The lure of Tamburitza—the lively Eastern European folk music combined with dance and colorful, finely embroidered costumes captured John Pruzin Jr. at an early age.
While growing up, Easter Sundays meant watching the Duquesne University Tamburitzan ensemble perform at what was then the Holiday Star Theatre in Merrillville.
At seven, he joined the Croatian Junior Tamburitzan and also took private lessons. His instrument of choice was the bas—the largest instrument among the many unique Tamburicas which, with its four strings, is somewhat similar to a contrabass. A little aside is important here—Tamburitza or Tamburica is the family of stringed instruments originating from Croatia but also commonly found in other Eastern European countries. But the term Tamburitza is often used to refer to a group of Tamburica playing musicians.
But all things Tamburitza didn’t end when Pruzin, a Merrillville High School graduate, was deciding where to go to college.
“I looked at other music scholarships,” he said. “But I always knew the Tamburitzan was number one.”
And for those serious about Tamburitza, the number one place to be is Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa., home of the Duquesne Tamburitzan, which began in 1937, making it the longest running live stage show in the United States.
“For all those 77 years, Duquesne has been awarding scholarships,” said Karen Prykull, an assistant to the director at the university, noting that Duquesne’s mission is a dedication to preserving and perpetuating the cultural heritages of Eastern Europe and its neighbors through performance while presenting scholarships to talented and deserving student performers.
Applying for a scholarship is relatively easy says Prykull—travel to the university for a 15 minute audition or, now days, send in a video. In 1991, Pruzin made the trip to Pittsburgh, one of 190 who did so. Of those, 11, including Pruzin, were awarded full scholarships.
“For me to say I paid my own tuition was wonderful. It gave me a lot of pride to give that as a gift to my parents,” said Pruzin of the Solan-Pruzin Funeral Homes and Crematory of Schererville and Hammond.
Being a Tamburitzan meant a lot of hard work. During his four years at Duquesne, the ensemble played 120 tour dates each year, offering the ensemble a chance to travel throughout the country and overseas as well. But for Pruzin it was an unbelievable opportunity.
“I got to go to places I could only have dreamed about,” said Pruzin. “At Duquesne, we had authentic European Tamburitzan costumes worth thousands of dollars. There were 41 different instruments on the stage including the standards like the bas, prim which plays the melody and harmony in the highest octaves, bugarija for playing chords for counter rhythm and brac, a small instrument used to play the melody and harmony in midrange octaves. There are also the more unique Tamburicas like the Slovakian fujara, a very long carved flute and a violin trumpet.
Though he graduated almost 20 years ago, Tamburitzan remains a large part of Pruzin’s life.
He teaches a local youth Tamburitzan group at the Croatian Center in Merrillville. Besides that, he plays with the Braca Tamburitza Orchestra whose members include another Duquesne graduate, Rudy Grasha, a member of the Tamburitza Hall of Fame, as well as with a group called Hoosier Hrvati which has over 20 Tamburicas. And going into the next generation, his children Evan and Sarah also play and this last summer traveled to Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia to perform.
Pruzin also does whatever he can to support Duquesne Tamburitzan performances in Northwest Indiana.
“We sell tickets at the funeral homes and help promote it,” he said. “It’s something that I’m very proud to do.”
For more information about the scholarships, visit duq.edu.