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As bold as brass

The horns are blaring, the pigs roasting. Vanessa Murray joins half a million Balkan music fans at Guca's famous festival

This article appeared in The Age/SMH Traveller on 14th July 2012

Pozdrav! Jesi li gladan? "Hello! Are you hungry?" shout smiling, bald-headed men who wouldn't look out of place on the door of a nightclub. Despite the smell of spit-roasting pork in my nostrils and their no-nonsense appearance, I'm too busy getting my bearings in the small, vibrant town of Guca (pronounced goo-cha) in Serbia's Dragacevo district to think about food - yet.

It's early, and the stallholders are still setting up. They hang opanci - traditional folk shoes - and T-shirts, and arrange sajkaca (military hats) and beer mugs as bunting in the blue, white and red of the Serbian flag flutters overhead.

Several stalls are already doing a quick trade in CDs. This is a music festival after all: the Guca Trumpet Festival, where once a year since 1961 this town of 2000 people in the west Serbian region of Dragacevo has been coming alive - intensely, excitedly, passionately alive - to the sound of Balkan brass music.

Just as I'm settling down to enjoy a typical Serbian meal of roast pig with sour cabbage, beans and corn bread, the bands arrive.

I hear them long before I see them, roving bands of musicians who play as they walk. Here they come around the corner - and another, around another corner, and another, bringing up the rear, a cacophony of brass in every direction.

Each band is a 10-strong posse of men in traditional Serbian dress, playing and marching to the same tune. There are the three first truba or trumpets, the three bas truba or English horns, the two tubas, the doboj or tin drum, and the bas bubanj or bass drum.

Before long I am surrounded by polished brass, pomping and pah-ing and ra-ta-ta-ing as I sit ostensibly having a bite to eat.

They get louder, and closer, until they are in my face. Later in the day when the sun is high and the faces of the trumpeters are covered in sweat, appreciative Serbs will slap dinara notes onto their foreheads, but for now I stuff money down the throat of the lead trumpeter's horn to encourage the band to move on.

In the early 1960s, Guca (as the festival is most commonly known) was a small, regional affair with just four bands competing in the yard of the red-bricked Church of Saints Michael and Gabriel in the centre of town.

Today, about 500,000 jazz, folk and Balkan brass enthusiasts worldwide descend on Guca. They fill the houses and the campsites and sleep in the streets. Some come for the entire week; others come for just a day or two. In 2010 Johnny Depp visited, and apparently Miles Davis once came and said: "I didn't know you could play trumpet that way."

The Guca sound dates to the early 19th century, to the first Serbian uprising against the Ottomans. Trumpet melodies were used to regulate the soldiers' daily regimens and to communicate information across distances, and the instrument was soon picked up and modified by soldiers wanting to hear the music of their homelands.

The Roma people, an ethnic minority spread throughout Europe, took it up next, and the rest is the ecstatic, danceable, living history I'm experiencing today.

In the 1960s, to play the trumpet in Dragacevo style was almost an act of subversion against Josip Broz Tito's socialist regime, which wanted to wipe out regional differences and create a homogenous culture for what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. But Guca persisted, and the festival has been held every year since, even during the Kosovo War.

"Believe it or not, we had the festival even during the NATO bombing of 1999," says the festival's official translator, Aleksander Milosavlievic. "The bombs were falling down on Cacak, just 20 kilometres from here, and we carried on. We wanted to show our strength and how proud we are of our culture. We were not afraid. Even if you are dropping bombs on us, we will have a trumpet festival here!"

Guca's star began to rise internationally in the 1990s, with the emergence of Balkan musician Goran Bregovic on the world's jazz music scene. A regular at Australian international arts festivals, Bregovic composed the soundtrack for 1989's seminal Time of the Gypsies film directed by Emir Kusturica. I catch Bregovic, along with his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra, on my last afternoon at Guca alongside 100,000 or so excited fans moving to his irresistible, energetic jazz in the high summer heat.

But you won't see Bregovic playing in the streets. The street is the turf of the bands that make a living playing at the weddings and funerals and other celebrations of ordinary Serbian families. A win at Guca will raise the profile and the business prospects of a band, and competition for the various coveted titles, such as best orchestra or best trumpeter, is fierce.

Often, sons, fathers and grandfathers will play in the same band. Many cannot read music; most have been playing since before they started school. Some bands play songs infused with the complex, irregular, jazz-infused rhythms of the Roma people; others play more traditional "white" Serbian songs based on the fervent one-two, one-two rhythm of the kolo.

A song, kolo is also the name of a simple, fast-paced dance I see Serbs stand up, link arms and do. It is a sign of a band's prowess if they can drive people to dance, and eventually I am pulled up and taught to do the kolo at a giddying, cheek-flushing pace.

It helps that I have been sampling several varieties of rakija, a traditional brandy offered to guests in homes throughout the Balkans. It is made from distilled fruits, most often plums; other ingredients such as herbs, honey, sour cherries and walnuts are added later. Store-bought varieties are typically 40 per cent proof, but some of the home-made brandies I try are much stronger, and before long I am dancing the kolo as well as any Serbian. At least, I think I am.

When the rakija and my dancing threaten to send me sprawling, I'm given a glass of beer "to cool me down". There's a lot of cooling down going on at Guca - in the river that runs through the centre of town and in the makeshift bars lining its streets.

"We celebrate everything from baptism to weddings to engagements, to when people are going to the army. Sometimes it's as many as 1000 people, all eating and drinking and dancing together, once or twice year," says one young man as I sit catching my breath.

"From a very young age, we are at these parties with our parents, who want to dance. So we dance too. It is something we learn from the time we start to walk. We start to walk; we start to dance."

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Austrian Airlines has a fare to Belgrade from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1970 low-season return, including tax. Fly a partner airline to Bangkok (about 9hr), then to Vienna (11hr 30min) and then to Belgrade (1hr 25min with a partner airline); see austrian.com.

Guca is a three-hour drive from Belgrade. Trains from Belgrade to Pozega (5hr) cost 692 dinara ($7.20) return; see serbianrailways.com. You'll need to take a taxi for the remaining 17 kilometres (1107 dinara). A private tour company also offers return transport by bus from Belgrade to Guca and costs 4428 dinara; see guca.rs.

Staying there

Hotels and motels are slim pickings in Guca, but most residents open their homes to visitors. Home-stays include a generous breakfast and cost from 23,808 dinara for four nights; see guca.rs.

When to go

The 52nd Trumpet Festival is held on August 6-12. Attending the entire festival is for the brave of ears and stomach; many people visit for just a day or two. The official festival runs from the Friday through to the Sunday, with the competition on the Sunday.

More information

See saborguca.com, guca.rs.