Dalmatian klapa singing – touches of sweet harmony

Klapa singing is fine tradition in Dalmatia, with multi-part harmonies and no instruments necessary. From childhood on, many Dalmatians sing in groups for the sheer enjoyment of it. Informally sitting around a table in bars or restaurants, or as a more formal presentation in public spaces or on a stage. And it’s wonderful to listen to. I love coming across a group singing in Split’s Vestibul, for example. The accoustics really give such a wonderful resonance to the voices and brings out the harmonies.

Klapa in the vestibul

Klapa in the vestibul

My own upbringing and experience was rather different. I actually don’t know if I have a good singing voice or not, and whether I could hold a tune if my life depended on it. Never really tried. Years ago I was in a school choir, and it was fun, but I was one contralto among many and I would never have applied to join a small ensemble of singers where each voice is heard in its own right. But if I’d been brought up in Dalmatia, I might well have.

So how does Klapa singing differ from any other band of minstrels, or indeed a choir? Well, for a start, they don’t need any instruments or music in front of them, they sing a cappella. In some cases they may have a guitar or mandolin accompaniment, but not always. A group will typically have 4 to 10 members, made up from a single lead tenor, and a number of second tenors, baritones and basses. That’s for men’s klapa, obviously, which is by far the more common and traditional style.

Klapa Kastilac from Vrboska

Klapa Kastilac from Vrboska

Apparently the name “klapa” derives from capulata, meaning a group or gathering of people, or a gang in the local dialect around the Trieste area of Italy. This was mentioned in the mid-1800s, and had rather negative connotations at the time. With the trade connections up and down the coast, and the increasing popularity of nationalistic folk songs, klapa became the term for the specifically Dalmatian “group of friends” multi-part singing.

Other areas of Croatia have very different folk music styles, though I notice that klapa groups are now springing up in all parts of the country, and indeed abroad! If you were watching the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, and who wasn’t, you may have noticed that Croatia’s entry was a klapa song.

The distinctive harmonies are based on the thirds of major chords, with the other sections following the lead of the first tenor. Personally I always enjoy listening for what the bass singer is doing, as he (they) will be filling in the rest of the chord, and adding that wonderful deep note that gives weight to the whole song. You can see them projecting their voices downwards! According to Ante, our carpenter, it takes 40 years of drinking red wine to make a good bass!

Although klapa groups are usually all male or all female, there are some notable exceptions – the wonderful Klapa Linđo from Dubrovko being one of them. Established as one of the best groups for over 40 years, they were unusual for having a soprano as the main lead voice. One of my favourite klapa songs is from them – Svizde mi Kažu. It’s a very emotional love story that begins “The stars have told me that I will become a widow…” Catches me every time I hear it!

Traditional klapa songs deal with very similar topics to Scottish, Irish and everyone else’s folk songs: love, fishing, war, death, drinking – all those familiar life events! There’s a mix of the old songs, some specially written recently for klapa, and some brought in from other musical genres.

The more formal, concert klapa was started in 1967, with the setting up of the Omiš festival. One of these days, I want to go and listen to the magical experience of the best klapa groups performing in the warm evenings in the old town square there.

From 2006 – 2008, the overall winners were a group from Split – Klapa Šufit. I particularly love their rendition of Ruka Moja  Što si Takla (My Hand that Touched You).  The Omiš Festival has resulted in new klapa songs and arrangements, some of which, like the festival anthem, have become really popular. And since the 1950s, klapa songs have been recorded for archive in radio and TV stations and in the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore, Zagreb. Increasingly, there are recordings for the public to buy. Hard to find outside the country, though.

As of December 2012, Dalmatian klapa multi-part singing is registered as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage. And it was recently announced that klapa singing would be offered as part of the music course at Split University. What a wonderful thing to see it spread and grow!

We’ve translated a couple of klapa songs into English so you can sing along with the videos – here are the links:

Eyes the Colour of Lavender

In Vino Veritas


References and for more information…

Klapa Singing, a Traditional Folk Phenomenon of Dalmatia by Joško Ćaleta

UNESCO Cultural Heritage entry

Omis Festival website


And lastly, did you spot the quotion in the title? Here’s the context:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

~ William Shakespeare:  Merchant of Venice