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On the trail of trumpets in a tiny Serbian village

  • Every year, Guča in south Serbia swells with thousands of visitors who come to witness the battle of the brass bands
  • The 60-year-old festival has kept alive a fading tradition. Many of the trumpeters belong to the marginalised Roma or gypsy community

Trumpeters on the streets of Guča
Trumpeters on the streets of Guča (Photo: Alamy)

Cannon shots rent the quiet morning air of a small village in southern Serbia. It was early August. The sound marked the annual transformation of Guča village from placid countryside to a site of revelry, with the music of brass bands and competing orchestras. Guča, with 2,000 residents, had swelled with thousands of visitors from the Balkan countries and beyond, eager to dance and make merry to the exhilarating tune of trumpets.

Revellers at Guča’s ­Trumpet Monument
Revellers at Guča’s ­Trumpet Monument (Photo: Alamy)

It was the desire to witness the battle of the brass bands that had brought me to Guča. Serbian brass bands form part of a broad repertoire of contemporary gypsy music and have their roots in Ottoman military culture—a testament to the country’s heterogenous mix of influences. This particular competition was born almost 60 years ago, in Josip Broz Tito’s post-war Yugoslavia, with the aim of reviving a tradition that was fading as village communities migrated to the cities for work. The gambit worked: A walk through Guča reveals how intrinsic the festival is to this village’s identity.

A statue of a trumpeter, playing proudly with his instrument raised high, caught my attention in the central square. In the local museum, a painting depicted the exertions of red-cheeked men in traditional dress making music from tubas, tenor horns and trumpets, the Serbian flag fluttering beside them. Walking past rows of houses, I saw illustrations on walls showcasing trubači (trumpeters) performing against the backdrop of the rolling mountains that surround Guča.

A band performing during the 2017 edition.
A band performing during the 2017 edition. (Photo: Alamy)

Listeners milled in the streets and the little riverside areas between the performance venues, reminding me of Kolkata during Durga Puja. The same sense of the carnivalesque had engulfed the village. Street vendors sold everything from fur-lined jackets that seemed entirely out of keeping with the blazing heat of the day, to fridge magnets, ashtrays, CDs of former festival winners, ice creams, heart-shaped lollipops, crêpes and T-shirts with nifty puns like “Donald Trumpet" or “YouTrube".

‘Wedding cabbage’ being cooked during Guča’s trumpet festival
‘Wedding cabbage’ being cooked during Guča’s trumpet festival (Photo: Alamy)

The air was thick with smoke from meat roasting on spits and stews called “wedding cabbage"—a concoction of pork shoulder, sour cabbage, carrots and lard— slow-cooked in clay pots. For vegetarian festival-goers like me, there was shopska salad with fresh tomatoes, cucumber and parsley, served with grated sirene cheese. I chased it with a shot of rakija, the local fruit brandy that burnt the throat but seemed to make the night come extraordinarily alive. ‘Živeli!’ I shouted, clinking glasses with friends. “Cheers to a great festival!"

All the while, children ran about, crying babies were comforted, friends raised their beers high and laughed, and women and men danced ever more furiously to the rhythm of the trumpets.

It was not simply associations with Durga Puja that helped me forge an Indian connection with Guča. The distinct ethnicity of many of the trubači was evident: They were darker in complexion than most of the other southern Slavic people of Serbia and their features seemed familiar. The musicians largely belonged to the Roma, or gypsy community, whose roots, based on recent genetic and linguistic evidence, can be traced back over a thousand years to north India.

Researchers believe that the ancestors of the Roma may have been displaced from India by invading troops and moved west, travelling across Persia, the Middle East and then the Balkans, where a large proportion of the Romani population continues to live. Over the centuries, the Roma endured slavery, persecution and other forms of oppression, including the Romani Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany during World War II that claimed an untold number of lives.

Many Roma today continue to live in poverty and unemployment. At Guča, while band after band of dextrous trubači took centre stage to well-deserved cheering, there were other signs of Roma presence: mothers with children in tow who asked audience members for money, young men and women who sold trinkets. I remember well the face of a small Roma girl who approached me during an evening performance and gestured towards my nose-ring; she wanted me to give it to her. I shook my head in refusal, but couldn’t help noticing the little nose-stud she herself sported. It was a strange moment of connection.

Modern-day perceptions of the Roma are shaped by the stereotype of the gypsy. While often exoticized as free and nomadic, untouched by a sense of history or place, the gypsy is also seen in derogatory ways, linked with dirt and crime. Serbian film director Emir Kusturica’s Time Of The Gypsies (1988), for which Kusturica won the Best Director award at Cannes, provides a highly aestheticized representation of Romani life and the tragedy that befalls its youth, but also perpetuates these associations.

Kusturica’s film draws heavily on gypsy songs for its soundtrack. And music has been a profitable profession for the Roma for over 600 years. It suited a nomadic life and there was great demand for musicians during the Ottoman empire (circa 1300-1922). Playing at weddings and other festivities soon became a regular aspect of Roma livelihood.

It is this musical heritage and skill in the brass band tradition that the festival in Guča celebrates. The parties continued late into the night, leaving me with sore feet for a few days. Promising young players received trophies jubilantly, kissing their trumpets.

For me, the musical highlight was seeing the performance by the Boban i Marko Markovič Orkestar, which has won more awards at Guča than any other band, found international fame, and performed at the festival without competing. Boban’s band played the delightfully energetic Rakija, a toast to Serbia’s beloved national drink, which to my ear shared resonances with traditional Punjabi music.

Perhaps my favourite piece from Boban’s band, accompanied by backing vocalists, was the love song Čaje Šukarije (usually translated as Beautiful Girl), made famous by singer Esma Redžepova, the “Queen Of The Gypsies", herself:

Little girl, beautiful and good,

don’t slip by me, behind my back.

Don’t slip by me, behind my back, girl.

You’ve roasted and eaten me,

you’ve burgled my soul—

turn around and look at me, girl.

You avert your eyes while my soul’s burning—

bring water, little girl, beautiful and good,

don’t slip by me, behind my back, girl.

In her rendition, Esma seems to pour all the pain and longing in the world into the choric wail of the song. At Guča, it was the audience that took over. They knew the lyrics and joined in with gusto as the refrain returned, proof that gypsy music remains a vibrant and enduring cultural presence in modern-day Serbia.

Diya Gupta is a UK-based freelance journalist and researcher.

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