A touch of brass in Serbia
Summer is wedding season in the mahala, and most visitors to the south of Serbia are likely to stumble upon one. A wedding lasts for two or three days, and is a way of reiterating the communal bonds that hold Romani culture together. And, of course, brass music is crucial to this ritual. All the bands that play at Guca, even Boban and Marko, started off on the wedding circuit, playing for hours and even days at a time. Alexander Markovic, an American-Serb PhD student, has been living in Vranje for two years to study Romani rituals. ‘There is a strict way that things are done at a Romani wedding,’ he explains. ‘Certain songs must be played, in a certain way, in a certain order. It’s not like at Guca – there’s no room for experimentation. The band must play the traditional songs exactly right, with the right rhythm and power. The older people will hold them to account if they don’t!’
It’s Friday, and the small town of Vranjska Banja is hosting the first of the weekend’s weddings. The celebration sees almost the whole mahala gather in the school playground. The bride, hair glittering with jewels and eyes dark with kohl, stands at the head of a large semi-circle of women holding hands. The band begins to play, and the women start to dance. At first, the dancing looks underwhelming, a gentle back and forth on the heel of the foot and a slow loop of the playground. However, soon the realisation dawns that the women are moving in perfect unison, a shimmy here and a swerve of the hips there, all at exactly the same time. Men rarely take part in the dancing, save for the groom, who joins his new wife, dressed in a brightly coloured traditional tunic and turban. Instead, each man takes his turn to approach the bandleader at the end of a song, pressing a note into his hand. This process – of family, friends and neighbours paying their respects through music and dance – goes on until sundown.
The next morning, the crowd gathers in the dusty front yard of the groom’s family home. There’s an orkestar here, of course, and soon the thump and trill of trumpet and drum starts up once more. There’s a cheer, and out of the front door comes the bride, clutching a bottle of sweet brandy. She starts to lead the dance line of women once more around the yard as the band plays, while her mother-in-law offers guests a swig of the brandy.
Later that day, I drive a few miles up the road to the neighbourhood of Vladicin Han, and the impressive mansion that is home to Boban and Marko when not on tour. The Markovic megastars have come a long way from their humble roots – but for the Romani people of this land, it doesn’t matter where you go or how famous and rich you get: the trumpet always calls you home. Standing by the mansion’s ornate electric gates, the sound of a horn can be heard, running up and down an Arabic scale over and over. Marko was right – there’s no escaping Balkan brass.