The Power and the Glory: Guca 2007

Balkan brass band music can be traced back to the 14th century, when children in the former Yugoslavia were taken by the Turks and trained to become Janissaries, elite soldiers in the Ottoman empire. The percussive music of the Janissary drum corps was originally to accompany armies into battle.

The sounds of the Janissary bands inspired the first European military marching bands, and became the foundation of the modern symphony's percussion section. But in the Balkans, Janissary music transformed into popular song. Today, Balkan brass bands don’t provide a backdrop to battle, but rather the soundtrack for weddings and funerals.

My initial exposure to this music came from a 2 CD compilation of recordings taken from the Golden Brass Festival in Guca, Serbia. The album artwork included a picture of a guy face down in the mud, surrounded by trumpeters blowing music in his ear. He’d celebrated himself into oblivion but was still being treated to music—it looked like it would be there when he woke up, like it would always be there.

Most of Balkan brass bands don’t have albums and don’t travel abroad, so if you want to listen to them live and in person, you have to make the trip to Serbia. I went to Guca's Golden Brass Festival in 2005, and returned in 2007 with some American friends. Brass bands journey to Guca from around the world to play for money and compete in front of a panel of judges, but the best ones usually only live a few hours away.

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Getting to Guca from abroad can be difficult, especially without a car. In 2005, my girlfriend and I had been able to get a direct bus to Guca—the ride was long and the bus filled to capacity. Men and women stood in the aisles with cases of beer, singing and drinking and laughing. Occasionally the bus would pull over, and several passengers would run out into a cornfield to pee, and then run back, yelling and waving ears of corn over their heads.

Guca is a small town, and its residents make extra money renting out their homes and yards to people who want to pitch a tent somewhere with a shower, toilet, and a small degree of privacy. We found a house not far from the bus station, where we got a more than reasonable rate after haggling with the matriarch’s Iron Maiden-shirted grandson.

The plan was that we’d get a bite to eat, and then go see music. There’s a stage with a massive PA in the soccer stadium, which is where the competition takes place. (Watching the competition itself isn’t as fun as you might think; the bands play to a panel of judges and concentrate on their technique.) There’s also a little stage in front of the cultural center, which draws a small crowd. But the action at Guca really isn’t on the stages.

Brass bands don’t really need amplification. So they wander around from restaurant to food tent, playing for tables. The musicians surround the table, and their audience pays them by sticking money in the horns, onto the sweaty foreheads of the band members, whatever. If you’ve got money, you can get your music in extra loud 360º surround sound indefinitely—the bands stick around longer the more they’re paid. You can even get the band to follow you around. But no matter where you go, you’re within earshot of at least one band.

There is a sort of intersection in town, marked by a statue of a man playing a trumpet that everyone likes to climb. Starting early in the morning, music fans ascend to the top of the monument, holding plastic bottles of beer or flags up in the air. If the festival can be said to have a center, this is it.

The restaurant at this intersection gets the best bands in town, and as we walked by, an astoundingly good band was playing. What luck, I thought. We just got here, and already we’re in the thick of it. The band was tearing it up—people outside the place were dancing, drinking, throwing beer on each other, and singing. It had rained early in the day, and some guys were shaking tree branches to make water gently rain down on their fellow revelers below.

Suddenly, a second band appeared, playing to a different table at the restaurant. The two bands, only a few feet from each other, were playing different songs simultaneously, which escalated into an amazing clash of decibel brinkmanship. It was like watching the musical version of one of those science fiction movies where one giant monster grapples with another.

If you’re eating and drinking beer in one of the many restaurant tents, you might be surrounded by two or even three bands. (Three seems to be the maximum number of bands a tent can support before the tips dry up.) You just sit there, drinking, while this sonic maelstrom rages all around. And so the day goes: music is all around, and you float in it.

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In 2005, I was lucky enough to be sitting at a table surrounded by the band Pearls from Vranje, a group that no longer needs to compete at Guca as they get extraordinarily high paying, mega-exclusive gigs. From what I understand, Vranje is a Serbian Roma village home to all of the best brass brands. (There are at least as many Roma brass bands as ethnic Serb brass bands; probably more, in fact.) Two years ago, Pearls from Vranje was being managed by our friend S——: sound designer, Belgrade native, and all-around swell guy.

Pearls from Vranje have reached success to just about the greatest extent possible for a Balkan brass band. There is obviously an international interest in this sort of music, but it’s difficult for Serbs to travel internationally now. At one time, a Yugoslavian passport was gold; Yugoslavs could travel freely in on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Those days are long gone. The younger Serbs we met want to travel, but they just can’t—visas are expensive and hard to get. Serbian brass bands generally play at weddings and other festive occasions, and rarely travel abroad. I saw the winners of Guca 2007 playing at a barely promoted gig in Budapest one week after the festival. Maybe 100 people were there.

