The Battle of the Plastic Tables

At the world's biggest trumpet festival, Guca, in Serbia

A 20 minute read

‘Man, I didn’t know you could play trumpet that way.’
Miles Davis at the Guca Festival

RTB Big Band, Belgrade, tearing it up in the 60s.

When you think of dance music in Europe, Yugoslavia may not be the first place that springs to mind. Fans of Gilles Peterson and jazzdance/breakbeat will know about the Belgrade club scene, which on the strength of recent releases by UK label Cosmic Sounds is as dynamic and creative as any in Europe. But it is the acoustic dance music of Yugoslavia that has been attracting serious attention over the last ten years – in particular, the hard-blowing, hard-dancing Rom (Gypsy) brass music of Serbia and Macedonia. It has fiery horn riffs, wild solos and shimmering rhythms that are funky and dirty enough to challenge the hardest Salsa and Afrobeat tunes for a place on the dancefloor. So roll over Fela, and let those Balkan trumpets lead the way…

But before we get to the party, a bit of background information. In historical terms, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was generally more supportive of folk music than its Eastern Bloc counterparts. The relationship between folklore and ethnic nationalism in Europe has long been problematic, marked by aggressive adoption of folk culture to support theories of racial superiority in WWII and more recently in post-Communist times. In the light of Yugoslavia’s break with the USSR in 1948, official musical policy was relatively liberal in most spheres and there was, with one or two exceptions, little direct censorship. Despite the risk for performers of being tainted with ‘bourgeois nationalism’, folk music was actively promoted by the state record companies and remained popular across the country. The 'stylized' way. Tito himself is known to have told his biographer that he was a fan of folk music, but ‘not in the stylized way’ favoured by official state folk ensembles in the USSR, for example.

For young people across the region, though, in the 70s and 80s there was only one sound that mattered – rock. In the absence of formal political parties, some rock bands took on a role of popular opposition to the state. Although for this reason lyrical content was generally afforded more importance than in the West, there were a number of groups that went on to distinguish themselves in the creativity of their musical approach. Out of the handful of notable Yugorock bands who incorporated melodic and rhythmic ideas from Yugoslav folk repertoires into their songs, there is one in particular that I want to mention here - Bijelo Dugme (White Button) from Sarajevo. Bijelo Dugme, with Zeljko Bebek on vocals, 1975. Much of the credit for putting folk music firmly on the urban cultural map over the past decade, both within Yugoslavia and internationally, must fall to their former leader and guitarist, Goran Bregovic. With remarkable prescience, not just for his own career, he remarked in 1989 that ‘the future of rock music, not just in Yugoslavia but in the world, is ethnic music.’

Although there is a tradition of brass music the length and breadth of the country, and regional festivals in towns as far north as Novi Sad in Vojvodina, brass band culture in Serbia is by and large concentrated in a handful of small towns in the South. These towns are home to the ‘black’ bands, the Serbian Rom brass bands that Bregovic thrust onto the world stage in Emir Kusturica’s hit films ‘Arizona Dream’ (1993) and ‘Underground’ (1995). A scene from Underground, dir. Emir Kusturica. Despite the many accusations leveled at both Bregovic and Kusturica - for claiming ownership of traditional Rom tunes and regurgitating offensive Rom stereotypes respectively – it is thanks to their award-winning collaborations that South Serbian brass music has become the drunken party music of choice for young Serbs all over the country. And by extension, the country’s wildest party is the annual Guca brass band festival.

The Guca festival – or to use its proper name Dragacevski Sabor Trubaca – has steadily grown since its inception in 1961 to become Yugoslavia’s most famous music festival. Every year in August, it plays host to fifty of the best brass orchestras from across the country, who come together for an epic battle-of-the-bands that swells the local population of 2500 to between one and two hundred thousand during festival time. Turbo folk - criminal in every way. However tempting it might be to see the festival as a celebration of authentic music in a landscape dominated by the synthetic pop sounds of turbo folk, it is pleasing to note that Guca follows the time-honoured festival tradition of being as much about sex, drinking and Ibiza-style hedonism as about anything else.

The official festival is split into three parts. The opening concert on the first evening is a spectacular showcase, featuring all the winners from the previous year’s competitions, followed by an outdoor party led by a brass band radio DJ that goes on late into the night. It is on the first day proper that the serious competitive playing gets underway, with the mladi (junior) contest in the town square, followed by the main, open competition on the final day in the football stadium.

