Every year, the streets of the small Serbian village of Guca are filled with the joyous sounds of trumpets and tubas. Join the party in the weird and wonderful world of Balkan Brass.

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’.

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.

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.

The article 'A touch of brass in Serbia' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.