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Don Lipovac - Kansas Folk Art

Button Box Accordion

Ed Grisnik, Frank Kovich, Emil Mufich, Frank Nadvornik, Andy Rezin, Bill Rezin, Jom Skorija, and John Soptick, Apprentices

Don Lipovac is one of the most respected musicians among the Slavic communities in Kansas City, Kansas. His influence on the development of traditional music in the area has been profound. Because of his involvement, the musical styles of several regions, particularly Slovenia and Croatia, have come together to create a "Kansas City" style of south Slavic music.

Don was born in the area of the Slovenian parish in Kansas City in 1935. His introduction to his Slovenian musical heritage began at an early age. When Don was three years old, his grandfather bought him a little button box accordion. His mother would sing folk songs from the Old Country and Don would pick them out on the accordion by ear. It became obvious that even as a child Don possessed an extraordinary talent.

It was just like a miracle to me that I would be able to do this [pick out a song by ear]. I just didn't understand it. The priest of the parish, when he came to bless the house—I guess I was about five years old and I was playing—he wrote it up in the eastern Kansas register.—Don Lipovac

In order to encourage Don, his parents provided him with music lessons. At the age of seven he began his studies. The lessons required him to switch to the piano accordion. "When I started my first music lessons, for six months, on Minnesota Avenue," Don remembers, "I had a buddy and we would put our accordions on a red wagon and pull them." After six months, Don's uncle, who also played accordion, recommended that Don begin lessons with Alfred Vacca from Kansas City, Missouri. As Don recalls now, that was a very fortunate move since Vacca was the best teacher in the area. Until he reached the age of 17, Don continued to study with Vacca.

During this period Don all but forgot about the button box accordion and concentrated his efforts on the piano accordion. As time went on, however, Don developed a stronger interest in traditional music. He bought himself a larger more complicated button box accordion and began to renew his skills.

The Slovenians think the button box accordion is more authentic. When you see one of the old-timers, if you play a piano accordion for them, they weren't as happy about the sound—they have different sounds.—Don Lipovac

Throughout his adult career Don has maintained his interest in both the button box and the piano accordion.

In 1952 Don appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. He auditioned in Kansas City and was accepted for the Kansas City show that was held in Municipal Auditorium. For winning the local competition he received a trip to New York. After high school, Don continued his studies at the Kansas City Conservatory, now part of the University of Missouri, Kansas City. There he earned a degree in music theory and a degree in music education. From 1956 through 1958 he competed in accordion contests by playing classical music. In 1958 Don won the national accordion competition. The same year he appeared on the Lawrence Welk Show playing Slovenian polkas. These events brought Don to the attention of local booking agents who scheduled him in clubs throughout the city.

Although he was studying classical music during his school years, he continued to play traditional Slovenian music at home and in the community. His mother would sing and he would play throughout the parish. Some of the families would invite Don to play at their house parties or at a wedding. Don remembers playing polkas and waltzes at functions when he was still only 10 or 11 years old.

While appearing on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, Don came to the attention of a local tamburitzan orchestra. The group, called the Blue Danube Tamburitzans, was just beginning. All of the members had been students of a fine Croatian traditional musician by the name of Nick Rodina. As Don now explains it, the tamburitza (a long neck string instrument similar to a lute), without amplification, was not very effective for large crowds such as weddings. The group wanted to increase its sound by adding an accordion.

Don was invited to a rehearsal. He had not really been exposed to this type of music, although the Croatian and Slovenian parishes are geographically very close.

I was in a trance right away because the sounds were beautiful, the instruments were real folk instruments. Pear-shaped instruments, and they had this look tot hem and it just struck me right away.—Don Lipovac

Don joined the orchestra. Although the other band members were good musicians, Don had far more formal training and because of this he was able to pick up the music faster. He contributed to the group by becoming a teacher of sorts.

It was during this period in the 1950s that the traditions of the local Croatian community and those of the Slovenian began to come together.

