Guca Festival, Guca, Serbia
An Appreciation by Petr Doruzka
||GUCA, Yugoslavia - Last week, 350,000 people descended on this small
Serbian valley town, home to 3,000 inhabitants and one hotel. The occasion
the 41st annual Trumpeters Festival, one of the most frenetic and freewheeling
folk festivals of its kind or perhaps any kind. For four days,
revelers drank large amounts of alcohol, ate spit-roasted lamb and pig
danced around and on their tables, as some 40 blaring brass bands wrought
on the town until the wee hours.|
"It's pure insanity, and insanity has no rules," said Vasilije
local businessman, politician and semiprofessional chess player who runs
Unlike the best performances at most music festivals, those at Guca (pronounced
GOO-chah) took place offstage, as bands simply wandered through the crowd.
Often, several 10-member brass orchestras in close proximity played different
songs simultaneously in tent-shaded eating areas, competing for
attention (and tips) by putting the horns of their instruments against
ears and blasting away. Revelers showed their appreciation by slapping
onto the musicians' sweat-wet foreheads or stuffing them into their hungry
horns. Some even hired bands to follow them as they caroused
through the town.
It was an extreme example of the intense dedication that most Serbians
nightlife. The same attitude of limitless celebration pervades even the
songs that blare in the clubs every night, where groups of friends belt
that revel in the excesses of emotion, choruses that tell of
reacting to overwhelming love or heartbreak by drinking, gorging, shouting
the street and breaking bottles as if the sun will never rise again.
|Zarco Petrovic, a composer, arranger and author who was the chief music
at the festival, explained the horn-in-your-ear nature of the brass-band
performances as akin to the transcendent states that fans of everything
Sufi qawwali music to electronic rave aspire to.
"The listener wants to unite with the music and create a symbiotic
in which he and the music become one," he said. "And the proximity
of the music
- being able to reach out and grab it - helps him attain that spiritual
This brass-band tradition is a specifically Serbian one, born of a culture
has spent almost its entire existence either at war or in subjugation.
music began in 1804, when the trumpet first came to Serbia during the
Karageorge uprising, in which a Serbian patriot known as Black George
led a revolt against the Turkish occupation of 500 years. Though it was
military instrument to wake and gather soldiers and announce battles,
trumpet took on the role of entertainment during downtime, as soldiers
to transpose popular folk songs. When war ended and they returned to
their hometowns, the music entered civilian life.
Eventually, Gypsies adopted the tradition, adding more complicated rhythms
melodies and creating two schools: the more subtle and melodic west Serbian
bands and the more complex and danceable Gypsy-blooded South Serbian
The horns amassed until the bands included large clusters of hand-hammered
instruments resembling flat-key trumpets, Wagner tubas (related to the
horn) and euphoniums (close cousins of the tuba). The combined effec
t is an intoxicating surge that sounds like equal parts military music,
tune, parade march, spaghetti-western soundtrack, klezmer and, let's say,
Dixieland band trying to play free jazz.
||Though the music can career into high- velocity, 160-beat-per-minute stomps,
underneath it all is a sad, dirgelike melody underscoring the tragedy
makes such celebration necessary for the spirit's survival. The Guca
Trumpeters Festival is largely responsible for keeping that music and
spirit alive into the 21st century.|
"Famous European orchestra conductors come to this festival to see
people organize their bands so well and achieve such a high level of playing,"
Mr. Petrovic, the judge, said. "They'll ask me where the leader w
ent to school and studied music. And I'll say, 'They're musically illiterate
they're farmers.' Then they'll ask, 'How then did he become such a virtuoso
modulation and arrangement?' And I'll say, 'He didn't study it
- he feels it.' "
One of the greatest trumpeters is Boban Markovic, a Serbian of Gypsy heritage
best known internationally for having contributed music to films by the
Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica, whose dizzyingly paced works, filled
with brass bands, suddenly seem sedate compared with Guca. On Saturday,
Markovic could be found at an outdoor cafe, ripping through everything
"Hava Nagila" to the popular dances from Mr. Kusturica's "Underground
A patron, Toma Kostic, balanced three shot glasses on his upturned face
danced around a table. When the song ended, he said that he had attended
festival for 23 years straight. "One year, I even wrote Bill Clinton
personally, because he plays saxophone, and I asked him to compete,"
he said. "But he didn't write back."
Mr. Kostic's 22-year-old goddaughter, Ana Dimitrijevic, a student in Toronto,
said that she was having such a good time in Guca that she had decided
return to Belgrade to live because the people in Canada didn't know how to have as much fun.
After playing, Mr. Markovic rested under the marquee of the town's lone
the Golden Trumpet, and said that he wouldn't be competing this year.
this," he said. "I write most of the songs that other bands
play. I've won the contest many, many times. The problem is that the jury
wants me to play like I did 15 years ago. But I want to be more innovative
play more modern stuff. So I'm not going to compete this year."
Another controversy at Guca began with folk purists, who preferred string-band
music. "The music here comes out of a military tradition against
said Milosh Vukajlovich, a festival vendor. "It comes from the warrior tradition, not the folk tradition." Another vendor nearby countered
the military tradition in Serbia was its folk culture.
| The highlight of the festival was the competition of its final day, Sunday,
when 20 bands, all finalists from contests around the country, faced off
the Golden Trumpet award, the genre's highest prize. The day began at 6, when four bands marched down separate town thoroughfares, playing
wake up the residents. They then met at an intersection, where they tried
drown out one another. After a parade, the contest began with the firing of a cannon as all of the orchestras, some 180 brass musicians,
the same song at once.
"The sound is so intense that your hair stands on its end, and you
just want to
cut your veins," said Vlade Isailovic, 36, a professor of civil defense
who works at a water distribution company in nearby Arilje.
Attending the competition this year, among other dignitaries, were Princess
Katherine of Yugoslavia (from the line of Black George, to whose uprising
music can be traced), and Zoran Djindjic, the prime minister. As Mr. Djindjic sat watching the festival, a circle of music fans formed several
feet in front of him during a song by the South Serbian band Zlatni Prsti
(Golden Fingers). Oblivious to the proximity of politicians and royalty, the audience members joined hands and reeled back and forth around the
circle, doing the traditional kolo dance.
For Zlatni Prsti, which had practiced for months for the competition,
performance was grueling. "We're exhausted," said Dragan Muslijic,
one of the
band's three trumpeters. "We were up until 4 a.m. last night, playing. And then we had to wake up a few hours later this morning and play."
added, however, that the festival was tame work compared with some of
the three-day weddings at which he has performed.
When asked about winning the top prize, Mr. Muslijic engaged in a little
friendly rivalry. "We deserve it," he said. "I wouldn't
want it if we weren't
the best orchestra here, but we are. When the westerners are kids, they
us to learn how to play."
As proof of how chaotic the festival is, the winner was a South Serbian
not Zlatni Prsti, but none other than Mr. Markovic's orchestra, which
to enter the contest after all. He led a victory march from the stage
to a cafe
and jumped up on a table, tore off his shirt and let blare
one of the wildest, most ecstatic trumpet bleats I've ever heard. The
of the crowd around him tore his shirt into tiny pieces, waving the white
strips over their heads as Mr. Markovic and his band stood on tabletops
impromptu hourlong concert. For someone who had claimed to be
above competing, Mr. Markovic looked very happy - even ecstatic - to have