Every summer, a sleepy town in Western Serbia becomes the loudest, most frenetic place in the Balkans. Just back from the 2017 jamboree, Thomas Rees relives the chaos.
Imagine the wildest festival you’ve ever been to and double it. Crank up the volume well past 11, pump in the smoke from 100 charcoal grills and add the smell of hog roast, crackling and lager-soaked earth.
Now imagine all of the musicians are brass players, playing with every ounce of their strength. Knock back a glass of throat-scarring rakija and turn them loose in the smallest town you can think of. Do all that and you have some idea of what it’s like to visit Guča.
For five days every August, this tiny town in Western Serbia hosts the greatest festival of Balkan brass band music, and the largest gathering of trumpet players anywhere in the world.
Hundreds of musicians come here to vie for the festival’s coveted prizes. And when they aren’t competing or playing concerts on the main stage down at the old sports stadium beyond the river, they’re running amok through the town, ambushing loved-up couples or storming restaurant tables, five bands at a time.
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The Balkan tradition is nothing like the twee brass band music in the UK. This is the soundtrack to a bacchanalian party – a violent expression of joy – raw, unfettered and played at an eardrum-perforating dynamic, inches from the heads of delirious Serbian punters who throw their arms in the air and plaster thousand dinar notes to the sweat-slicked foreheads of the musicians in gratitude.
It’s an immersive musical experience, a churning sound bath that starts each morning at 7am, when the bands process from the statue of the trumpet player in the centre of town to a backdrop of cannon fire and screaming fireworks, and continues well into the early hours.
Even when thunder rolls around the valley and rain pounds the tarmac there’s no let up. The bands just run for cover under the trees and keep on playing.
Many of the best loved musicians are Roma from the south of Serbia. One such artist is Saša Krstić, this year’s festival champion, who began learning with his grandfather at the age of five and cut his teeth playing ten-hour sets at frenzied weddings.
“This music is our life,” he tells me. “It’s all we know.”
Music fans – an estimated half a million of them – come from even further afield. On the opening night I find myself dancing a vast local kolo in front of the main stage, trotting around in a ring a hundred people strong.
My dancing partner is Ivan, a topless Bosnian from Sarajevo with an Orthodox flag draped across his shoulders. He’s been to Guča eight times and even made the local paper last year for being the first person to arrive – three days before the music began.
“The world has many great festivals,” he says, “but there is nothing else like Guča. If you like Balkan music this is the place to come.”
At a parade the next morning I meet Anaïs, the ringleader of a gaggle of French hippies who’ve hitchhiked all the way from Montpellier. “It’s totally insane. I don’t want to leave,” she hollers, before disappearing into a crowd of flag-waving Poles with vuvuzelas.
Many of the most ardent fans, though, the ones showering each other with beer and shoving handfuls of bank notes down the ends of the musicians’ tubas, are homesick Serbian expats who’ve returned home for a trumpet fix.
“This music is part of our heritage after all,” says Nikola Stojić, a bright-eyed poet in his 80s, who founded the festival in 1961.
Back then, Serbia was one of the six republics of Yugoslavia, under the communist government of Josip Broz Tito.
In order to keep the federation together, Tito outlawed expressions of national pride and Guča quickly came under fire.
“They tried everything to stop us,” Stojić recalls, his crackly baritone glowing with nostalgia, “but Guča has always been above politics and in the end it was just too popular. They couldn’t forbid it.”
“The trumpet is an infectious instrument. It can make you laugh and it can make you cry. When someone builds a new house here, he gets some trumpet players and they climb up on the roof and the whole village comes and celebrates. Baptisms, weddings, funerals: in Serbia, the first and the last sound you hear is the sound of the trumpet.”
On my final day in Guča, my translator, Sanja, invites me to drink rakija with her family and I get a glimpse of what the town must be like during the rest of the year. We climb a steep track that winds up into the hills, passing hayricks and fields of beehives, tumbledown farmhouses smothered with grapevines and tents pitched among groves of walnut trees.
Storm clouds are gathering in the valley below, the air is cool, and there’s a sound I hardly recognise. Imagine the softest, silkiest silence you’ve ever heard and double it.
Want to experience the madness for yourself? From how to get there to what to feast on once you’ve arrived, here’s everything you need to know:
How do I get there?
Guča is around 3 hours from Belgrade by road. Buses run between Belgrade bus station and Guča (or the nearby city of Čačak) every few hours (around €20 each way).
Where should I stay?
Camping in fields and gardens across town costs €6 a night or you can stay in local people’s houses for around €40 per night B&B. Entry and all concerts are free. For more information see: www.Guča.rs
If I eat one dish, what should it be?
Wedding Cabbage (kupus) – an intensely savoury mix of cabbage, bacon and pork, simmered for hours in a vast clay pot over charcoal and so called because it’s served at major celebrations. Unlikely sounding, but delicious.
And what’s to drink?
Rakija, the local fruit brandy, made with everything from blackberries to rose hips, but most commonly with plums.
Top tip: If you’re planning to sleep, avoid staying in the centre of Guča where music is blaring nonstop. Earplugs are essential kit.
Images top to bottom (left–right): Nebojsa Markovic/123rf; MK Visual/Flickr; Guča Trumpet Festival; Guča Trumpet Festival; Guča Trumpet Festival; Guča Trumpet Festival; MK Visual/Flickr; Geza Farkas/123rf; Branko Brkovic/Flickr