In Search of the Golden Trumpet in Serbia

- by Garth Cartwright

Trumpets shred the air in Guča, Serbia. Mutant kettle drums lay down a rumbling sonic boom. Chaos erupts around me . . . Friday afternoon and the main street in Guča heaves with revelers. And it’s not going to stop until midnight, Sunday. Take a very deep breath. One heavy weekend, no trimmings, ‘bout to be served up.

The Balkan Brass Festival in Guča, Serbia

The Balkan Brass Festival in Guča, Serbia

Guča is hidden deep in Serbia’s heartland, a region of rolling hills, thick forest, and emerald lakes. This Central Serbian village, only 2.5 hours drive from the capital of Belgrade, has a population hovering around 2500 and very few streets. For a traveler, the farmsteads, cottages, and quaint hamlets are a fantastic complement to the bustling cities of Belgrade and Zagreb.

The residents farm, raise families and wonder why stuffy, pompous men in Belgrade and Zagreb chose to launch wars when all that ever truly changes is the seasons.

Nostalgia for Titoism is strong here. The greying population recalls the brutality of fascism and the way Tito brought order, building roads and schools, and ensured none went hungry. The answer for Miloševic’s era of turbo-folk, turbo-war, turbo-inflation? Throw a giant music festival that celebrates everything!

Guča hosts the biggest three-day musical celebration in the Balkans. To the musicians who participate here, Guča
is the high summit of Balkan brass: orkestars from across Serbia come to play non-stop, earn plenty of sweaty dinars, take future bookings and, maybe, be called to compete for the penultimate brass honor, The Golden Trumpet.

To the quarter million Serbs who turn up – as well as every intrepid traveller such as yours truly – Guča is quite simply, the grandest celebration of the summer. To the town’s inhabitants the gathering represents pure chaos and an annual payday. To outsiders, Guča’s sonic odyssey, is a 72-hour struggle for the soul of the new Serbian nation.

As we roll towards Guča, I observe the region’s residents: faces suggesting a certain toughness of form, character informed by the silence of rural life, moving to a rhythm dictated by nature and Orthodox cosmology. I mop my forehead and pretend I’m a peasant. Why not?

The Dragačevo region has abundant rustic charm: mud/dung brick dwellings with wonky, smoking chimneys; neatly stacked firewood, cavernous hold-alls woven from branches and filled with maize;, soil the colour of merlot; little vineyards crawling up embankments; people existing in unhurried motion. It becomes for me a real South London fantasy. I think maybe one day I’ll retire here, be a gentleman peasant, pay the locals to bring in the harvest while I sit, smoke and sip rakija in the tranquil sunshine.

Then we arrive in Guča.

Heatpeoplenoise: it all blends into shimmering cacophony. Guča 2003 represents the 32nd year Balkan brass has reigned supreme across the town. Not that it was always like this. Not that it was ever expected to be like this.

Officially called Dragačevski Sabor Trubača, the festival was created to keep the brass orkestar tradition alive. Tito’s Yugoslavia was big on all things folkloric. Some sharp-eared apparatchik, noting how the steady flow of humanity from rural to urban locations was depleting brass bands, came up with the idea of the festival/competition.

DST was initially a low-key event, following the huge success of Emir Kusturica’s films featuring Goran Bregovič’s arrangements of Balkan brass – Time Of The Gypsies, Underground, Arizona Dream. Soon thereafter orkestars began supplanting rock and rave as Serb party music.

To be in Guča’s main street on Friday afternoon feels like stepping onto a Kusturica set: brass orkestar’s blast out of tents, bars, and alleys, spilling onto streets, marching in formation, forcing their way through crowds pumping-pumping-pumping.

Damn, these men can play! Sucking in humid air and blowing out great blocks of sound, stiff backed and gimlet eyed, these brass dervishes are a musical force so potent it’s physical.

Everywhere people are dancing. Beefy blokes turn bright pink, stepping to the knees-up, knees-up pattern males everywhere do as dance, holding plastic pints of beer high, screeching with stupefied satisfaction. Their girlfriends, outfitted in push-up bras, tight pants and mid-riff flexing tops, dance a dainty kolo, smiling the smile that comes with an awareness of the male as inferior of the species.

Guca’s saturnalian atmosphere attracts plenty of knuckleheads, most of whom run stalls displaying knifes designed for gutting pigs and people. Or, they proffer a selection of T-shirts, key rings, mugs and framed portraits featuring Radovan Karadžic and Ratko Mladić
– those foul practitioners of genocide across Bosnia – and Chetnik leader Draža Mihailović. The latter’s also presented as an Orthodox religious icon. Milošević’s hangdog features are occasionally represented but as he turned a quest for Greater Serbia into the reality of Greatly Diminished Serbia, he lacks any vulgar ‘heroism’ or iconic status.

War criminals . . . weapons . . . ominous vibes? Nope. Quite the opposite. It’s very safe here. The streets heave with merry human traffic, completely absent is any sense of threat. Guča is about release rather than rationalism. Across the day and into the night it continues, dancing and drinking and drinking and dancing, the atmosphere tangy with grilled meat, and throngs of exuberant humans. People exist as a blur, physical graffiti, lost in the brass trance, dancing as Balkan metaphysic.

I sense that the Golden Trumpet is given to one person, but it only has context within this unparalleled celebration of all things Guča.

I sense that the Golden Trumpet is given to one person, but it only has context within this unparalleled celebration of all things Guča.

The book version of this article can be found in Garth Cartwright’s Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians, which focuses on traveling through the Balkans in search of musical enlightenment. You can learn more about Garth’s work by visiting his website.
Editor’s note: Original World Travel offers journeys to the Balkans including the Balkans Explorer and Comprehensive Balkans.

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