A touch of brass in Serbia
For Serbia, a country in which national and ethnic identities have played a significant role in a troubled past, most recently in the 1999 Kosovo conflict, the power of a festival such as Guca to unite is without measure. In the town centre, there stands a statue of a trumpet player, instrument held high. Every evening, it is surrounded by festival-goers, some in traditional Serb military outfits. Many climb up onto the statue and wave national flags. The noise is incredible as street bands compete against each other to win the crowd’s favour. Even in an atmosphere heavy with Serb nationalism, the most requested tunes are not by Serb bands, but the sounds of the Roma.
There is one band whose popularity symbolises this more than any other, their songs played incessantly by every street orkestar: the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra. Boban was the first superstar of Balkan brass. He took the sound out of Eastern Europe and onto the international stage, selling out global tours, releasing bestselling albums and lending his trumpet to everything from film soundtracks to pop songs. Boban and his band have won the Golden Trumpet award at the Guca festival so many times they don’t enter anymore, instead playing a euphoric headlining set each year.
In 2002, Boban passed on lead trumpet duties to his son, Marko. With his slick black hair, denim shirt and white jeans, Marco looks every inch the pop star, albeit one from a 1980s soft rock band. His talent is extraordinary. As the band take to the stage in front of an exuberant crowd waving Serbian flags and roaring their approval, he grabs the microphone and yells: ‘Welcome to Boban Markovic, the king of gypsy jazz!’ before the band launches into an insanely fast selection of their hits. Marko shakes his backside to the music, leaning back into his solos, joining Boban in singing the choruses. The crowd leaps around, bellowing the words and even the trumpet riffs, in a manic fit of joy.
The morning after the concert, Marko sits in a café on the main strip of the festival, drinking a Coke, looking a little worn out. Not surprising, really – he’s played more than 100 concerts a year since joining the band as a 14-year-old a decade ago. ‘I want to play with everyone,’ he admits, glancing out of the window as the first batch of street bands launch into a somewhat wonky version of one of his own tunes. ‘I can’t control myself! I’m always on the verge of grabbing my trumpet and joining in.’ Marko has been playing since the age of three. ‘It’s normal where I’m from. From the moment you get up in the morning, you can hear children practising their instruments. Yet it has to be in your blood – you can’t learn to play like a Roma. It’s like God designed the Roma to play music.’
Boban and Marko are from one of the small Romani mahalas (neighbourhoods) that surround the Serbian city of Vranje, a four-hour drive south from Guca.
If Guca is where Balkan brass shows itself off to the world, then southern Serbia, a land of sporadic farms, dry dirt tracks and rusting, abandoned cars, is where it was born and nurtured. Romani mahalas are distinguished by extravagantly decorated – yet often half-completed – houses that families here invest so much time, money and energy into building. The size and exterior decoration of a house is a marker of status in much of Romani society. The construction of homes is a rolling project; multiple generations live in the same house – often, every time a son or daughter gets married, a new storey is required. The mahalas are serenaded by the sounds of brass bands, and any event – from weddings and funerals to the completion of one of those new storeys – is marked with a performance from a band hired for the occasion.