The Songs of Dalmatia – Klapa

Imagine this: you are living in a small town somewhere on the Dalmatian islands long ago. There is no internet, no TV and a small promenade, a few boats and stone streets are all you’ve known your entire life. Then you see her, a beautiful girl swimming with her friends, her laughter filling your mind and your dreams. You want nothing more than to spend the rest of your life with this perfect being, but how do you let her know? Well, that’s easy! Gather a few friends, go under her window at the most inappropriate of hours and watch her swoon as you and your gang sing her a song with nothing but your voices as the instruments. Oh, and mind the flying flower pots coming your way, courtesy of her parents!

This was just one of the many situations which gave birth to a still beloved and practiced form of music, Klapa (meaning a group of friends in the Dalmatian dialect). Back when there wasn’t much to do outside of daily chores, young men would gather at night to drink wine and sing. The person with the highest voice would start a song, and the rest would follow his lead, constructing complex harmonies with their voices. This is what makes Klapa singing so special, as it involves no instruments whatsoever and all the sounds you hear during a performance are created solely by the interaction between different pitched voices.

Image source: hr.wikipedia.org

As history moved on, people from Dalmatia started migrating to other parts of Croatia and the World, but they never forgot their love for the song and often times a song is all they would take with them. In these migrations, they spread this specific style of singing everywhere they went, and it’s not too surprising to find Klapa groups in places like Germany, Austria, Switzerland etc. This is encapsulated in an ancient saying in these parts which goes: “I’ll give everything, but not my song”.

The common themes sung about during a Klapa performance are those of the Sea, the magic of love and the laid back and easy going way of Mediterranean life. While it sometimes may be hard to understand the lyrics, the soothing, almost wavy melody and the surreal atmosphere created by these talented singers will undoubtedly ensure you feel exactly what the song is about.

Traditionally, a Klapa is a group of 5-8 men, due to the historic circumstances of their origin when women didn’t really “hang out” in the same sense men did, and a lot of old school Dalmatians will still be adamant about the fact that women cannot participate in Klapa singing. But modern times bring modern changes, and more and more women only Klapa groups are emerging, often times even beating their male counterparts in competitions. One thing everyone in Dalmatia can agree on is that Klapa is acapella and acapella only! True, some recent groups have incorporated mandolins and guitars in their compositions, but those are then, at best, classified as “Klapa-like song”.

Image source: hr.wikipedia.org

While young people of today are not singing in this way as much, there are long standing groups which unite many revolving members under their names. Groups such as “Cambi”, “Intrade” and “Rišpet” are more than singing groups, they are keeping old traditions and stories alive and well and are often times used to give that special kick to celebrations, state functions and award shows. In 2012, klapa was placed on the UNESCO Immaterial Heritage list, ensuring that this unique style stays preserved.

During your visit to Croatia, keep an ear out while walking the narrow streets of the towns we visit. Sometimes, there will be a full-on performance with stages and lights, other times a group will gather and perform a few songs impromptu in a place with good acoustic, carried by good food and wine. Whatever the occasion, make sure to sit back and let the melody take you and we’re certain that this one of a kind mix of voices will stay with you forever.