The successful musicians who do travel, like Boban and Marko Markovic, or Goran Bregovic, are national treasures—when Boban plays New York, every single ex-Yugoslav in the tri-state area is there lining up to paste money on his forehead.

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Goran Bregovic played the main stage that night. Probably the most famous modern Serbian composer guy, Bregovic became a giant superstar for “composing” the music to Emir Kusturica’s Palme d’Or-winning film Underground.

For a lot of people, Underground served as their gateway into this kind of music. However, Bregovic is a controversial figure who has been accused of claiming traditional melodies as his own compositions. And I’m no musicologist, but it doesn’t take an Einstein to realize how astoundingly unlikely it would be that every single band playing at Guca would have a repertoire consisting mainly of Goran Bregovic songs.

Some people react more strongly to this heavy-handed appropriation than others. It’s undeniable that Goran has a real talent for catchy arrangements, and for transforming folk music into pop tunes, but all conversations about him invariably lead to his sneaky application of writing credits.

There aren’t opening acts for the bands playing on the main stage—I guess it just isn’t done. So during the interminable wait before Goran came on, an announcer said things into a microphone while models draped in some sort of Serbian clothing line paraded around. It’s difficult to appreciate the cut of a dress when you’re 200 feet away from it, standing amidst a crowd of people screaming at the stage and stumbling around. The fashion show went on, and on, and on, for about an hour and a half. Although to be honest, it felt like even longer. It seemed like Goran was late, and so they kept sending these models out, and everyone onstage was beginning to get nervous. The soccer stadium was filled to capacity, and the crowd was frothing at the mouth.

Goran finally took to the stage. I’ve never been a big fan of Goran’s high-gloss arrangements, and quickly grew tired of watching him sit in front of a giant orchestra, strumming a (possibly unplugged) guitar. He smiled and strummed while dozens of musicians stood behind him and pumped out the sound. Traditional numbers went over the best with the crowd.

It was a very different experience than, say, seeing him in New York: we weren’t amidst a crowd of hipsters and film geeks sitting with their hands folded, and this wasn’t Lincoln Center. Here were thousands of people who knew every word, and who’ve had this music in them for generations. Thousands of people were singing at the top of their lungs, and giant circles formed of people who joined hands to dance the kolo. It was utter bedlam.

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They wake everyone up in the town of Guca with an amazingly loud cannon blast at around 8 AM during the festival. I got up. Everyone gets up.

We ate brunch, which came in the form of this pork and cabbage stew called kulpus. Kulpus is slow cooked in cauldrons.

We watched a parade of bands representing their villages, dressed in their traditional costumes.

And so the day spun out. We saw dozens of bands while waiting for the big concert at the soccer stadium to begin.

The concert started midnight, and featured members of a lot of the bands wandering around the festival. It was, as they say, the Main Event. So many people were heading to the stadium by the time we got underway that movement was nearly impossible—we shuffled along inch by inch down the dirt path. Mirth soon became exhaustion. Roasting animals turned on spits, sending clouds of thick smoke into the air.

The show at the stadium was, unbelievably, even wilder than the previous night’s. Everyone in the crowd sang and screamed, spirals of kolo dancers winding through the mass. It went on for hours, the energy level never abating, one traditional song bleeding into the next. I left that concert completely limp, stumbled back to our tent and slipped into unconsciousness.

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Vendors all over the festival grounds did a brisk trade in whistles. I’d found this irritating—it seemed like every other person had a whistle hanging around their neck or parked in their mouth, and they didn’t hesitate to use them.

Back in 2005, we were eating some food with our friend S—— in Belgrade after the festival had ended. We asked him what the deal was with all the whistles—didn’t people find them annoying?

He told us that, leading up to the NATO bombing of Belgrade, when nearly hundreds of thousands of Serbs were flooding the streets to protest against the Milosevic regime (and the regime was sending tanks into the streets of the city to stop them), the only news on TV was that approved by the regime. And of course, news vetted by the regime was a big pile of lies. So people living in the city would make noise to try and drown out the news so no one could hear it.

“Do you know that song, Bring the Noise? By Public Enemy, with also Anthrax playing?” S—— asked.

“Yeah, of course,” I said.

“Well, I had very, very big speakers in my apartment—I am a sound designer, you know, and they were very loud. I’d put them out the window and turn it all the way up, ha ha ha!”

