From turmoil to triumph: Croatia-born UNCW professor found path to U.S. through music is your source for free news and information in the Wilmington area.

Žeželj-Gualdi said she fell in love with the violin at the age of 10. Photos contributed.
Danijela Žeželj-Gualdi, now a UNCW music professor and professional musician, said she fell in love with the violin at the age of 10 in her native Croatia. Photos contributed.

For Danijela Žeželj-Gualdi, the violin is much more than just an instrument; it is an extension of her mind, body and soul.

It might be because no matter how tumultuous her coming of age was in the war-torn former Yugoslavia–no matter how separated she was from her family and friends, no matter what she lost along the way–her violin was a constant, a companion, a source of comfort and hope.

“Sometimes it was kind of an escape and a hope that it will take me out of the country,” she said. “And it helped me feel detached from whatever was surrounding me.”

After years of turmoil and transition, Žeželj-Gualdi has finally found a place that feels like home–here in Wilmington and at UNCW as a music professor.

But it was a long journey.

A life unraveled 

Žeželj-Gualdi was a teenager when her idyllic childhood on the coast of Croatia crumbled, as the republics within Yugoslavia began seeking independence from the government in Belgrade.

“My childhood was actually fantastic,” she recalled. “My house was right on the beach. It was beautiful, very romantic. The first 16 years–I remember it like complete bliss. I felt safe and happy.”

The complex wars that developed out of a fight for independence–wars that were marked by bitter ethnic conflicts, mostly between Serbs on one side and Croats and Bosniaks on the other–suddenly turned Žeželj-Gualdi’s world upside down.

“This turned into a civil war that was based on hatred and genocide,” she said. “Civil war turned people against each other–brother against brother, husband against wife, literally. It was horrifying.”

Fearing for their safety–and believing there would be a quick end to the rising unrest–her parents sent Žeželj-Gualdi, who was then just a teenager, and her younger sister, Lara, to Munich, Germany, to stay with friends.

“Nobody thought that it would become a full-fledged war,” she noted.

In Munich, she and her sister lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with about 15 other people. They carved out a tiny space on the kitchen floor to sleep each night.

Living in less-than-ideal conditions in Munich–and eventually unable to reach her parents by phone for more than a month–Žeželj-Gualdi made an adult decision. She took her sister by the hand one day and the two boarded a bus to Serbia to stay with her grandmother.

“I think they were glad to see us go. We felt unwanted there. People let us stay, but no one tried to stop us when we said we wanted to leave,” Žeželj-Gualdi said of the people in the Munich apartment.

Then, finally, the phones started working again and she was able to get through to her parents.

“My mom said, ‘Oh no, what did you do?’ Because I went into enemy lines,” she said.

But as conditions in Croatia worsened, her parents, too, decided to cross over and join their children in Serbia. They left Croatia carrying just one small suitcase.

“You didn’t want people seeing you with all this luggage,” Žeželj-Gualdi said. “That’s what we all took of with us from our home–one bag.”

Serbia was not much better than that apartment in Munich. Žeželj-Gualdi felt alone, foreign, disliked and distrusted.

“Serbs were uncomfortable with the refugees there. We were unwanted again,” she said. “We lived in all kinds of shacks you couldn’t imagine.”

Still, they made the best life there that they could. But after settling in Serbia, things again took a downward turn. NATO, feeling peace talks could not be reached with rebels there, began a bombing campaign. The United States also issued sanctions against the country.

“You would take your money, which was worth nothing–my mom would get paid and two days later would have enough to buy an egg–and go into a store and there would be nothing there. The shelves would just be empty,” she said.

A life fulfilled

“One light that was always in my head was to leave the country,” she said. “Even though I was patriotic, I did not like what had happened (in Croatia). I didn’t understand the hatred, and I hated back, I think. I couldn’t go back. And I didn’t fit into Serbia.”

Luckily, Žeželj-Gualdi had a way out–music.

She first was introduced, by accident, to the violin when she was 10 years old.

“My dad was artistically oriented. He asked if I wanted to play an instrument. I always wanted to play piano–I thought,” she said.

UNCW professor and professional violinist Danijela Žeželj-Gualdi survived the civil wars of former Yugoslavia to find a life of music here in America.
Žeželj-Gualdi survived the civil wars of former Yugoslavia to find a life of music here in America.

After playing piano briefly, she switched over to violin on the advice of her instructor. It turned out to be a good move.

Throughout all of the strife, Žeželj-Gualdi stayed connected to the violin, and to her music, which helped her express a swirling mix of emotions–anger, sadness, regret, restlessness–she could not always put into words.

“I starting playing violin and I fell in love. The instrument is like part of my body and voice. It is kind of like an extension of my own soul,” she said. “I can’t describe how it makes me feel. I always grow. It makes me better as a human being.”

As a young adult, Žeželj-Gualdi studied with renowned Russian musicians in Serbia before moving to Belgrade to play with a symphony there. Eventually she traveled to Norway and then Vienna, Austria.

During that time, friends of her parents who lived in the U.S. encouraged Žeželj-Gualdi to send them a tape of one of her live performances. They then took the tapes and sent them out to a number of American colleges and universities.

“It was a year later. I had honestly forgotten about it totally. My sister called and said, ‘You got in. Remember that tape you sent? You got into three schools in Pennsylvania,'” she said.

So, she opted for one of those three–Carnegie Mellon–and, taking a big chance, headed to Pittsburgh, barely able to speak English.

It was, she said, like a longtime daydream come to life.

“I was ecstatic to be here, and to know people appreciated my music. The first lesson with a teacher, I was crying,” she said, tearing up again as she recalled the moment. “I thought, ‘I’m finally out. Now, I have to bring my family here. I vowed to myself that I would do anything to take my family out of Serbia.”

But life in Serbia slowly began improving.

“The situation in Serbia got better. My parents and sister are living better. Even though they have the option to always come here, Serbia is their comfort now,” Žeželj-Gualdi said.

Žeželj-Gualdi now collaborates with her husband, pianist and professor Paolo Andre' Gualdi.
Žeželj-Gualdi now collaborates with her husband, pianist and professor Paolo Andre’ Gualdi.

By then, she had adjusted to her new life in America, surrounded by people who lived and breathed music just as she had nearly her whole life.

After college, she began regularly touring as a professional musician. It was during such a stint that she met Italian pianist Paolo Andre’ Gualdi, whom she married in 2004.

They both pursued their doctorates in music in Georgia and are now partners in life, music and parenthood. They have a two-year-old daughter named Julia.

Gualdi teaches at Frances Marion University in South Carolina during the week and is home on the weekends. Žeželj-Gualdi has been teaching violin and viola at UNCW for the last five years.

“I fell in love with this town. I love Wilmington,” she noted.

The couple collaborates together often, playing concerts in Europe during the summer. And Žeželj-Gualdi has her own group, the Balkan Quartet, a group of musicians from Serbia and Bulgaria who play Eastern European folk music and compositions from modern composers. The quartet recently recorded a forthcoming album.

She will be performing with the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 19.

After years of unrest and instability, Žeželj-Gualdi feels fortunate to have found–through music–a place in life, a purpose and, most importantly, peace.

“I do miss (Croatia). I do miss speaking my own language. But I always felt like this was my home,” she said. “I consider myself lucky because I have a beautiful job. I get to work with talented young people who are here because they want to be here. Every day I deal with music. That is a wonderful life.”

Click here to hear Žeželj-Gualdi’s music. More on Paulo Andre’ Gualdi is available here.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or