Gypsy Trumpet A-Go-Go

By Russell McGilton

Like something out of a mad gypsy movie, Russell McGilton was swept away by one of the world’s biggest trumpet festivals this year in Serbia. 

‘It is the most insane, crazy festival you will ever go to,’ a Slovenian friend, Uros, emailed me. ‘You will dance for four days. Your body will ache. You will not know the meaning of peace.’

And just when I was about to delete this invitation to recreational torture, he wrote, ‘The music is just like in Underground.’

It was a film by the Serbian director Emir Kusturica that featured the intoxicating madness of gypsy music. I’d fallen in love with it. I booked a flight.

Two weeks later I was jostling in a Kombi with Uros and his Slovenian friends in Serbia’s August summer towards Guca, a sleepy town 160 kilometres south of Belgrade and populated by less than 5,000 people. That number would swell to over 300,000 party goers, who had all arrived, like us, for 43rd Golden Trumpet Festival, the largest of its kind in the world and strangely, virtually unknown outside of Serbia. Here, over a 50 trumpet bands would compete for the Golden Trumpet Award.

The festival’s beginnings weren’t as convivial as one might suppose, its origins dating back to the Karageorge uprising against the Turks in 1804. The trumpet, rather than stirring up a dance, was used for waking troops, signalling to attack or to boost morale.

As the war faded the wails of trumpets didn’t. Bands in villages were formed by farmers and later by Gypsies, who, to this day, have greatly influenced the music with their frenetic rhythms and hot blooded melodies so much, that the Golden Trumpet Festival is also known as the Gypsy Trumpet Festival. In fact, it was a Serbian gypsy, the trumpeter Boban Markovic, who contributed his music to Underground and helped put the festival on the musicological map.

In the midst of the carnival atmosphere we thronged through the growing crowds passed large black pots on coals bubbling kupus – cabbage and pork stew, charcoaled pigs skewed on spits, grill upon grill of barbequed beef while staff tapped their tongs to a loud brass frenzy emanating from a tented restaurant.

 Inside, a gypsy brass band of ten players surrounded a table, belting out a ruckus of rhythms from tubas, euphoniums, trumpets, saxophones and a large bass drum. In the middle of this blaring fray was a scene straight out of Underground ­– a stout man smoking a big cigar commanding the players to go softer, harder, quieter or even solo while stuffing Serbian dollars – dinaras – into the horns of trumpet players or pasting it on their sweaty foreheads.

‘He is gangster for sure,’ said Uros. I didn’t doubt it. Apart from some questionable looking characters, the average price for the band to come around and blow your ears off was around $300 and not within the realms of most Serbians.

Suddenly the crowd erupted when two belly dancers jumped on the next table and began waving their newly acquired dinaras teasingly from their gyrating hips at the men below. The big men sat with big jugs of beer like snarling polar bears, leering and cheering them on while other patrons danced on chairs excitedly as the gypsy tempo kicked up to a feverish pitch.

‘I’ve be coming here for twelve years,’ yelled a marketing manager from Belgrade above the din. ‘And every year it just gets better. Crazier.’

Four days later party goers were still dancing in the streets, arms flung over each other, tubular balloons wrapped around their heads, blowing whistles, flinging pivo (beer) into the air as they exploded into dance as the Underground song ‘Mijesecina, Mijesecina (Moonlight, moonlight) yo-yo!’ was played for the hundredth time that hour.

‘Serbian people here look happy,’ said Olivia, a psychologist from Belgrade. ‘But they are not. Since the war ended four years ago there are no jobs and young people are leaving.’

Perhaps this is why that despite the gallons of alcohol consumed here most people still managed to ‘keep their dignity’ as the Major of Guca had commented at a press conference.

 Well, all except one. As I danced on top of a beer barrel a Balkan toothless brut pushed me off it. When I protested he grabbed me by both cheeks and kissed me roughly on the forehead. ‘SERBIA! GUCA! HAHAHA!’

It was, like the Golden Trumpet Festival, a kiss I was not likely to forget.