c.1920? John Bencic Macedonian Tambura

Update: Thanks to Mr. Craig and also Ms. Liesbeth for informing me of the proper name of this instrument: this is a Macedonian tambura which uses the "old Farkaš system" of tuning -- with uneven fret spacing and different tuning (and spacing, for that matter) of the strings. In this way it is quite dissimilar to more modern instruments of the same family.

This was a strange catch for me but I've been keeping my eye on old Eastern European instruments for a while now... and this lovely little gem was made by John Bencic (a famed tamburitza maker) out of Cleveland, Ohio... somewhere in the early 20th century.

This one struck the right "chord" and I went ahead and picked it up. Outwardly, it appears to be like many of the old tamburitza family instruments favored by Hungarian, Bulgarian, Croatian, etc. bands. On closer inspection it's more like a Turkish saz with irregular fretting (like a mountain dulcimer). It has four strings in two pairs, hence a two-course instrument. I've strung it with a pair of 014s and a pair of 010s and tuned it to G and D an octave and a note below a mandolin's A and E courses.

I am utterly at a loss as to what to call this instrument. Bonnie's suggested calling it a "babagazoo" and that works for me for the moment. Following up on the web for a couple hours yielded many similar instruments (there are lots and lots of lute-shaped long-necked instruments like this throughout Europe and the Mid East) in construction but none near so nice in build quality and style... and refinement, for that matter.

This has obviously been played! The fretboard shows wear all over the top course's strings, hence the obvious use of the other pair as drones (typical for this type of instrument). That said, the bizarre fretting gives a dulcimer quality to the melody string and many interesting chords and sounds available if you use fretting on the drone string. It's quite easy to pull off Planxty-style licks (Smenco Horo anyone?) once you get used to the fretboard and the feel of the instrument.

In short? I love the sound of this thing. I could instantly play about half my melodic banjo -ey songs on it (albeit stripped down) in short order.

This is a beautifully inlaid ebony pickguard... and all that trim is pearl with (celluloid? bone? ivory?) stems.

The soundhole rosette is formed from several layers of very pretty purfling material and the bridge is a nicely cut piece of bone.

More inlay at the tailpiece (the tailpiece is not original as different screw holes were found under it). It covers up the decorative flourish at the end, too, which is unfortunate... but it does keep me from snagging my hand on the wound ends!

Nicely engraved German-silver tuner plates with bone buttons and decorative tuner shafts. These are similar to the tuners used on old German zithers. Bone nut, too, and ebony board.

Back... neck is one long piece joined skillfully to the back, which is carved from one piece of (birch?) wood.

Tuner detail... so Staufferish. The strap hooks were there already, if you wondered... :)

Neck join.


Liesbeth en Karl said...

Names, names...

But this description of a 'Macedonian Tambura' fits quite well: http://www.atlasofpluckedinstruments.com/europe2.htm

Tamburitzas are smaller. Irregular fretting is great - see the malagasy kabosy.

Antebellum Instruments said...

Thanks very much! That makes 2 folks to corroborate the Macedonian tambura story. I immediately thought it was some sort of tambura when I picked it up, as I'd seen the Bulgarian kinds a number of times and the build is similar, but this makes sense.

It's interesting that one type of tuning is with all the strings tuned to the same pitch (hence you have the whole range of notes between the courses)... a clever idea to make a simple instrument for accompaniment that has generous fret spacing for the fingers higher up the neck.

Anonymous said...

Okay.. i have an instrument that was left to me by my dad ..it still has the maker labels inside showing that it was made in ohio and i was able to find info on John Bencic ..from what i could find online thought that it was as Farkus from around 1920. I think it is a bit smaller that the instrument on this page. Has the same metal plate up by the frets. Let me know if you would like to see pictures of it. You can email me at montsal@vianet for pictures.

Anonymous said...

I have an instrument made in Cleveland, OH (can barely read the label inside) that I thought was a Croatian Samika (got this off a Croatian Folk Music Website. But since that time (a few years ago), I haven't been able to find the webside or the name Samika. Mine has evenly spaced frets.

Denny said...

I have a Tambura with label name of John Bencic. It has pearl inlay with a menta or brass plate at the head. Made in Cleveland. Looks like small guitar. Can be seen on Craig's list musical instruments under florida, pinellas, titled "Antique Tambura" Any information about it would be appreciated

myronmyers1 said...

I own a tambura exactly like the one in the photo. It was given to me some 30 years ago by a Croatian friend whose father had played in an orchestra in the 1920s in Aberdeen, Washington. He called it a tamburitza, but the label states: "Prva Juguslavenska Tvort Tambura, I.sve.visti.zica, John Bencic, 4054 St. Clair Ave, Cleveland, Ohio."

Dave said...

I recently was given this exact instrument by my Croatian uncle, who I believe got it from a Croatian friend long, long ago. He called it a tamburitza. After searching online for information about this thing, I finally thought about shining a flashlight into the hole and looking for a label (I'm a drummer, first and foremost, so it took me a while to think of this obvious step!), and found the John Bencic info that led me to your page. Thank you very much for posting this information!