GUČA!

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GUČA! © Anthony Georgieff

Balkan brass music can never get better than Guča

"Tra-ta-ta-ta! Tra-ta-tata!" The trumpet solo sweeps over the river valley shrouded in morning mist, bounces off the nearby mountain slopes, and rebounds over the sleeping town. The sound wakes up some of the people in the houses and tents. They start to stir. "What's the time, mate?" "It's seven o'clock; too early." People pull the blankets over their heads, returning to sleep. For some minutes, the early-rising trumpeter proceeds with his morning concert, then tucks away his instrument and goes God knows where.

This is how the mornings start in Guča, near Čačak, in those glorious days in August when the 3,000 or so inhabitants of this Serbian village, plus several thousand participants and spectators gather for Sabor Trubača, or the Trumpet Festival.

The Guča Festival was born in 1961 as a modest competition between four village brass bands. For a decade it was a local affair, but eventually grew to become an event on a Serbian national scale.

Today the Guča Festival lasts a week. It has been dubbed Serbia's SuperBrand, and foreign media refer to it promisingly as "cacophony," "Serbian Woodstock" and the "wildest music festival in the world." Well, it's all true.

The music that for a week floats above the streets of Guča is of the style that, in the 1990s, became popular in the West owing to Goran Bregović and Emir Kusturica. It saw the light during the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottomans in 1804-1813. The young Serbian army was made up of men who had come together from around the Western Balkans. The soldiers' entire daily military regime (the wake-up hours, the calls for assembly, attack, retreat and so on) was regulated by melodies played on an unfamiliar musical instrument – the trumpet. The trumpet was used not only to transmit orders, but during the hours of rest listeners gathered around every military trumpeter, asking him to play folk songs from the corner of the land they had come from. The musicians obliged.

guca After the uprising had ended the soldiers returned home forever changed, the trumpet's clear-toned voice still echoing in their ears. Over the following couple of decades musicians from the Serbian provinces bought themselves trumpets, tubas and cornets, and adapted old tunes to the new instruments, thus giving rise to the Balkan style of brass music. Brass bands became an indispensable part of the life of little communities, and no wedding, baptism or funeral was complete without them.

Of course, Balkan brass music is not an exclusively Serbian phenomenon. It was widespread also in Romania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, but Serbia is perhaps the place where the social role of the brass bands has been preserved to the greatest degree.


Officially, the Guča Festival is a competitive gathering. There, brass bands from Serbia and other parts of the Balkans vie for titles such as Best Orchestra, Best Trumpeter, Most Authentic Interpretation of Music and so forth.

The festival has an official programme, which includes folk music concerts, traditional folk custom displays, contests for the best toast and the best folk costume. In 2011, when the 51st festival was held from 8 to 11 August, there were concerts by Goran Bregović and his orchestra, and by Boban Marković. The latter became a living legend in 2011. He was the first musician to receive the title Best Trumpeter after receiving full scores from every member of the jury.

guca The 7am trumpet mini concerts are also part of the official programme.

But Guča deserves all the kudos not just because of the official programme, but for what takes place outside it.

Most of the hundreds of musicians who attend the festival do so for financial reasons. They make the rounds of the pubs in Guča, offering what they do best – that is, play requests for anyone who will offer them a tip. The Guča Festival is full of people who arrive from every part of Serbia and former Yugoslavia, and from countries such as Bulgaria, Sweden, and even Japan, precisely so someone will play to them at their request.

The first spur-of-the-moment concerts start in late morning, when the festival guests have left their tents and rented rooms and are heading for the pubs to drown their hangovers in a pint of beer. Bands of vigilant musicians circle around their potential clientele, offering their services to everyone who they think might respond accordingly.

At this part of the day, however, people are still too inert. Potential clients prefer to drink their beer and eat juicy ćevapi, or kebapcheta. The foreign tourists do the rounds of the souvenirs stalls, looking at the wares on offer: souvenir rakiya bottles, traditional hats and T-Shirts with various slogans. These slogans vary from patriotic soundbites about Kosovo to phrases revealing the Serbs' unsurpassed talent for creative swearing, such as Jebeš zemlju, koja Guće nema, or F**k a country that has no Guča.

guca The pub owners languidly stoke the embers underneath the lamb and pork chevermeta, or whole lambs roasted over charcoal, and stir the pots of svadbarski kupus, or wedding sauerkraut. The svadbarski kupus is something whose absence would turn the Guča Festival into an entirely different affair. The cabbage is packed into one-metre-high clay pots and is then simmered over charcoal embers on the streets. Its particular aroma wafts around, tempting you into ordering a bowl, despite being aware that the height of summer is not really the season to enjoy this particular dish.


Things get more spirited around noon. The people in the pubs have forgotten their hangovers and are summoning this or that gypsy band to hear songs that they know by heart, but which are nearly indistinguishable to the untrained ears of the foreign festival goers.

gucaUntil late at night Guča is a pandemonium of hundreds of trumpeters, clarinet players and drummers who play as if their lives depended on it. Tipsy Serbs melancholically sway their heads to the melody that a gypsy is playing literally into their ears and young women belly dance on tabletops. Western tourists, whose strength has been drained by the Serbian rakiya, fall asleep on the pavements, and four-year-old gypsy children beg for money in return for a dance. Serbian youths in patriotic mood sport T-Shirts with patriotic slogans and bemused Japanese visitors look on and record the scene with their cameras.

All this goes on for a week.

The truth is that perhaps only professional musicians and the festival's hard-core fans can keep up such a tempo for seven days. After only a handful of hours the average visitor's ears are ringing from the trumpets, they have indigestion from the sauerkraut, and their heads are spinning not only from all the crowds around, but also from the excessive amount of alcohol that has been consumed.

Of course, there's no need to stay in Guča for a full seven days to soak up the atmosphere and perhaps fall in love with it for a lifetime.

Don't complain, though, once you are home that you woke up at seven in the morning and waited in vain for the morning trumpet to announce the start of the next day of the Guča Festival.

PRACTICALITIES

The Guča Festival is free and is open to all who want to visit it. Of course, there are some details that are good to know about before setting out. Private vehicles can enter the grounds only after paying a fee. The town's central area is a traffic-free zone. The municipal authorities arrange two camp sites, which offer amenities such as chemical toilets and hot-water showers. These can be used for a fee. Bear in mind that no tents can be rented on site, and if you want to go camping you must have your own tent. The fees charged for the car and the tent apply for the seven days of the festival. If you prefer sleeping in a room, you shouldn't encounter any problems with finding lodgings. During the festival, practically every house has rooms to let, and prices range from 35 to 55 euros a night. There is only one hotel in Guča, and that would be your best option provided that you are lucky enough to get a room; normally, it's booked out months in advance.

2010, RECORD YEAR

  • Over 800,000 people attended the 50th Guča Festival
  • About 50,000 of them were foreigners  300 journalists covered the event
  • 1,000 piglets and 1,000 lambs were spitroasted
  • The crowd devoured 50,000 рljeskavicas, or grilled flat meatballs, and 1,000,000 litres of beer
  • Barak Obama, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev were all invited. None of them attended
  • It was the first Guča Festival ever when another musical instrument caught the attention of the crowds – the vuvuzela

MILES ON GUČA

Guča Festival has seen a lot of well-known visitors, but Miles Davis was probably the most prominent of them all. What he said on his Serbian colleagues' skills is widely quoted by the organisers and fans of the festival: "I didn't know you could play trumpet that way."

Read 23395 times Last modified on Tuesday, 15 March 2016 13:25

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