Guca, The Trumpet Capital of the Balkans

This is my letter from the Guca Festival.

August 14, 2011

Belgrade, Serbia

Dear Friends,

As you drive into the Guca valley it looks like morning mist lifting, but we arrived at about noon and getting off the bus realized that mist was smoke from grilling meat.   The “fog” held in the valley all day.  A moment after registering the smoke,  the dissonant cacophony of three different polyrhythmic bands playing at three adjacent outdoor taverns impressed itself on on my brain.  The Guca Trumpet Festival is a cross between a Folk Festival, state fair and a sports tournament with a touch of Rocky Horror Picture Show.

There are two festivals going on in Guca at the same time, the organized festival with the morning trumpet call, parade through town, and three daily events on the stage outside the house of culture followed by the evening main stage event at the football pitch.  Then there is the free enterprise festival on the street going 24 hours a day.

The free enterprise festival has vendors in strange wigs selling Guca tchotchkies. Stuff on offer ranged from very classy handicrafts to plastic junk. There were t-shirts featuring Tito and Che on the left, Serbian nationalist heroes on the right and Novak Djokovic in the middle.  One Icon stall has religious paintings, including icons of “saints” of the Partizan and Red Star football teams.  Girls in very short skirts and tight t-shirts wander around with racks of what look like test tubes.  Racks of raki — give the girl 100 dinars and chug it down, you can’t set the test tube down and she needs the empty.  Yellow, the color of Jelen Pivo (Deer Beer in English), is the color of the festival.  With all of the alcohol openly consumed there we saw very little trouble caused by it.

There was a midway with thrill rides and what looked like a home show under a big tent, with the Serbian equivalent vegimatics, lawn mowers and fancy raki bottles shaped like trumpets.  Outside the tent there was a field full of farm machines and one bright red formula 1 race car.

Folks pitched tents along the river, in farm fields just outside town, some on alarming slopes, and in the front yards of enterprising villagers.  Taverns and cafes spill out into the streets along with beer tents in parks and spits for roasting pig and lamb.  This is not a festival for vegans.  It seems that every wedding band in Serbia is on the street or playing in the taverns competing for who can get more people dancing on tables and then moving on when the tips dry up.  I wonder how weddings cope this weekend. Even the porta potties are free enterprise, charging 30 dinars, about 43 cents, for a dump, which given Serbian incomes seems unduly high and makes me wonder about the quality of the water in the river where people are swimming.

There is a temporary dam set up across the river, made with a blue vinyl bladder filled, I assume with water, which creates a pool for swimming.  Fortunately most of the tents are pitched below the bladder.  Festival revelers set up picnic tables in the river below the dam drinking beer with their feet in the water, a Serbian flag flies over one table — a Confederate battle flag over another.  Guca is kind of a Serbian version of the “Dukes of Hazard.”

We traveled to Guca on a bus with the Young Diplomats Association, which given parking in Guca, seemed a good idea.  The organizer, Vik Jensen, is married to a Serbian woman who speaks English with a distinct Aussie-Serb accent.  Vik is a film maker and did a movie set at Guca in 2005.  He knows what it takes to make a good day.  We got the bus from the Ethnographic Museum (close to our flat) at 8:30.

When we arrived in Guca we had three quarters of an hour to wander while Vik made arrangements for our backstage passes.  Then we took the bus into the mountains over Guca for a lunch before plunging back into the valley of madness about 4 hours before the main stage concert.  That timing was about right.  We had a chance to shop,  sit (drink) in a tavern, listen to bands and watch some of the official events before the main stage concert.

We had tickets for the judges’ area so we had a good view of the whole stadium from what, during a football game, would be the press area.  The competition has a set order.  There was an opening trumpet call followed by opening speeches, including one by the “King of Guca,” Boban Markovic, the Roma musician who has taken over Serbia.  All 16 bands in the competition massed for the Serbian Anthem, which ended in a fireworks display.  Then came a station break, in which commercials from Radio TV Serbia (RTS) flashed on the jumbo-tron screens, no getting away from them.  Three bands perform and everything stops for another RTS commercial break.  After the last break the final band performed and there was another fireworks display followed by Boban Markovic’s headline performance.

The competition itself took some getting used to.  The first piece for each band was a virtuoso piece showing off the lead trumpeter’s talents.  The hundred thousand or so people met these first pieces, with two or three exceptions, with indifference and no applause.  The second piece was more rhythmic and the crowd lit up, hands in the air, dancing.  Some of the audience shake tambourines, others do line dances, and some just spray the rest of us with beer.  During the third band’s set a troupe of people with yellow flags entered the pitch and made their way to the front.  When the band from their small town appeared on stage they were in place to wave their flags and unfurl a big banner supporting the home team.

At first, I was a little bored by the competition.  There was little variety, a slow virtuoso piece followed by a fast dance piece, very traditional, not much showmanship.  It was all very controlled and much different from the flamboyant music still going on in the streets.  But as I listened I began to hear nuance, understand some of the structure and see where improvisation fit into the virtuoso pieces.  Of course, I enjoyed bouncing along with the dance pieces.

There was one time during the day when Vik’s arrangements fell apart.  Vik thought the headliner, Boban Markovic, would start at about 10:30 after the competition bands.  But the competition ended at midnight.  Vik had promised that we would take off at midnight so rounded us up just as the last band was finishing up.  We were in the parking lot for the fireworks celebrating the end of the competition and the start of the event everyone was really waiting for, the Boban and Marko Markovic concert.  When we got to the bus most of us asked “why are we leaving?”  Vik took a poll and all of us except two women wanted to stay.  Vik struck, what he hoped, would be a compromise (he IS head of the young diplomats club.)  We would stay an extra hour.   We went back into the stadium but instead of heading back to the judges’ area we used our backstage passes and stood, or rather danced, backstage, in the wings, behind Marko’s left shoulder, watching the band, which has transformed itself from a traditional Serbian trumpet act to an international world beat boogie band, tear up an entire stadium.  A little less than an hour backstage on main stage was far more exciting than four hours in the jury box could ever have been.  Back stage we could watch some of the musicians from the competing bands, watching this one gypsy man, who has become an international European star, and who represented all of their dreams for the future.

We drove out of Guca.  Every exit from the valley had a police roadblock with a breathalizer.  We climbed the serpentine road watching the crowd in the stadium, the thrill rides at the midway, and lights from camps on the hillsides.  The “mist” was still rising.

Take Care,

Rich McClear

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