My Big Fat Serbian Gypsy Festival

If Balkan beats, inebriated Serbs and sizzling trumpet parties are your cup of tea, then ditch Glasto for Guca next summer.
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If Balkan beats, inebriated Serbs and sizzling trumpet parties are your cup of tea, then ditch Glasto for Guca next summer.

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I arrive on the chaotic streets of Guca after nightfall and the Balkan beats are inescapable. A skirmish to catch up with friends is obstructed by a constant wave of inebriated Serbians intent on hedonism. Fighting through the ordinarily dead rural village, three hours drive from Belgrade, is mental. In a way that makes Glastonbury’s crowds seem reticent, the five-day orgy of gypsy musical mania feels unstoppable.  Since 1961, Nikola Stojic, one of the founders of the brass band and trumpet festival, has seen the event explode from a daring artistic statement against the cultural ennui of communist Tito’s Yugoslavia, to hundreds of thousands of people celebrating Serbia’s unofficial national instrument. An imposing 81 year-old, rakija swilling eccentric, Nikola appears to have seen more of life than he lets on, quipping: “the best trumpets are made in Vienna and Prague but we have the best trumpet party!”- sound biting like a sozzled pro.

The streets are awash with entrepreneurs selling wares. Everything from tacky ornaments, crude t-shirts, to axes, breadbins and even male briefs are on display. Booze and food is everywhere, with greasy fumes of sizzling meat smacking your face on every street and people peddling cans of cheap larger from makeshift stalls.

A musical genre with its routes in traditional Romany gypsy culture, Balkan brass is a far cry from any Germanic oompa-loompa, thigh slapping antics. An emotive and transitional art form, the top trumpeters from across the world compete throughout the year in heats, which culminates at the festival, where judges and the public award the prestigious prizes of Golden Trumpet and Top Trumpet.

In a way that makes Glastonbury’s crowds seem reticent, the five-day orgy of gypsy musical mania feels unstoppable.

Marko Marković, the son of celebrated Boban, winner of numerous Golden Trumpets and a national hero, has followed in his father’s prolific footsteps. Having appeared in Emir Kusturica’s critically acclaimed Serbian film, Underground, Boban won the tournament so comprehensively in 2001 he gave up competing but still performs alongside his son. Careful not to allude to any ethnic division, Marko acknowledges the innate talent inherent to his gypsy routes that contribute to the music’s soul, but his childlike wonderment quickly returns the conversation to his personal relationship with the sounds. With Balkan beats enjoying strong popularity in Paris and London, 24-year-old Marko is a striking presence - his glitzy sportswear, jet-black slickly gelled mane and bling designer glasses along with entourage - a clue to his national and growing international notoriety. Marveling at the fact that his own Romany son, at the age of just two, wants: “instruments for presents above anything else” cements the sense that to him, the natural feeling of the music is paramount.

Back on the streets of Guca, the party atmosphere is in full swing. Hot pant attired Serbian girls with supermodel physiques, gyrate playfully in groups as topless young males caterwaul and cheer at the spectacle while the numerous small troops of amateur brass bands vie for attention and busking money. Despite the heavy drinking and bouts of reckless bravado, a sense of revelry permeates and aside from the odd uninvited peck on the cheek from a sweaty, shirtless Serbian male, it’s far from intimidating. The brutal war in the 1990s left the former Yugoslavia with deep divides but any sense of militant nationalism, aside from the occasional pro-Milošević t-shirt, is overwhelmed by the carnival atmosphere. Middle-aged and elderly Serbs mix easily with drunken adolescents and the festival now attracts visitors from neighbouring Balkan states and from further afield places, such as Australia.

For a sleepy valley town with a shrinking population of 2,500, the festival is rural Guca’s lifeblood. While the majority of visitors opt for camping, the locals exploit the event as an opportunity to earn a few dinars, opening up their houses to accommodate festival goers. My creepy digs are in the apartment of a Serbian family on one of the main streets. I’m in the young daughter of the household’s room, decorated in shocking pink and festooned with fluffy toys and frightening posters. Yet it’s less than €30 for two days, and the owners provide a key, allowing you the nocturnal freedom to party.

The main event away from the buskers and street bars is the stage. Huge screens and a sophisticated sound systems relay the performances to the tens of thousands who congregate to see their idols play. Impromptu renditions of kolo (a Serbian line dance) spontaneously erupt, as you’re goaded to participate. The highlight of the Saturday is the Marković’s set, which sends the audience into pandemonium. Flags are waved and flares are released as the primal beats and soaring trumpet duets between father and son infect the pulsating crowd.

Nina, a dark and exotic looking girl from Belgrade, leads me to discover a late night party being held in a hillside bar to celebrate a birthday. Dejan Petrovic, another of Serbia’s lauded trumpeters and 2009’s Golden Trumpet is relaxed and playful, treating an intimate audience to frenzied covers of western pop covers. Artists such as The Police are given the Balkan brass treatment as the small crowd dance frantically in appreciation. A slice of birthday cake and several beers with the band seal a boozy and bonkers Serbian gypsy blast. Leaving Guca I’m exhausted and exhilarated, with the haunting sound of horns resonating in my head like white noise.

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