That was the neat thing about Kansas City. The Croatians at least from 1950 on were influenced by Slovenian music. In the sense that we were playing a lot of Slovenian music. . . . I think that is unique to Kansas City, because you'd go to a wedding and most people would dance to polkas and waltzes all night and they are Slovenian type dances. Whereas you go to a Croatian club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. . . . and they don't even want to hear it. . . . There was a little resistance when I first came in. . . . The accordion was sort of like a necessity because of the public demand at weddings. . . . This is my own opinion.—Don Lipovac

These thoughts are echoed by members of the Croatian community. They credit Don with this mixing of traditions. Don was playing Slovenian music as he played at Croatian functions. The community accepted Don and became accustomed to the music. Don admits he may have had some impact. However, he also sensed that the Croatian community in Kansas City did not have the same attachment to the purely Croatian music that Croatian Americans in the eastern part of the United States did. "Our crowd could polka," remarks Don. "They just wanted to polka. . . . Our generation was the first generation that left the Old World divisions behind."

Although Don continued to play the accordion, he also picked up a musical knowledge of the tamburitza. He was recommended over and over again as a teacher as well. Not only did he know the traditional music but he could read music and explain the theory of it. This made him a valuable member of both communities.

Don continued to play with the Blue Danube Tamburitzans for several years until a key member of the group went into military service. At that time the Kolo Club was formed in the Croatian parish. This club for young people helped preserve the dances and music from the Old Country. What was left of the Blue Danube Tamburitzans became the group's core musicians.

By the 1960s the Kolo club began to break up. The members, who were Don's age, were getting married and taking on other work. Don, however, stayed with his music full time. He explains, "With me it's a passion. . . . Art is not practical as far as making a lot of money, but it is a beautiful thing. . . . Without music my life would be empty." During this period Don married his wife, Joanne. She also came from a Slovenian family that was proud of its musical heritage. Today she shares Don's passion for the music.

Don and a few of his friends tried to revive the Kolo Club in the 1960s. The results of this effort became the St. John's Tamburitzans. In 1966 Don offered a class in the tamburitza at St. John's School, a private Croatian institution. The first class had more than 40 students enroll. The class was met with great enthusiasm and continues today. Don continues to direct the group, which has produced six record albums to date. Both Don and Joanne have devoted a great deal of time to the St. John's Tamburitzans in the last 22 years. "It is strictly for love," explains Don. "The folk songs are beautiful, the customs are beautiful, it's a thing of beauty if you see it in the right light."

Don has had a major impact upon the traditional culture of both the Slovenian and Croatian communities in Kansas City. He estimates that he has taught traditional music to more than 400 students and he has written down and arranged between 500 and 600 pieces of music. He has dreams of forming an adult orchestra. He estimates that there are at least 60 good tamburitza players in the city. He also is interested in keeping alive the button box accordion traditions of his youth.

Don is quite accomplished in the button box accordion today. At one point he had to ask himself, "Why did I ever quit?"

I had to relearn it—it wasn't easy because I had forgotten a lot of the finger patterns and I had to go over it again. . . . I knew all this music—the first time it was a miracle to be able to feel your way through without thinking. When you are a little kid you don't even know what's happening.—Don Lipovac

Nearly four years ago Don started a button box accordion group. All of the members are adults of Slovenian or Croatian heritage and most have been playing traditional music for a good part of their lives.

For three years Don worked with the group almost every Wednesday night. For this he received no pay. Rather he did it for the love of the music. In 1988 the group applied for and was granted funding under the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. The money the group received went directly to pay Don for his services. The group works very hard and has accomplished a great deal over the years. One concert a year is played for the Slovenian parish, which offers the group a weekly practice space in the basement of Holy Family Church. The members of the group share Don's devotion to their south Slavic heritage and participate simply to keep the music alive.

From Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program © KSHS 1989

Entry: Lipovac, Don - Kansas Folk Art

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2011

Date Modified: May 2012

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.