Danche Ivanovic: Preserving Yugoslavian culture in three pieces of wood

On Madison Street in Oak Park, Danche Ivanovic sits on the work stool nestled in his eponymous guitar img_1378shop reminiscing about his life in the former Yugoslavia. There is a café there that he went to everyday for twenty years to drink espresso with his friends and fellow musicians.

“It was like I was addicted,” Ivanovic recalls. “And we talk[ed] about ‘where did you play last night’ or ‘when you will play tomorrow’ and so many jokes.”

These days, Ivanovic works until three in the afternoon, when he goes home for European lunch with his family. A remnant of his life in Europe, it’s one of the things he looks forward to most about his day. Afterwards, he goes back to his workshop and works late, sometimes until after midnight. Unlike Americans, he says, he lives and works as slowly as he wants.

“If business starts to slow, I will work like Americans, but for now, I’m the boss,” Ivanovic says.

Danche Guitars sits near a line of hair-braiding businesses and dusty storefronts.  New guitars line one wall, some with the logo “Danche” across the fingerboard, and ragged guitars hang on the back wall—guitars with chips and scratches and guitars with holes and entire sides missing where people walked into pianos and walls holding them. Ivanovic is the owner and sole luthier at the shop and, at 7 o’clock on a Friday night, amidst rock music and cigarette smoke, he pokes holes into the wood of the guitar bridge, petting his dog while he works.

“This shop—that is his life,” Ivanovic’s wife, Zdenka, says. “Anything else doesn’t matter, he just lives for that. Not just his shop, but his work—building. “

Ivanovic has been working on the same acoustic guitar for months now, and right now it is missing fingerboard and polish. Now 59, he has been building guitars since he was 28. Before that, Ivanovic was a musician, playing guitar in a rock band.

Playin’ in a rock and roll band

His band was called Tref, which, in Serbo-Croatian refers to the symbol “clubs” on a playing card. For years, Ivanovic played songs about girls, love, and broken hearts and lived a rock star lifestyle. He worked Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, playing over 130 gigs a year, and slept on buses that rolled across the country between shows. Sometimes, he prevented drunken brawls from breaking out.

AUDIO: Ivanovic recalls those times fondly, even when they involved drunks with axes [audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/axe-story.mp3]

Ivanovic was happy playing guitar, and people all over Yugoslavia knew the name of his band. Tref came close to putting out a CD, and there were a couple of times, at festivals, with thousands of girls screaming, that Ivanovic considered himself a rock star. By the time he was 27, however, he was worn from the constant travel.

“It’s not easy to tour your whole life,” Ivanovic says. “You don’t know what town you’re in each day… You sleep in a thousand beds.  Many times I slept in a car.”

Becoming a luthier

That was when Ivanovic decided to begin making guitars, and in 1977, he traveled to Munich, Germany, to learn from master luthier Tomas Keller. For several weeks, he learned the secrets of stringed instruments. After making his first guitar, Ivanovic says, he felt like a king. The feeling has stayed.

“I still have a strange feeling,” Ivanovic says. “Three pieces of wood, and after a while, this piece of wood produce[s] music. Hey, to me, this is still a big deal.”

He returned to Yugoslavia weeks later, where he opened up his own guitar shop in Osijek, a city in the Republic of Croatia, and worked there successfully for years. Then, war crept into Yugoslavia. Ethnic tensions had been simmering for decades, and fighting finally erupted in 1991. Ivanovic watched as one man, a drummer he knew, began commanding a small battalion. That was when Ivanovic knew a bloody war was coming.

Leaving the war behind

“Many stupid people thought, ‘Now it’s my chance. I can be a good killer, kill bad people and be a hero.’ And I said to my wife, ‘Let’s go,’” Ivanovic says.  “She cried… I said, ‘Somebody will kill you or kill me.’”

The opportunity to escape came through Ivanovic’s son, Goran. As an 11-year-old, Goran had won a national guitar competition and was the youngest guitar player to ever be admitted to the Mozarteum, a prestigious music school in Austria. Later that year, the Ivanovics left for Austria, leaving everything they knew behind in Osijek.

“We lost everything in Croatia, everything, like, we didn’t even have a picture of our wedding,” Ivanovic says.

There were other losses too. When he left Yugoslavia, Ivanovic asked the bass player in his band to sell some of his equipment so that the Ivanovics would have money to help them after they had run away. As the situation in Yugoslavia worsened, Ivanovic and the bass player talked weekly until one week, the bass player didn’t call. He had sold Ivanovic’s equipment and run away with the money.

