"You’ll have to grow a moustache" advised my friend from Bosnia. “It's the only way you’ll blend in". I’d told him I was going to the Brass Band Festival in Guča in Western Serbia and he was concerned about my safety “ You must remember that it was only two and half years ago that your country was helping bomb the Milosevic government into submission.’
He had a point, the combination of the wild gypsy brass music and all day slivovitz supping would certainly stir up emotions. Who knew the Serbs would react to a baldy Brit barging into the party? I’d wanted to go after I had seen the films of the Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica, Underground, Time of the Gypsies and Black Cat White Cat. I loved the manic chaos of the wedding scenes whipped up by the intoxicating music, the searing trumpet solos and pumping brass rhythms . I wanted to experience the sound at its source and by all accounts Guča was the place. On the second weekend of August the town hosts a sort of Serbian Brass Olympics bringing together the top orchestras and trumpet players for the finals of a national competition. It is a unique festival with more weddings bands per square metre than anywhere on the planet, I couldn’t resist it, facial hair or not.
So it was that I found myself on the outskirts of Gucadeep in the mountainous area of Dragacevo 120 kms south west of Belgrade in a bumper-to-bumper queue of, tractors, Trabants and old Yugos. As we arrived locals tendered parking spaces, children set up drinks stalls on planks of wood and an old farmer doffed his trilby and offered a room in his house. This is the charm of the Guča festival, it is feels like local country fair with the whole neighbourhood getting in on the act. There is a tangible sense of excitement as the trumpet circus comes to town and people of all ages rush past the freshly harvested hayricks to join the Balkan carnival
The festival has evolved since its inception in 1961 when the repertoire of the bands was state controlled and the folk virtuosity promoted as political propaganda. Thanks to the improvisation skills and oriental flavour of the Roma (gypsy) bands of Southern Serbia the music is much more expressive these days. It has moved away from its military roots and there is now room for personality and individual talents to shine through. The loosening up process has certainly spilled out into the town where sometimes it feels like the musical competition is a minor detail tacked onto the three-day street party.
In the busy market in the centre of Guča the stalls sell everything from blow-up Dalmatian dogs to wooden effigies of war criminals marinating in bottles of plum brandy. There are beer stands pumping out pivo straight from the parked tankers into a non-stop stream of glasses. Then there is the MEAT. I’ve never seen so many roasted pigs and sheep’s head in my life. If you are a vegetarian be warned, best bring a supply of tofu sandwiches and a pair of heavily tinted sunglasses. Recorded brass music blasts out from every makeshift bar and bootleg cd stall, with Wedding Cocekfrom Goran Bregovic’s score for Underground as the unofficial anthem.
It was reassuring to hear the familiar dance tune and even better still was my first sighting and sounding of a real live band. Two in fact -the guest Italian band Tutibanda processing up the main street with Ekrem Sadjdic ‘s Gypsy Orchestra. They made a charming couple with the Italian’s lightweight Latin tunes contrasting well against the deep dark strength of the Gypsy Orchestra’s sound. Musical entente cordiale at its best
The rest of the performers appeared in the Saturday afternoon parade around the town. There were about forty groups in all including the junior orchestras, dance troupes and folk choirs each led by a standard bearer carrying a Cyrillic name tag. As each costumed group waddled past the overall effect was like being backstage in an enormous comic opera The music was a little mangled as each tuba overlapped with the next, but the atmosphere was terrific.
Later there was more musical theatre with a re enactment of a traditional Serbian wedding feast in front of the Guca House of Culture. The wedding band (including fiddle and accordion) played furiously fast and the crowd crushed around the circle of dancing elderly guests. There was no sign of the groom, which could have explained the bride’s glum expression as she entered the arena on a garlanded horse. She was followed by a Christmas tree laden with pomegranates, then someone threw a bag of sugar cubes and almonds in the air, and a man with a roast ram on his shoulder sang to me. Here was the sort of marvellous musical anarchy I had come in search of.
The two main musical events of the festival took place on the sports field on the edge of town. The first was the 10 o’clock Saturday night concert that was going out on German television and had all the accompanying paraphernalia of a big broadcast production. I thought the lighting rigs, microphones and camera tracks distracted a little from the spirit of the pure brass but as the television company had stumped up most of the sponsorship for the event making it a free festival ,it was hard to complain
This year, the festival organiser, Ilija Stankovic had come up with the innovation of putting pairs of bands on stage at the same time. It worked very well with the combined orchestras providing a double strength sound and a tight running order.They played crowd pleasing dance favourites, mainly the fast furious coceks and the slower bubbling kolos, reminiscent of the oompah music of a Bavaria beer festival.
As I wandered through the crowd there seemed to be an awful lot of shirtless teenage males merrily jigging to the brass beat. One six-foot hunk leaned over and asked me where I was from. Desperate to avoid a revengeful punch, I panicked and replied ‘I’m er…American” Talk about raising the stakes. The enormous guy bent down put his arms around me and bellowed,’I love America, welcome to Guca” So much for the warnings. Politics was obviously off the agenda and people had come to dance. The partying carried on into the early hours and amazingly there wasn’t a single fight or boozy quarrel. Later the organiser confessed that his biggest worry had been the security guards who forgotten their roles and enthusiastically joined in the jigging session. Such is the pull of this great dance party.
The main competition on the Sunday afternoon was a more formal affair with an introductory speech, the national anthem and the loudest gun salute on record. Listening to over two hundred brass players on the same stage was very moving in more ways than one, the ground seemed to vibrate. Apparently the massed music is so powerful it can be heard twenty kilometres away. In the competition the bands seemed tense as they went through their paces and although there were displays of musical brilliance it lacked the spark of the previous night’s concert. To be fair to the players there was a lot at stake. The contest acts as a sort of musical trade show with many visiting promoters and concert organisers booking up bands for lucrative tours. and the winning bands are able to command high fees at Serbia’s society weddings.
Personally I found the true spirit of the music lay beyond confines of the competition on the fringes of the festival. Many of the professional wedding bands fund their trip by playing around the cafes and improvised eateries of Guča. It was pure joy to watch as a customer hires his band, makes a request and is then surrounded by a wall of music. Try it yourself-a ten-piece orchestra a metre away from you ears is a truly invigorating experience. You can get a decent blast for around 20 euros. If you want more, stuff a few hundred dinars in the trumpet horns or better still dunk the note in your pivo and slap into to the head of the blower. Wedding band heaven indeed.
Full details of the festival dates, programme, accommodation and ticket sales can be found at guca.rs