Guča: Serbia’s Dionysian spectacle of trumpets, cabbage and beer

Originally conceived as a festival to promote the fledgling institution of a brass band 1961, Guča Trumpet Festival (aka Dragačevo Fair) evolved in the past two decades into one of the most popular festivals in Serbia and a somewhat divisive cultural institution. For all but the musical purists, Guča is much much more than an ethno-music festival.

Although the festival is devoted to preserving this unique musical style and promoting brass band stars like Boban Marković (who went on to popularise Balkan music), its main draw is its raucous, almost orgiastic atmosphere.

Guča is a village fair, a celebration of Central Serbian traditions and, most importantly, a dizzying party, fuelled by a psychedelic mix of rakija, beer and cooked cabbage which makes revellers lose their inhibitions and shirts in a picturesque village in the middle of Serbia.

Although I was sceptical about it for much of my life, I decided to take a plunge five years ago at the urging of a friend of mine: a cosmopolitan, highly educated Serbian folk music enthusiast and a long time attendee. My scepticism was rooted in Guča’s reputation for nationalism and the common Belgrade-liberal disgust of turbo-folk and shirtless tattooed men with gold chains climbing things. Nevertheless, fresh from my education in the UK, I decided I was ready to see the other, much feared side of my home country.

What I found, once I got to Guča on a very hot August day in 2012 completely changed my view of the place. Firstly, I was relieved to see that rather than nationalist, the politics of the place was at best confused, and ultimately secondary to the whole thing. Nestled in the long row of stalls selling anything from underwear to agricultural machinery, a few souvenir peddlers sold busts of ex-Yugoslav socialist leader Tito next to those of his Četnik arch-nemesis Draža Mihajlović, while watched over angrily by Vladimir Putin riding a bear.

Rather than flag-waving, the main focus of the festival was music and everyone flocked to many temporary restaurants in tents to hear brass bands preparing for that night’s trumpet music competition finale. The one we stumbled in, and that will forever stay inseparable from Guča in my mind is Kamijondžije 2 (Truckdivers 2).

The entrance to this ramshackle place was lined with rotating roast piglets and lambs and huge clay pots preparing Guča meat and cabbage speciality – svadbarski kupus (wedding cabbage). Once we entered we were greeted by a huge plastic portrait of man who looked as an epitome of a transition winner. Bloated, with a gold watch and toting a cigar, Kamijondžije’s owner looked over the chaos of the place. Already at 5pm, there were dead-eyed dancers in bikinis on the tables, next to Serbian gastarbeiter families with teenage daughters calmly feasting on lunch. The waiters were buzzing around with plates of heavy food, and occasionally waving away the scantily clad girls who tried to dance for groups of heavy middle-aged guys wearing shirts with names of their transport companies. When I last visited, in 2016, there was even a singer on crutches singing to a highly pitched oriental synth melody, whose wails were occasionally broken by those of an overenthusiastic MC announcing discounts on pork roast.

In many ways Kamijondžije 2 provided a sensory tableau of everything I feared Guča would be, of something that rightly is unimaginable in most of the Western world, but which in its weird way seemed normal for everyone who was there, which, after enough beers and rakijas made it seem normal to me.

Once I got accustomed to Guča’s most extreme, the intense positive energy of the festival started shining for me. Enthusiastic throngs of locals sans-shirts were trying to climb the trumpeter monument on the village’s main square, French hippies were rolling on the floor to the rhythm of the nearby brass band, while music aficionados were listening to a great jazz trumpet performance at one of the smaller stages. Everybody in their own way was happy, and nobody was perturbed from their niche.

Even though thousands were flowing towards the main stadium for the trumpet competition, there was no jostling and anger, despite the number of the guys who looked like football hooligans. Once the music started, people were jumping and dancing, and cheering and discussing which band they liked the most. Later, once the music switched to folk legend Miroslav Ilić, everybody was singing his maudlin ballads of loves lost and hometowns missed. This enthusiasm was not linked only to any particular music, it was simply in the air, rising from the fumes of cabbage and beer.

Guča’s much criticised attempts to broaden its appeal last year brought to its stage Severina, one of Croatia’s biggest folk-pop stars, and Sajsi MC, a Serbian rapper. Although the crowds were significantly smaller, everyone was greeted enthusiastically and performances were appreciated.

Both of the times we went to the festival, the morning after partying, we went for walks around the picturesque hills around the village to process the events of previous nights, which ranged from dancing with a guy with a massive chest tattoo of a medieval Serbian king to a friend being offered “something more” by a waiter at Kamiondžije while urinating. Needless to say, the meadows were filled with bodies of recuperating revellers like a battle field.

Trying to nap, last year I was drawn into a strange conversation with a clearly high guy who emerged from a forest. Mumbling, he asked me if I had seen police looking after him for masturbating into somebody’s show, only to move onto the discussion of football and list every year he came to Guča. I was exasperated, and could not utter a word as it was all too much for me. In a daze, after the guy left I wowed to my friends never to go back again.

IMG_4438
Me, after too much Guča

Going to Guča can take indeed takes its toll and you need to know your dosage. Still my horizons have definitely expanded from experiencing this exhilarating, if occasionally scary spectacle, much more than they have ever been from pumping fists at any EDM venue.

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