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10 Aug 17

Serbia’s Dizzy Fiesta of Trumpets and Booze

Srdjan Garcevic

For all but the purists, the annual Guca brass band festival is much more than a musical event - it's a Dionysian spectacle, fuelled by beer and rakija and scented with the fumes of cabbage and pork.

Guca Brass Band Festival. Photo: Beta.

Originally conceived as a festival in 1961 to promote what was then a fledgling institution, the brass band, the Guca Trumpet Festival (also known as Dragacevo Fair) has evolved in the past two decades into one of the most popular festivals in Serbia - and a somewhat divisive cultural institution.

Although the festival, which opened this year on Wednesday night, is devoted to preserving this unique musical style and promoting brass band stars like Boban Markovic (who went on to popularise Balkan music), its main draw is its raucous, almost orgiastic atmosphere.

Guca is a village fair, a celebration of Central Serbian traditions and, most importantly, a dizzying party, fuelled by a psychedelic mix of rakija, beer and cooked cabbage which makes revellers lose their inhibitions and shirts in a picturesque village in the middle of the country.

Although I was sceptical about it for much of my life, I decided to take the plunge five years ago at the urging of a friend of mine, a cosmopolitan, highly-educated Serbian folk music enthusiast and veteran attendee.

My scepticism was rooted in Guca’s reputation for nationalism and the common Belgrade-liberal disgust about turbo-folk and shirtless tattooed men with gold chains.

Nevertheless, fresh from my education in Britain, I decided I was ready to see the other, much-feared side of my home country.

What I found once I got to Guca on a very hot August day in 2012 completely changed my view of the place. Firstly, I was relieved to see that rather than nationalist, the politics of the place was at best confused, and ultimately secondary to the whole thing.

Nestled in the long row of stalls selling anything from underwear to agricultural machinery, a few souvenir peddlers sold busts of former Yugoslav socialist leader Tito next to those of his Chetnik arch-nemesis Draza Mihajlovic, while watched over angrily by Vladimir Putin riding a bear.

Rather than flag-waving, the main focus of the festival was music, and everyone flocked to many temporary restaurants in tents to hear brass bands preparing for that night’s trumpet competition finale.

The one we stumbled into, which will forever stay inseparable from Guca in my mind, was Kamijondzije 2 (Truckdivers 2).

The entrance to this ramshackle place was lined with rotating roast piglets and lambs and huge clay pots preparing Guca meat and a cabbage speciality – svadbarski kupus (wedding cabbage).

Once we entered, we were greeted by a huge plastic portrait of man who looked like the epitome of a winner in a ‘country in transition’ - bloated, wearing a gold watch and toting a cigar.

This picture of Kamijondzije’s owner looked out over the chaos of the place. Already at 5pm, there were dead-eyed dancers in bikinis on the tables, next to Serbian gastarbeiter families with teenage daughters calmly feasting on lunch.

The waiters were buzzing around with plates of heavy food, and occasionally waving away the scantily-clad girls who tried to dance for groups of heavy middle-aged guys wearing shirts with the names of their transport companies on them.

When I last visited, in 2016, there was even a singer on crutches singing to a high-pitched oriental synth melody, whose wails were occasionally broken up by those of an over-enthusiastic MC announcing discounts on pork roast.

In many ways, Kamijondzije 2 provided a sensory tableau of everything I had feared that Guca would be - of something that rightly is unimaginable in most of the Western world, but which in its weird way seemed normal for everyone who was there; which, after enough beers and rakijas, made it seem normal to me.

Once I got accustomed to Guca’s extremes, the intense positive energy of the festival started shining for me.

Enthusiastic throngs of locals without shirts were trying to climb the trumpeter monument on the village’s main square, French hippies were rolling on the floor to the rhythm of the nearby brass band, while music aficionados were listening to a great jazz trumpet performance on one of the smaller stages.

Everybody in their own way was happy, and nobody was disturbed in their niche.

Even though thousands of people were flowing towards the main stadium for the trumpet competition, there was no jostling or anger, despite the amount of guys who looked like football hooligans.

Once the music started, people were jumping and dancing and cheering and discussing which band they liked the most. Later, once the music switched to folk legend Miroslav Ilic, everybody was singing his maudlin ballads of loves lost and hometowns missed.

This enthusiasm was not linked to any particular music; it was simply in the air, rising from the fumes of cabbage and beer.

Both of the times we went to the festival, the morning after partying, we went for walks in the picturesque hills around the village to process the events of the previous night, which included dancing with a guy with a massive chest tattoo of a medieval Serbian king.

Needless to say, the meadows were filled with the bodies of recuperating revellers like a battlefield after combat. Going to Guca can indeed take its toll, and you need to know your dosage.

Still, my horizons have definitely been expanded as a result of experiencing this exhilarating if occasionally scary spectacle, much more than they have ever been from pumping my fist at any techno party.

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