Nebraska’s Orchestra “Soko”
November/December 1999, vol. XVI, no. 2
Only a few days and hours separate us from
the beginning of the 21st century, and in looking back, we are reminded
of tamburitza'ssuccess over the past one hundred years and wonder
how it will fare in the new millennium.
From the Serbian kafanasof Europe, tamburitzamade a huge leap across “the pond”—the Atlantic Ocean—and came to America with our people who brought with them their religion, their customs, and—most important to this subject—the music of the tambura.
Much personal joy comes from the fact that the early musicians were afforded the opportunity to make records which, in turn, guaranteed the preservation of old songs and the melodic sound of the tamburitzas. The Sremska tamburais a national treasure in Serbia, and it didn’t take long for it to find a new home here in America.
With that in mind and with great pleasure, I write my last column of the 20th century featuring the 1927 Soko Orchestraof Omaha, Nebraska.
From the ranks of an athletic and character-building organization in Omaha called Sokoli, there emerged a group of talented young men—Pete Markovich, Eli Drakulich, Nick Plecas, Mike Churchich, Tom Zoroya, Milan (Mike) Zemunski, Joe Churchich, Mike (Mac) Medakovich—who, through perseverance and hard work, gave birth to an excellent tamburitzaensemble.
The orchestra’s first teacher was George Kachar, who can best be described as a driving force in the establishment of tamburitzahere in America. As Mr. Kachar moved from city to city spreading the "tambura gospel,” his work in Omaha eventually fell to Frank L. Buckingham who taught music at the University of Omaha.
An avowed stringed-music enthusiast, Professor Buckingham, at the age of just sixteen, had been a featured banjoist with World Boxing Champion John L. Sullivan’s touring road show. His knowledge and insight not only taught the young men the music of their heritage, but also included complicated marches and classical favorites of the wider American public. Professor Buckingham taught the Soko Orchestrafrom 1927 to 1929.
The orchestra began traveling and performed in cities like Council Bluffs and Des Moines, Iowa, and made successful trips to St. Louis, Missouri, where their musicianship inspired St. Louis to found their own tamburitzagroup. During the early 1930’s, Sokoplayed at the Serbian monastery in Libertyville and broadened their tour to St. Paul, Minnesota, and then to the Iron Range. Those days, with vaudeville in full swing, the orchestra was approached by the RKO vaudeville circuit, but a combination of fate and the Great Depression and responsibilities at home prevented the tamburasifrom taking on the venture.
At its peak, the orchestra played on radio station WOW, where T.V. star Johnny Carson got his start. Iowa’s Shenandoah radio station was their next conquest, and their schedule grew and grew. As a point of interest, the Popovich Brothers’ Orchestra, when on tour in 1928, played at the home of the Zemunski family before leaving for St. Louis and then Chicago, where they would eventually make their home.
The personnel of the Sokosproved to be a very worthy and enterprising group. Pete Markovich, lead bracplayer, would later move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he owned and operated the Balkan Inn. His orchestra entertained there on weekends, and, ironically, Pete Markovich died while playing his beloved bracat the Balkan Inn.
Eli Drakulich, who played the tamburitza berda, settled in Arizona following his hitch in World War II. He ran a successful heavy equipment operation.
A short-term orchestra member was Nick Plecas, who left to become a doctor. During World War II, he served as a colonel in the army.
Mike Churchich, the primas, was an outstanding athlete. He went on to play semi-pro football.
Tom Zoroya, also a primaplayer, was part of the contingent of American students who studied at the University of Belgrade in the 1930’s. He later worked in a U.S. Postal Unit.
Joe Churchich, the celloplayer in the orchestra, did the arranging for Soko. He would later become head of the city parks and recreational centers. A park in Omaha was later named for him.
Milan (Mike) Zemunski played second bugarija. He immigrated to America from Banat at the age of twelve. In addition to being Soko’sexcellent vocalist, he served as instructor for the group. He was a meat wholesaler for northeastern Nebraska, and, after World War II, he expanded his business to include northwest Iowa.
Mike (Mac) Medakovich was also a bugarijaplayer. He was very successful in the business world as the owner and operator of the Cary-McKenzie Printing Co.
A later enlistee to the orchestra was a fine violinist, known only as Tony. Unofficially, it is said that he committed suicide after the theft of his priceless violin.
Whether performing on their Chicago-made Groeschl tamburitzasor following their chosen professions, the members of Soko Orchestrawere a shining example of Serbian talent and the will to succeed.
For me, remembering this fine orchestra—and this century’s great tamburatradition in America—seems like a wonderful way to prepare for the new millennium.
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