20th August 2012.
The weekend before last, an intrepid troupe of three fulfilled a mutual long-standing desire to experience the Guča Trumpet Festival, a niche event held in a tiny Serbian village, this time round in its 52nd incarnation. Now I say niche, yet as much of a mystery to the majority of the world, Guča is furiously popular with natives of the Balkan region, attracting between two and three hundred thousand revellers annually.
Centred around a series of national and international competitions culminating in one band being presented with the ‘Golden Trumpet’, the festival is unlike any other I have had the pleasure of experiencing. I guess the only real parallel to be drawn is with Austin’s SXSW as much of the best performances happen in bars around the city (or village in this case) but that is where the comparisons have to end.
The festival is free, meaning that masses gleefully descend on the usually sleepy village located a four hour drive from Belgrade, often with little more than the car they made the journey in. Add to this a fierce passion for frantic brass music and the fact that beer costs around 80p a pint and you start to get an idea of what is in store for you.
Setting off at 3am from our starting point in London on Thursday, nearly seventeen hours later we finally began to put our tent together after our host “Johnson” had welcomed us with a shot of local spirit Rakija. Heading down towards the bustling streets of the village, temporarily crammed with all manner of stalls and bars, the atmosphere of the festival instantly lived up to its reputation. You can rarely walk more than a few paces without seeing another band perform in either the street or a makeshift bar, as spectators urge the musicians to play the instruments directly into their ears.
The scene on the streets is one that takes a little getting used to; some of the items on sale make no sense whatsoever. Used power tools seemed a popular thing to trade as did car radios and hunting knives. For all of these oddities and the insane amount of alcohol being consumed, you would expect some sort of trouble but this concern soon waned.
The nearest thing to a disturbance we witnessed was two enthusiastic men jumping on the back of a van slowly working its way through the crowd, then opening the back door and climbing inside to find a dozen or so crates of beer. Cheers stirred up from the mischievous pair’s now fixated audience as they began to open and pass out the refreshments, the driver noticed, stopped and confronted them only to be offered a beer for his troubles. Caught seemingly in a moral quandary the driver made a short call to his boss, alerting him to the hijacking before accepting the drink, following which, everyone continued as if nothing had happened, but then this is Guča.
Thick and pungent smoke filled the humid evening air as the other permanent fixtures of the festival became apparent, pigs and lambs slowly turning on spits represented the traditional Serbian cuisine flanking vast charcoal grills serving pork burgers and an array of sausages. Avid a meat eater as I am, by only the second evening, the pork and pivo (draft beer) diet began to take its toll on me, so inventive means of sustenance firmly became order of the following day. Having ended our first night taking in the bands performing at the stadium, our second gave us opportunity to scour the streets in the hope of catching a interesting group or two spontaneously playing one of the open fronted bars.
Having caught a great set from a band who were the “Champions of France”, what followed was perhaps the most bizarre hour of my life. A combination of two things I didn’t ever imagine that I would see. The first of these was a result of our aforementioned desire to vary our diet. We headed into what seemed to be a fully-fledged restaurant as opposed to a pop-up stall, primarily as it provided English translations of a sort to the menu. We took a bit of a gamble with a combination of ‘Wedding Cabbage’, ‘Mixed Salad’ and our culinary downfall ‘Hajduk Special Meat’. This proved an ill-advised combination, quite what the latter dish was, I still don’t know but it would be fair to say that it didn’t do us any favours. Desperate at this stage for something to take our mind off our misadventure of a meal we wandered towards the stadium yet were drawn into the now bustling fun fair next to it.
The sound of an old motorcycle fizzing around a wooden cylindrical “Wall of Death” struck us with morbid curiosity, 200 Dinar later (about £1.30) we were waiting in line to witness the infamous act. Ascending up a steep and narrow set of metal stairs to the circular viewing platform we waited as what seemed to be man and wife made final preparations to their ragged machines before taking to the wall individually, together and then blindfolded. At this stage it became plainly obvious that “Health and Safety” is interpreted completely differently at Guča than anywhere else I have been. Despite the brutal nature of this Colosseum-style entertainment, the queues were forming again as we departed, awash with a mixture of awe and disbelief. A couple of hours remained before the stadium closed for a night so we headed deep into the thick crowd and danced the night away amidst traditional dances, showers of stray pivo and flares.
Rising for the second day in a row at 7am to the sound of cannons, the heat in the tent was already unbearable. Another of Guča’s many idiosyncratic traditions, is to wake the village at sunrise on the Friday and Saturday morning with four shots from a cannon and four bands heading North, East, South and West in order to rally the ailing troops. The fact that within the hour the streets are already buzzing again is a great indication of the passion with which the festival goers observe Guča’s way of life. As the evening arrived we noticed something claiming to be the village’s only vegetarian restaurant. Delighted at the prospect of eating some vegetables other than our now customary bread and processed tomato breakfasts, we eagerly made our way to the counter to place our order.
Luck would have it that a raucous Portuguese band by the name of Kumpania Algazarra was just beginning what turned out to be the performance of the weekend. Their ska-influenced style was a departure from the traditional Serbian music we were getting used to. It was as frenzied but the addition of a clarinet and megaphone instantly indicated that this was to be something of a stylistic departure. Situating themselves at the very back of the seating area, within minutes of starting a crowd of seventy or so people had amassed, with every available inch on tables and benches leapt upon by enthusiastic revellers. From the reaction of those gathered, you would have thought that all these songs were covers of classics but as the group’s clarinettist Luís Bastolini revealed to us afterwards, all but two were original compositions.
Bastolini told us that they had played a Serbian song for their official entry to this year’s Guča international competition but had not won. I was glad though that we had witnessed them performing their own material, indeed it was doing the very same that had seen them win a street music competition in Barcelona earlier in the year. As our conversation drew to a close with Bastolini, we headed off to the stadium to catch the end of the Saturday night concert before returning back to the same bar only to find the group’s Luís Barrocas and Hélder Silva soaking up both the local atmosphere and refreshments, it seemed rude to do anything other than join them.
While Sunday morning afforded us the liberty of not being woken by the cannons, again the sun beating down on our suspiciously pungent Halford’s tent was enough to force an early rise. A midday wander around the camp proved that the weekend’s exertions had done nothing to dampen the mood. The streets were again flooded with people who in turn were already flooded with alcohol and in fine spirits once again. Mindful of making our flight back and somehow breaking up the same seventeen hour trip that had got us to this fantastic place we decided to cut our losses and sacrifice Sunday’s concert for a bus back to Belgrade. The arduous bus trip through the winding hills towards Čačak didn’t really prove sufficient time to process what we had experienced.
A week later I remain unable to articulate quite how different and fantastic a festival this is, it’s rough round the edges, but that makes it all the more fascinating. For the Balkan region it is a passionate celebration and a really inclusive one at that. Despite not meeting another English person until the journey home, we we’re never treated with anything but open arms and cold, cold beer.
For an idea of what a weekend at Guča sounds like, look no further than Goran Bregovic’s Kalasnjikov and Dejan Petrovic’s Vrtlog, both of which are unofficial anthems of the festival. In all of our time there, no more than a couple of minutes would pass without hearing one or the other and seeing a mass of people dance to each in their entirety as if helplessly possessed.