The line-up of the bands, with anywhere between five and twelve members for private functions, tend to be nine or ten-strong for the competitions: three truba (a kind of rotary-valve flugelhorn or trumpet) on melody, three or four tenor (baritone truba or tenor horn) blasting out rhythmic chords, veliki bas (bass truba or tuba), tapan (a bass drum with a sharp, high snare skin on one side) and dobos (snare). The groups who make it to Guca through the qualifying stages come from all across the country, both semi-professional Serb ensembles from the North and West and professional Rom bands from the South. Both in terms of playing styles and repertoire, there is a noticeable difference between the Serb and Rom orchestras : the lilting kolo dance with its gentle ‘oom-pah’ rhythm and fast but stately brass lines gradually gives way to the more brazenly funky cocek , with its explosive drumming, clarinets, alto saxes and more Turkish-influenced microtonal lines, the further south you go.

It is this region in the South, beyond Nis between the borders with Kosovo, Macedonia and Bulgaria, that you find the towns and villages that live and breathe this music. Brass culture is a deeply ingrained part of everyday life here. Young children are given small plastic trumpets to play with, and tend to graduate onto the real thing at about eight years old. At nightfall in Vranjska Banja, down in the Muslim Rom mahala (neighbourhood), teenagers strut up and down the street like peacocks, trumpets, alto saxophones, tenor horns and drums firing up the night sky. As a group of girls strolls past whispering and giggling, the lead trumpeter and band leader will take the chance to launch into his most blistering solo.

One town in particular, Vladicin Han, has good claim to be the source of South Serbian brass. More bands from Han enter the competition than from any other town, and it is also home to Yugoslavia’s biggest trumpet star, Boban Markovic, who dominated the competition in the 1990s. He has become so successful these days that they rarely see him: ‘Boban used to chase money, now money chases him,’ is how one of his cousin’s put it. Incidentally, it seems that the town’s reputation as home of the trumpet is safe for the foreseeable future – Boban’s fourteen-year old son Marko is already touring with the band and something of a mean trubac himself.

An old cocek dance from Bakija Bakic.

Like Rom communities across the world, knowledge and musical traditions are passed from generation to generation down the male line. The greatest example of this in the Serbian brass world is a family of trumpet players who have dominated Guca since the earliest days of the competition. Since 1963, the three generations of the Bakic/Mladenovic family from Vranje have been voted ‘best trumpeter’ on ten separate occasions. All three players are legends in their own right: Bakija Bakic, Milan Mladenovic and Nenad Mladenovic – individually recognized as ‘Master of Trumpet’, the ultimate accolade in Balkan brass. At the 42nd Guca competition this year, the torch was passed to Nenad’s young son, who entered the junior competition for the first time.

The rules of the junior and senior competitions and the prizes awarded are the same – shiny new instruments are given out for each category of instrument, and well as engraved glass bowls for the best and second best orchestra, audience’s favourite band, and best kolo dance. But Guca is first and foremost a chance for individual players to lock horns and make their own reputations – there is cut-throat rivalry between young and old players alike, and the most sought-after award is not najbolji (best) orkestar, but najbolji trubac. Like jazz combos, the bands tend to be named after the leader – eg. the Brass Band of Bojan Krstic – and with small towns in the south producing dozens of bands all with hot young players, the competition is intense. Success at Guca is the yardstick by which all bands are judged – the magic words ‘golden trumpet’ or ‘best orchestra’ on a business card or CD are priceless in terms of private bookings for weddings and reputation.

Bojan Krstic Orkestar, Golden Trumpet 2015, with their winning performance.

Put simply, the festival is the only show in town and all the bands are desperate to come home with something. Wild rumours and infighting abound. Bojan Krstic is one of the best young players in Serbia, only 21 years old but proud holder of the najbolji mladi trubac title from 2001. His manager is a highly educated Rom musician and theatre producer from Belgrade who is attempting to guide Bojan through the bureaucratic minefields onto the European festival circuit. Within hours of his winning this most prestigious prize, Bojan’s entire home town was whispering tales of bribery and corruption. His family even approached the manager and enquired gently if the stories were true. Only about two streets separate the families of the two best young players in the village – they hardly mix at all and the one of the rare times they met this year was at Guca, when their two bands came to blows over these allegations.

