A few weeks ago, I went to see a performance of klapa at the Croatian Museum of Natural History. I’m not sure what I was expecting – maybe a Capella sung from within the ribcage of a long dead brachiosaurus? A choir of stuffed dodos? Getting down and dirty with dusty fossils? I suppose I didn’t expect to watch a fat man get dressed followed by a harmonica-playing Hellboy.
Klapa is a traditional from of choral singing that originates in Dalmatia. The word itself translates as ‘group of friends’. The group we saw had 7 singers, but groups can have from 4 to 12 members.
My usual musical experiences are of the electronic, rock and metal variety, so my impression of the singers reveals more about my own cultural background than their abilities. First there was the creepy guy from Green Wing. Next on stage was Hellboy who used a small harmonica to set the key for the group before each song. The bass was a fat Benicio Del Toro who spent the interval stalking up and down the lobby chomping on a cigar – perhaps this keeps his voice in shape. The lead singer, the tenor, was a small eager man who looked like he might be an Anglican vicar from a Northern English village.
The venue itself was beautiful. The Croatian Museum of Natural History is an old and noble building at the top of a steep narrow cobblestone street, and the small courtyard is well-suited for live performance. I didn’t notice it, but apparently the floor is tiled with a map of Croatia. It’s an outdoor venue under the stars, but the high walls of the courtyard and the surrounding colonnade create really nice acoustics. And like all Croatian museums, it thankfully has a bar.
The performance started off really entertaining. As they walked up on stage the exceptionally fat baritone decided to put on his cummerbund. He didn’t quite get it on by the top of the stairs and he had to duck to a discreet corner of the stage to finish the operation. No one knew whether it was polite or not to give a little giggle… on the one hand, performance in a museum. On the other… a dishevelled man doing up his cummerbund on stage…
And so to the music. I adored the first song – it was gentle, beautiful, breathtaking, mesmerising. I closed my eyes and thought, well, this is bloody all right. And then the next song was gentle and beautiful, and the third and fourth were breathtaking and mesmerising, and so was the fifth, and so were the next ones and – yawn – on it went. After the interval I skulled my beer and snoozed through the second half. An occasional change of tempo, the odd key change and I would have been there on board with klapa, but as it was it was merely repetitive. It did pick up a bit when the guitars came out, but then settled back into the same old saminess. Perhaps it would’ve been more enjoyable if I’d understood a few words – the main ones I got were love, face, wine… I love face wine!
Still, I’m glad I dusted off the old high heels and frock and went along. Maybe someone out there is working on a klapa dubstep group. Now that would be some natural history.
If you’re interested in hearing klapa, you can watch the entire 2013 Dalmation Klapa Festival here:
Klapa singing has also been recognised by UNESCO as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. You can read about the history and watch a short video at their website.