Guca Festival Serbia


As we rolled towards Guca I observed the region’s residents: faces suggesting a certain toughness of form, character informed by the silence of rural life, moving to a rhythm dictated by nature and Orthodox cosmology. Mop my forehead and pretend I’m a peasant. Why not? The Dragacevo region has abundant rustic charm: mud/dung brick dwellings with wonky, smoking chimneys, neatly stacked firewood, cavernous hold-alls woven from branches and filled with maize, soil the colour of merlot, little vineyards crawling up embankments, people existing in unhurried motion – a real South London fantasy – maybe one day I’ll retire here, be a gentleman peasant, pay the locals to bring in the harvest while I sit, smoke and sip rakija in the tranquil sunshine. And then we arrived in Guca and it spelt an end to silence.

Heatpeoplenoise: it all blends into shimmering cacophony. Guca 2003 represents the 32nd year Balkan brass has reigned supreme across the town. Not that it was always like this. Not that it was ever expected to be like this. Officially called Dragacevski Sabor Trubaca, the festival was created to keep the brass orkestar tradition alive. Tito’s Yugoslavia was big on all things folkloric and some sharp-eared apparatchik, noting how the steady flow of humanity from rural to urban locations was depleting brass bands, came up with the idea of the festival/competition.

Initially a low-key event, following the huge success of Emir Kusturica’s films featuring Goran Bregovic’s arrangements of Balkan brass – Time Of The Gypsies, Underground, Arizona Dream – orkestars began supplanting rock and rave as Serb party music. And to be in Guca’s main street on Friday afternoon feels like stepping onto a Kusturica set: brass orkestar’s blast out of tents, bars, alleys, spilling onto streets, marching in formation, forcing their way through crowds pumping-pumping-pumping. Damn, these men can play! Sucking in humid air and blowing out great blocks of sound, stiff backed and gimlet eyed, brass dervishes, a musical force so potent it’s physical. And everywhere people are dancing. Beefy blokes turn bright pink, stepping to the knees-up, knees-up pattern males everywhere do as dance, holding plastic pints of beer high, screeching with stupefied satisfaction. Their girlfriends, outfitted in push-up bras, tight pants and mid-riff flexing tops, dance a dainty kolo, smiling the smile that comes with an awareness of the male as stupider of the species.

Guca’s saturnalian atmosphere attracts plenty of knuckleheads, most of whom run stalls displaying knifes designed for gutting pigs and people. Or else they proffer a selection of T-shirts, key rings, mugs and framed portraits featuring Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic – those foul practitioners of genocide across Bosnia – and Chetnik leader Draza Mihailovic. The latter’s also presented as an Orthodox religious icon. Tainted love? Sorry, I don’t pray that way. Milosevic’s hangdog features are occasionally represented but as he turned a quest for Greater Serbia into the reality of Greatly Diminished Serbia he lacks any vulgar ‘heroism’ or iconic status.

War criminals . . . weapons . . . ominous vibes? Uh-uh. The streets heave with merry human traffic, completely absent is any sense of threat. That the pure products of Serbia go crazy, buzzing on nationalist myths, to the sound of Gypsy musicians, true internationalists, makes for some paradox. One few even try and comprehend, Guca being about release rather than rationalism . . . Across the day and into the night it continues, dancing and drinking and drinking and dancing, the atmosphere tangy with grilled meat, urine, sweat, putrefying garbage. People exist as a blur, physical graffiti, lost in the brass trance, dancing as Balkan metaphysic. No one does the Funky Chicken. Or the Mashed Potato. Or break dances. Or body pops. Such frantic, free-spirited music. Yet such polite dancing. The Balkans never cease to amaze me. One by one exhaustion and cold fells players and dancers until those few left standing exhibit the red-eyed mysticism that accompanies travellers on the road to excess, a certain pagan wisdom encountered with the chill light of dawn.