The repertoire during the competition is strictly controlled. Each band must play two tunes – one slow, arhythmic Serbian song and one faster dance (oro, kolo or cocek). From an impressionistic, outsider’s point of view it would seem that there is a concerted effort by the organizers to make this festival a celebration of Serbian, not Rom music. At various intervals during the competitions, the brass bands on the stage give way to Serbian folk dance troupes, complete with embroidered headscarves and curled-toe village shoes. More than anything it is these performances that send the crowd into raptures. The number of flags (both Serbian and skull-and-crossbones) and the ready availability of T-shirts proclaiming ‘Arkan – Srbski Geroj {hero}’ make for a visibly nationalistic undertone that bring the uneasy marriage of politics and music in the Balkans into sharp relief. Although it must be said that these sentiments reflect only a minority in the crowd, the irony of watching young skinheads in army fatigues waving flags and dancing to a Muslim Roma brass band from the South is bitter indeed – and a reminder of the dangers of romanticizing Rom life in this part of the world. A telling footnote to this observation is the large number of Rom musicians from the South, such as the legendary trumpeter Ekrem Mamutovic/Milan Mladenovic, who felt it necessary to Slavicise their names in the Milosevic era.

Although the daytime competitions are undoubtedly important, the fact that the performances are so regulated makes for a bitty musical experience – slow tune, fast tune, long-winded introduction, slow tune, fast tune and so on. In fact it is only when the competition finishes and night starts to fall that the real magic starts to emerge. In the relative cool of the evening, the crowds swell, and as the huge flow of people pushes you down the main street off towards the church, it becomes obvious that this is where the serious partying takes place. Bands playing in the money key. Punters spill out from the heaving bar and restaurants tents on either side of the narrow pathway, traders hawk festival knick-knacks and religious paraphernalia, and the hot smell of whole lambs, roasting slowly on huge charcoal fires, fills the air. When you do finally manage to get off the path and squeeze into one of the restaurant tents, the sheer volume and energy levels of the music inside leave you speechless. The reality of Guca is wilder than anything in Kusturica.

As you make your way between the dozens of plastic tables jammed into each tent, you are hit by a wall of sound – screaming trumpets, booming tenors, snares, bass drums – as many as four bands standing within a short distance of each other playing as loud as they possibly can. The rules of the impromptu concerts are simple – you pay a band to play at your table, and as long as you keep on paying, boy, will they keep on playing. Guca cafe after sundown. Tables of rich businessman, both émigrés and local Serbs, seem to vie to display their wealth. It is not enough just to slip money into the musicians’ pockets when there is a show to be made – stuffing a large note into a trumpet when you are dancing on the table, slapping it onto their forehead, where it sticks because of the sweat, throwing a wad into the air over their heads. When a band is really steaming, the dancers are never far away: groups of young Roma girls follow the musicians from table to table, gyrating like dervishes as they hope to get in on the windfall. Make no mistake, Guca is by far the musicians’ biggest payday of the year – where for a good night’s work they can take home between 500 and 1000 euros each. So although the dream of a prize in the competition is the magnet that brings them all here, it soon becomes of secondary importance in the battle of the plastic tables.

A word of warning to people wanting to make their own Kusturica style musical epic: all recording rights to this year’s festival were sold to German media giant UFA, and filming permits cost around 3000 euros per concert. Unofficial filming is not recommended – last year students with camcorders were allegedly beaten up and had their cameras seized for flouting the new regulations. The organizers, who employ an official crew to film the concerts, can demand hefty sums from foreign documentary producers for a few minutes of footage. It would seem that the music’s fast-growing international popularity has not escaped their attention.

If your Serbian is a little rusty, getting to Guca and organizing accommodation can be a daunting prospect. Image of drunken man with his head in a trumpet Update: there is now an official website. Unlike many towns across former Yugoslavia – especially on the more tourist-oriented Adriatic coast – there are no entrepreneurial old ladies holding ‘SOBE / CAMERA / ZIMMER’ signs at the bus station. There are a few hotels in the town, but as the festival approaches, they tend to get booked up quickly and private rooms become increasingly hard to come by. To put it mildly, Serbia is not a country that has done much to attract tourism over the last few years, and there is no readily available practical guidebook and no English speaking information centre.

And while the festival’s reputation is growing year on year, the programme notes are in Serbian only. By far the best source of information is Galbeno. Run by two English-speaking Roma cultural producers from Belgrade, they can organize transport, accommodation and be on hand for any questions, from where to buy a tapan drum to the best recipe for cheese-filled peppers. They also run highly recommended Serbian and Gypsy music, dance and language courses in Valjevo, a beautiful town in the centre of the country, throughout the summer. Check the internet links below for more details.

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