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Serbian Horns, Blaring for Joy
New York Times - September 5, 2001 - New York Times
by Neil Strauss

GUCA, Yugoslavia - Last week, 350,000 people descended on this small Serbian valley town, home to 3,000 inhabitants and one hotel.  The occasion was the 41st annual Trumpeters Festival, one of the most frenetic and freewheeling folk festivals of its kind or perhaps any kind. For four days, revelers drank large amounts of alcohol, ate spit-roasted lamb and pig and danced around and on their tables, as some 40 blaring brass bands wrought chaos on the town until the wee hours.

"It's pure insanity, and insanity has no rules," said Vasilije Gavrilovic, a local businessman, politician and semiprofessional chess player who runs the festival.

Unlike the best performances at most music festivals, those at Guca (pronounced GOO-chah) took place offstage, as bands simply wandered through the crowd. Often, several 10-member brass orchestras in close proximity played different songs simultaneously in tent-shaded eating areas, competing for attention (and tips) by putting the horns of their instruments against diners' ears and blasting away. Revelers showed their appreciation by slapping bills onto the musicians' sweat-wet foreheads or stuffing them into their hungry horns. Some even hired bands to follow them as they caroused through the town.

It was an extreme example of the intense dedication that most Serbians have to nightlife. The same attitude of limitless celebration pervades even the pop songs that blare in the clubs every night, where groups of friends belt lyrics that revel in the excesses of emotion, choruses that tell of reacting to overwhelming love or heartbreak by drinking, gorging, shouting in the street and breaking bottles as if the sun will never rise again.

Zarco Petrovic, a composer, arranger and author who was the chief music judge at the festival, explained the horn-in-your-ear nature of the brass-band performances as akin to the transcendent states that fans of everything from Sufi qawwali music to electronic rave aspire to.

"The listener wants to unite with the music and create a symbiotic relationship in which he and the music become one," he said. "And the proximity of the music being able to reach out and grab it helps him attain that spiritual state."

This brass-band tradition is a specifically Serbian one, born of a culture that has spent almost its entire existence either at war or in subjugation. The music began in 1804, when the trumpet first came to Serbia during the Karageorge uprising, in which a Serbian patriot known as Black George led a revolt against the Turkish occupation of 500 years. Though it was a military instrument to wake and gather soldiers and announce battles, the trumpet took on the role of entertainment during downtime, as soldiers used it to transpose popular folk songs. When war ended and they returned to their hometowns, the music entered civilian life.

Eventually, Gypsies adopted the tradition, adding more complicated rhythms and melodies and creating two schools: the more subtle and melodic west Serbian bands and the more complex and danceable Gypsy-blooded South Serbian orchestras.

The horns amassed until the bands included large clusters of hand-hammered instruments resembling flat-key trumpets, Wagner tubas (related to the French horn) and euphoniums (close cousins of the tuba). The combined effect is an intoxicating surge that sounds like equal parts military music, circus tune, parade march, spaghetti-western soundtrack, klezmer and, let's say, a Dixieland band trying to play free jazz.

Though the music can career into high- velocity, 160-beat-per-minute stomps, underneath it all is a sad, dirgelike melody underscoring the tragedy that makes such celebration necessary for the spirit's survival. The Guca Trumpeters Festival is largely responsible for keeping that music and that spirit alive into the 21st century.

"Famous European orchestra conductors come to this festival to see how these people organize their bands so well and achieve such a high level of playing," Mr. Petrovic, the judge, said. "They'll ask me where the leader went to school and studied music. And I'll say, `They're musically illiterate they're farmers.' Then they'll ask, `How then did he become such a virtuoso in modulation and arrangement?' And I'll say, `He didn't study it he feels it.' "

One of the greatest trumpeters is Boban Markovic, a Serbian of Gypsy heritage best known internationally for having contributed music to films by the Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica, whose dizzyingly paced works, filled with brass bands, suddenly seem sedate compared with Guca. On Saturday, Mr. Markovic could be found at an outdoor cafe, ripping through everything from "Hava Nagila" to the popular dances from Mr. Kusturica's "Underground."

A patron, Toma Kostic, balanced three shot glasses on his upturned face as he danced around a table. When the song ended, he said that he had attended the festival for 23 years straight. "One year, I even wrote Bill Clinton personally, because he plays saxophone, and I asked him to compete," he said. "But he didn't write back."

Mr. Kostic's 22-year-old goddaughter, Ana Dimitrijevic, a student in Toronto, said that she was having such a good time in Guca that she had decided to return to Belgrade to live because the people in Canada didn't know how to have as much fun.

After playing, Mr. Markovic rested under the marquee of the town's lone hotel, the Golden Trumpet, and said that he wouldn't be competing this year. "I'm past this," he said. "I write most of the songs that other bands play. I've won the contest many, many times. The problem is that the jury still wants me to play like I did 15 years ago. But I want to be more innovative and play more modern stuff. So I'm not going to compete this year."

Another controversy at Guca began with folk purists, who preferred string-band music. "The music here comes out of a military tradition against the Turks," said Milosh Vukajlovich, a festival vendor. "It comes from the warrior tradition, not the folk tradition." Another vendor nearby countered that the military tradition in Serbia was its folk culture.

The highlight of the festival was the competition of its final day, Sunday, when 20 bands, all finalists from contests around the country, faced off for the Golden Trumpet award, the genre's highest prize. The day began at 6, when four bands marched down separate town thoroughfares, playing songs to wake up the residents. They then met at an intersection, where they tried to drown out one another. After a parade, the contest began with the firing of a cannon as all of the orchestras, some 180 brass musicians, played the same song at once.

"The sound is so intense that your hair stands on its end, and you just want to cut your veins," said Vlade Isailovic, 36, a professor of civil defense tactics who works at a water distribution company in nearby Arilje.

Attending the competition this year, among other dignitaries, were Princess Katherine of Yugoslavia (from the line of Black George, to whose uprising the music can be traced), and Zoran Djindjic, the prime minister. As Mr. Djindjic sat watching the festival, a circle of music fans formed several feet in front of him during a song by the South Serbian band Zlatni Prsti (Golden Fingers). Oblivious to the proximity of politicians and royalty, the audience members joined hands and reeled back and forth around the circle, doing the traditional kolo dance.

For Zlatni Prsti, which had practiced for months for the competition, the performance was grueling. "We're exhausted," said Dragan Muslijic, one of the band's three trumpeters. "We were up until 4 a.m. last night, playing. And then we had to wake up a few hours later this morning and play." He added, however, that the festival was tame work compared with some of the three-day weddings at which he has performed.

When asked about winning the top prize, Mr. Muslijic engaged in a little friendly rivalry. "We deserve it," he said. "I wouldn't want it if we weren't the best orchestra here, but we are. When the westerners are kids, they come to us to learn how to play."

As proof of how chaotic the festival is, the winner was a South Serbian band not Zlatni Prsti, but none other than Mr. Markovic's orchestra, which decided to enter the contest after all. He led a victory march from the stage to a cafe and jumped up on a table, tore off his shirt and let blare one of the wildest, most ecstatic trumpet bleats I've ever heard. The members of the crowd around him tore his shirt into tiny pieces, waving the white strips over their heads as Mr. Markovic and his band stood on tabletops for an impromptu hourlong concert. For someone who had claimed to be above competing, Mr. Markovic looked very happy even ecstatic to have won.

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