Treasures of the East
In eastern Croatia, traditional Bećarac music and song is a folk art, treasured both for its uniqueness and its historic role in regional storytelling and merrymaking.
Singing bećaracCroatian National Tourist Board
It’s sung in taverns, at weddings and birthday parties, and at social gatherings large and small.
Kirvaj in SlavoniaCroatian National Tourist Board
Bećarac songs are usually funny, often a bit bawdy, and almost always about woes and misadventures of a romantic or sexual nature.
The musical form is valued as part of the patrimony of Croatia, so much so that in 2011 it was added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Singer of becarac singing by Mario Romulic and Drazen StojcicCroatian National Tourist Board
What is Bećarac?
Bećarac music is a combination of singing and playing of one or more tambura, a family of long-necked, stringed instruments with a sound similar to a mandolin.
While Bećarac music may be sung and played in an impromptu manner, its more organized form is with a band, comprised of a lead singer and five or more tambura-playing musicians. The singer begins with a two-line or couplet verse, which introduces the theme of the song—it’s just as often an innuendo-filled boast of the singer’s romantic or sexual conquests, wealth or good fortune.
The tambura-playing chorus then answers with a verse of the same length, which usually contradicts or makes fun of the lead singer. This call and response may continue for just a few verses or for innumerable ones, depending on the energy of the band and the enthusiasm of listeners.
Croatian Tamburitza Orchestra performing BecaracCroatian National Tourist Board
Dancers performing becaracCroatian National Tourist Board
While Bećarac may sound like the stuff of simple tavern songs played to an appreciatively tipsy crowd, it’s actually a complex musical form. The verses are decasyllabic—meaning that each line is composed of 10 syllables — and they’re rhyming. Songs can go on for dozens of verses, meaning the talent of a Bećarac singer and his band is judged by the large catalog of lyrics and songs they’re able to remember.
Snasa singingCroatian National Tourist Board
But improvisation is just as important, since the singer and his chorus are expected to try to outdo one another with their verses. They make up rhyming couplets—always decasyllabic—as they go, while keeping the melody and the thread of the story alive.
Accomplished Bećarac singers are highly regarded for their skills at this clever improvisation.
History of Bećarac
While there’s not a definitive history of Bećarac as a folk art form, it is thought to be at least hundreds of years old, and a tradition born in the taverns of eastern Croatia. It’s most diffused in the Baranja and Srijem areas of Slavonia, the easternmost region of Croatia.
Tamburica by Mario Romulic Drazen StojcicCroatian National Tourist Board
The tambura — also called a tamburica or tamboura — is thought to have been introduced to Central Europe in the Byzantine ere — brought from Persia by the Turks. Its use was taken up by southern Slavic ethnic groups from Slavonia, which once extended beyond the modern borders of Croatia. Tambura music, along with folksong forms related to Bećarac, is also prevalent in neighboring Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Singers on a carriage by Davor RostuharCroatian National Tourist Board
The word Bećarac comes from the Croat word bećar—or bachelor. This confirms its history as a song form associated with revelry, comic lasciviousness and not-quite innocent fun.
Group dancing and singing becaracCroatian National Tourist Board
While Bećarac has long been a vital part of Slavonian culture, its UNESCO listing in 2011 spurred broader interest and appreciation of it as an art form and inspired a younger generation of Bećarac artists.
It’s heard today at private celebrations and public events, festivals, and competitions, and it’s still sung informally in restaurants and taverns, or any place where alcohol flows freely.
Kolo meets becaracCroatian National Tourist Board
Once exclusively the purview of men, Bećarac is increasingly sung by all-women groups—typically acapella—who put their own gendered spin on the lyrics. Mixed-gender Bećarac bands also exist but are led by men, with women primarily serving as backup singers. Professional Bećarac bands will typically wear traditional Slavonian costumes characterized by bright, intricate and colorful embroidery, often on a black or white background.