A couple of months ago, after twenty years of silence, the bass player e-mailed Ivanovic again. He didn’t mention anything about the money or the equipment.

Despite the aches of migration and betrayal, the Ivanovics made a home in Austria. Their son, Mike, was born, and soon, Ivanovic opened a new guitar shop. Ivanovic knew he was better off than the drummer, or any of the other people who told themselves they were killing the bad guys.

“I can talk openly with God,” Ivanovic says. “I have no blood [on] my hands.”

But the comfort would only last so long. In 2000, the nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-European “Freedom Party” came to power. As the European Union began boycotting Austria in meetings and later imposing economic sanctions, unrest came to Austria. The Ivanovics’ landlady warned them to be careful.

“We were fresh hurt from the war in our country and we were afraid: ‘Oh f**k, again?’” says Ivanovic.

Again, it was a passing musician who connected the Ivanovics to their escape. A customer told Ivanovic that he could make money in the United States making stringed instruments and offered to give him contacts. Once again, the family left the home they had worked to establish, and in January of 1996, landed in Chicago.

Cold, windy and snowy – that’s Chicago

“It was cold, windy and with snow,” Ivanovic remembers. “We [were] pissed off.”

Exhausted from conflict in two countries, Ivanovic and his family worked to assemble a life in Chicago and then Naperville. They began in a dingy apartment with cockroaches in the bathroom. Ivanovic started out fixing violins but furniture repair paid better, so he began spending his days applying furniture lacquer at department store Carson Prarie Scott. After hours of inhaling lacquer fumes, Ivanovic would come home with headaches.  Ivanovic’s 17-year-old son, Mike, remembers, his parents were stressed.

“Both my parents were working a little too hard so that we could live a better life,” Mike says.

Slowly, the Ivanovics built up their life. Ivanovic began fixing guitars again, this time out of his garage. He started helping out at workshops around town and collecting equipment.  Ivanovic soon opened a guitar shop, this time in Oak Park.

img_1384The shop on Madison Street

Now, Danche Guitars is well-established—a well-lit window on dark evenings. Ivanovic constructs and repairs guitars, and teaches how to build them. Mike teaches some guitar lessons in the shop and watches the shop for an hour in the evenings. Several magazines sit on a counter, opened up to articles about Goran, who recently completed a tour of Europe. On some nights, Zdenka drinks beer with Ivanovic while he crouches over his guitars.

Tonight, customer Bob Mallardy comes to work on the guitar Ivanovic is teaching him to build, which will probably be for Mallardy’s sons. A banker, Mallardy arrives in a suit but changes into jeans before they start working.

“We have a lot of conversations about our personal experiences,” Mallardy says. “So it’s not just all about building guitars. It’s about a great dialogue and great conversation.”

Despite his claims of living the slow Yugoslavian lifestyle, Ivanovic works in his shop 12 hours a day.  The end of the week brings no relief for Ivanovic. Zdenka, too, works hard, also studying for her nursing license in her free time.

“I just feel like they’re too old to be working so hard still, too old to be struggling,” Mike says.  “Most of [my mom’s] old colleagues are retired and she’s still working seven days a week and studying on the side, [along with] cooking and cleaning.”

Ivanovic and his wife have been blown from place to place by war and opportunity, and, with every new place and new language, Yugoslavia grows farther away. Ivanovic misses the friendliness of Yugoslavia, the jokes and the drinks after work. He misses the café.

AUDIO: But he can console himself with music [audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/music-makes-him-feel-better.mp3]

“He just thinks that Americans don’t socialize that much, that they’re just focused on money and working. All stress, no fun…” Mike says. “I think [my parents] just feel not at home. They still feel like foreigners, I think.”

But Ivanovic says he’s happy. His ultimate dream, however, is to move to a farm. He wants to breathe clean air and eat vegetables—to eat real tomatoes without chemicals and to have the freedom to do what he likes away from crowded buildings and too many neighbors.

AUDIO: Yearning to breathe free – in his underwear if he’d like [audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/farm-in-underwear.mp3]

It will be awhile before the Ivanovics can move to a farm, however. Ivanovic needs to keep his shop, to continue repairing guitars, in order to make money. He thinks one of his sons may have children soon, and he wants to stay close by for that. Michigan, he says, is a possibility for a farm.

Until then, within the cocoon of his shop, Ivanovic will keep working, breaking for European lunch at three o’clock.

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