A touch of brass in Serbia
There is no better place to hear Serbia’s take on the brass band than at the annual Guca Trumpet Festival. (Matt Munro)
In the centre of the circle, a man falls to his knees, arms outstretched, eyes closed in rapture. He beckons to a group of musicians wielding scuffed brass instruments of every description to squeeze in tighter around him, closer and closer, until the bell of a trumpet player’s horn is almost enveloping his head. The noise is deafening, a manic cacophony of trumpet trills, ground-shaking tuba blasts and booming bass drum. The man furiously waves his arms around his head, egging the band on, until he collapses backwards onto the floor, the trumpet player following him all the way down.
Three songs later and the man is finally satisfied. He signals to the band to stop, stands up, brushes himself down, pulls a €20 note out of his pocket and drops it into the bell of the tuba, much to his friends’ amusement. The bandleader nods his appreciation and motions to his colleagues, who strike up another breakneck tune and wander off down the main thoroughfare through the thick smoke of meat grilling. They soon surround a nearby table of red-faced men drinking pitchers of beer and munching slabs of roast pork, and blast brass noise in their ears.
Welcome to the Guca Trumpet Festival, Serbia’s premier celebration of the Balkan brass band, known here as an orkestar. It’s a place where the music is never-ending, the trumpet rules over all, and where anything that moves – from hundreds of stricken looking pigs to an entire buffalo – is liable to end up roasted on a spit. Brass band music is the Balkans’ pop, and Serbia’s national pride and joy. The top players are bigger names than Mick Jagger and Lady Gaga here, and Guca is the best place to see them. For more than 50 summers, bands from all over Eastern Europe have descended on this small mountain-ringed town in central Serbia. The best sign up for the ultimate test of their abilities: the Golden Trumpet competition, performed in front of thousands in a purpose-built stadium. The rest – the jobbing bands – work the streets of Guca, competing with each other for the right to blast out versions of the stars’ hits for the crowds who roam through the stall-lined village, dancing, singing, and drinking beer and shots of rakija – a fruity and deceptively potent local brandy.
The bands performing on stage and wandering around the festival can be crudely split into two camps: those from an ethnic-Serb background, drawn from the north of the country, and those of Romani (the preferred term, rather than Gypsy) origin, mainly from the south. The two styles cross over on occasion, but in general the Serb bands – dressed in smart, militaristic uniforms and hats – play in a rigid style reminiscent of army parades, while the Romani bands play with a softer, more jazzy feel.
The founder of the Guca festival is Nikola Stojic, a local poet and former schoolteacher. He lives in a bungalow on a street off the main festival parade, although not far enough to escape the constant din of brass and bass. ‘When the festival is finished each year, there is a silence that is as loud as the noise of the trumpets,’ he laughs, leading the way into his garage-cum-workshop, the walls of which are covered with his handmade woodcuts of religious icons. ‘We all have to take a bit of time to get used to normality again!’ Nikola organised the first trumpet festival in 1961 as a way of injecting some cultural life into quiet little Guca. Given that Serbia was a part of Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia at the time, it was a risk to arrange something outside the state apparatus that harked back to a musical tradition predating Communism. As the festival became more popular, the authorities first tried to shut it down, then set up their own version, before finally relenting. ‘The sound of the trumpet is in the souls of Serbian people,’ Nikola says. ‘Communism couldn’t fight that.’
The first Romani musicians played at Guca in the third year of the festival. Historically, Serb and Romani communities have had a mixed relationship, but at Guca, music conquered all. ‘When you listen to music you love, you don’t care where the musician comes from,’ says Nikolai. ‘The idea here is that music comes first, and religion and ethnicity don’t matter’.