And we laughed, because S—— had been describing some upsetting things prior to saying this, events occurring at the time of the bombing, such as how friends of his had been killed by a NATO bomb, young people just like any of us who just happened to be in the wrong building at the wrong time. They had their lives cut short in the blink of an eye. We’d all been sitting there on the edges of our seats, eyes wide open. But then we suddenly imagined Chuck D.’s stentorian voice echoing through the streets, and it was finally OK to break the tension.

“You see,” said S——, “all those whistles at Guca refer to that. No one minds them because that’s what they mean. But then again, some people are just blowing them because they want to make noise.”

The whistles are not unlike the Chetnik hats that people are wearing, or say Confederate flag shirts at a country music festival. They might mean something, or they might mean little to nothing at all.

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I’ve heard that when this festival first started, around the time of the war, it was, ahem, intense. War veterans in attendance would fire off automatic weapons into the air, for instance. At that time, it wouldn’t have been safe for me to be there. Since then, the festival has undergone a lot of changes to make it more palatable for tourists, and now draws a sizeable international crowd.

Despite my deep abiding love and respect for the joy, love, and noise engendered by this festival, it does have ugly parts. And by that I mean that there is a good amount of nationalism on display—not just patriotism, which you’d expect at an alcohol-soaked festival of traditional music, but the ugly phenomenon that is nationalism. This is unfortunate, if not surprising—at this point in history, it’s probably impossible to attend any sort of cultural celebration in the former Yugoslavia where this would not be the case.

Most people attending Guca are not rabid nationalists, but those who are don’t hesitate to advertise the fact. Not long after pulling into town, I had the sense that there was more far-right stuff on display. In 2005 things were more mellow—there was still far right stuff, but it was equaled, if not surpassed, by shirts with pan-Yugoslav messages like “Guca is My Country.”

I don’t know if this is part of a gradual trend, or a direct result of the 2006 independence of Montenegro and the recent movement for an independent Kosovo, or both, or neither. It can be hard for me to wrap my head around the conflicted history of this region, which stretches far into the past, far beyond the events of the 1990s. I once asked a Serbian friend about the future of Kosovo, he said: “The first thing you have to understand is that we fought the Turks in the Battle of Kosovo.” The Battle of Kosovo was in the 14th century, and that’s the first thing I have to understand?

The British author Rebecca West wrote a book called Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which was published in 1941. It is the first thing writers looking for a quote about the Balkans reach for when at a loss for words. As always, Rebecca West says it better:

I had come to Yugoslavia because I knew that the past has made the present, and I wanted to see how the process works. Let me start now. It is plain that it means an amount of human pain, arranged in an unbroken continuity appalling to any person cradled in the security of the English or American past. Were I to go down into the market-place, armed with the powers of witchcraft, and take a peasant by the shoulders and whisper to him, “In your lifetime, have you known peace?” wait for his answer, shake his shoulders and transform him into his father, and ask him the same question, and transform him in his turn to his father, I would never year the word “Yes,” if I carried my questioning of the dead back for a thousand years. I would always hear, “No, there was fear, there were our enemies without, our rulers within, there was prison, there was torture, there was violent death."

If the entire true history of Serbia and the Balkans could be written out, without one fact or omitted or contested—if this vast text existed somewhere, the nationalist exegesis of it would be roughly the length and depth of a New York Post headline. Despite their high visibility, these Chetniks are ultimately only an ugly footnote in the grand parade of history.

Our friend S—— told us that Guca reflects the state of the country—sort of a like a barometer. During the war, it was frightening and closed. But over time it changed, becoming more welcoming, and more diverse. Reading the English language reportage available about Serbia, and talking to people, it seems like the gains the far right is making are also proportionately represented at there. Still, unlike every single music festival I’ve ever been to, I’ve never seen a fight at Guca, a place where a stand selling Ratko Mladic shirts and Chetnik hats can be found right next to a stand Tito and Partisan merchandise.

A kind of fission occurs when tradition, history, and music are brought together in Guca. There’s no agenda here besides creating and enjoying music. This is a history of Yugoslavia written in sound. No conscious decision was ever made that these would be the songs that survived—they simply persevered. The audience wants to hear these songs, so the bands keep playing them, and over time a tradition is shaped.

The superhuman passion and vitality here surpassed even my wildest imaginings, and there were times when the celebration reached a point that I thought to myself, surely something’s about to go wrong—things are going to fly apart. Except they never did. People have linked hands and circled up to dance the kolo for hundreds of years. They’re dancing it now, and they’ll be dancing it in the future. This is how it’s supposed to be; even this fevered emotional pitch is a tradition. There were moments where it felt that everything would just escape the pull of gravity and levitate into the air. I’d like to think that could actually happen.