the Calumet Region, which is home to one of the largest Serbo-Croatian communities in the United States. His blended heritage positioned Milan on the cultural boundary between both communities, where his family bore the brunt of ethnic and religious prejudice. His mother was not allowed to worship with the Croatian Catholics, because she had married a Serbian. His father chose not to worship at the Serbian Orthodox Church, because they did not accept Milan’s mother. While religious and ethnic differences divided his community, Milan used music, art and stories to bring together his family and friends and combat the discrimination that he faced.
Living within this large enclave of South Slavic immigrants, Milan heard the music of tamburitza orchestras playing at neighborhood gatherings. Tambura and gusles leaned in corners of living rooms or hung on walls, as symbols of national and ethnic identity. At around four-years of age, he remembered playing with an old prima at the house of a Gary couple, until its owner scolded him. The tambura was musically, materially, and symbolically a persistent part of his early life.Though he grew up during the Depression, Milan’s parents encouraged his interest in music and building instruments. He recalled,
So my dad, (who was quite a craftsman in his own right) fashioned me a prima out of plywood and strung it up with rubber bands. And I watched this whole procedure. And I think somewhere in the back of my mind, he created this desire for me to be able to do this.
In addition to the tamburitza music he heard at community gatherings, country music flowed into his home from Chicago radio stations. By eighteen, he had taught himself to play guitar, and formed a country band called the Opossum Holler Ramblers, which featured four youths playing guitars, electric mandolin, and washtub bass. Despite his interest in country music, Milan started a tamburitza band called the Continentals, which employed a mix of experienced Serbian, Croatian and Irish musicians. The eclectic band “played music of all nationalities, pop tunes, even a few country songs.” Milan liked playing tamburitza; while club owners usually paid the country band in beer, the tamburitza musicians were tipped well by listeners who wanted to hear music that reflected their ethnic and national identities. For more than fifty years, Milan played tamburitza music, much of it with the ethnically diverse Drina Orchestra, which provided music at social clubs, weddings and festivals throughout the Chicago-land area. When Milan retired from the orchestra in 2006, the band was still ethnically blended: three of his bandmates had Serbian fathers and three had Croatian fathers. Milan commented about the diversity of his group, “Only in America could this happen.” Through choosing a varied repertoire of songs and assembling an ethnically mixed band, Milan worked for decades to heal his community, while still embracing his Serbo-Croatian identity through tamburitza.
Milan’s story is the story of the power of the arts to overcome life’s hardships. His instruments have been exhibited at both the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution and at the Roy Acuff Museum. In 2002 he was named to the Tamburitza Association of America Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow; he was Indiana’s only living recipient of this prestigious award. In 1976 and 2007 he was an invited artist to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Again in 2012, he was planned to demonstrate at the Smithsonian, but due to health related issues was unable to attend. Milan Opacich will be missed by many. He is survived by his wife Roz and daughter Karin Opacich.
I was blessed to call him a good friend, who taught me much. I produced a documentary about Milan with Anders Lund several years ago called the Birth of a Prima. Milan also helped me build my first (and only) guitar. A great man, who will be missed.