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Laughter reigns, war memories fade at annual Balkans brass festival

GUCA, Serbia and Montenegro -- The first 24 hours had passed in a blur of boiled cabbage and too-short sleep, and it was already Friday night, the heart of the Balkans' largest brass band festival, and the trumpets and tubas owned the place.

Roving orchestras eight, nine, and 10 members strong took to stages, wandered streets, and crowded around tables in makeshift restaurants. Horns blared from speakers, sometimes with a slow, sad bellow, more often so fierce and fast that passersby were thrown from one rhythm to the next. Always, the trumpet rose above, a sound pure and addictive, best described by a musician who said, "I blow my soul in my trumpet, and the trumpet plays itself."

A block from a statue of a man hoisting a horn, at an intersection of beer stands and surging bodies, danced a pack of young men sporting snug green army caps and T-shirts that read "Serbia" and "Fall in Love Again."

A Serbian friend of mine joked with one of the guys and more music struck up and soon we were sucked in, she and I arm-in-arm with the white T-shirt crowd, to a brass rhythm that came from where, a speaker or nearby stage, I forget. The song was a kolo, a national dance, so we draped arms over neighbors' shoulders and swung to the right, one foot alternating over the other, then back to the left.

The kolo ended and the young man next to me, tall, lean, and 19 years old, realized I did not speak Serbian, and then that I was an American, from a country that four years earlier had bombed Belgrade and outposts such as a chemical factory less than 10 miles from this village in the hills of western Serbia. He smiled, pulled me close, and, unsolicited, began to talk in broken English.

"I think many years have taken of my generation," he said. "War was beside me since I have seven. We don't hate anybody. Bosnia, Kosovo, there is a part our guilt. But we shouldn't punish all because of one man."

The teenager's older friend, broad-shouldered and serious, leaned in to listen.

"We lived in Bosnia, and we had to leave, and my parents, and blah, blah, blah," he said. "But who cares?"

Who did care, on that night last August, in the cool hill air of the Balkans? Wars had ended. Slobodan Milosevic had long since fallen from power, and the Guca trumpet festival had hit full swing, as it has every year since 1961 and will again when some 250,000 revelers descend Aug. 5-8.

Within minutes of the post-kolo conversation, Boban Markovic, a winner of several of the festival's trumpeting honors, would take the stage behind us. Markovic, who had risen to international renown on the success of "Underground," the 1995 film masterpiece by Emir Kusturica, began with a lofty rendition of the theme from "Titanic," which prompted many older people to get up and leave. Then, joined by his teenage son, he led his orchestra into a sprint through new compositions and raucous Serbian classics. They played "Sheva," a short celebratory burst in which the rhythms of tubas, cymbals, and drum acted as spotters in a musical circus, hoisting trumpet notes upon their shoulders. The trumpet call leapt above the rhythmic platform, spinning and flipping, resting only a quick beat, if ever. The crowd answered with dance, on benches, in circles, laughing and cheering, arms pinwheeling, trying in vain to keep pace.

Throughout it all, about 10 rows back, swayed a young man who carried himself with a Belgrader's sophistication. His face had a model's good looks, his chest was covered in a shirt showing a photo of Radovan Karadzic. Karadzic, former president of the Bosnian Serb administration who talked of defending his people's homeland, is still in hiding, nearly a decade after being indicted by prosecutors in The Hague for orchestrating rape, murder, and genocide against Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat civilians. Printed on the T-shirt, beneath Karadzic's face, were two words: "Serbian Hero."

The day after Markovic's concert, I stopped by the headquarters of the festival, officially called the Dragacevo Assembly of Trumpet Players, with two Italian friends, Alessandro Gori and Stefano Missio. The two had recently completed a documentary about Serbian trumpet music and the festival at Guca (pronounced GOO-cha), and they had arranged to show the film to Nikola Stojic, a literature professor and a founder of the festival. We gathered in a tidy office and turned off the lights.

The film, titled "This Is Our Life," recounted musical and military history: how trumpets were first used to call Serbian soldiers into battle in the mid-19th century, how Serbian armies charged to trumpets in the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century and again during the two world wars. The film traveled into the present, through the hills of southern Serbia to show an orchestra playing at a funeral on a rainy, dank day, and into the warm home of Gvozden Rosic, a farmer who won the people's choice award for his trumpet playing at Guca in 2001.

But the film also journeyed to Belgrade, to a scene of a homeless child, and news reports of Serbia's ongoing struggles with the International Monetary Fund, and of the assassination in April 2003 of Zoran Djindjic, the reformist prime minister elected after the fall of Milosevic.

After the credits had scrolled past, Stojic leaned forward and sighed.

"This festival is about happiness. And that happiness follows on a sad Serbia, and I don't like the connection," he said. "This is not the time to talk about sad stories."

On the seething streets of Guca, there was little mention of the economy -- that many festivalgoers could not afford the high prices charged at restaurants, that many among the crowd could not find jobs in their hometowns. There was little talk of the cost of a decade of wars for neighboring nations, or Serbians. The festival set a breakneck party pace, a pace of release, of escape.

At 7 each morning, a cannon shot roared through the low valley, beginning another round of slow-roasted pork and lamb, boiled cabbage, and flowing plum brandy. The crush began among the outlying vendors selling sofas and ceramics, tractors, and the new four-door Mercedes-Benz E200 Kompressor, this for a price of roughly $35,000. In the very center, past the hanging banners and smaller stalls selling CDs and Serbian pins, sturdy tents were stretched above long tables and folding chairs. There, orchestras, both Roma (or Gypsy) and slavic Serb, unschooled, masterful musicians all, circled around customers and competed for pride and worn dinar bills, the latter often stuck to trumpeters' sweaty foreheads, stuffed in tubas, or tossed on snare drums.

As the weekend rolled on, images of the darker side of nationalism became more prominent, with photos of Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the indicted Bosnian Serb general, rising on the trumpeter statue. Even then, though, such displays were the exception, the sharp edge to what could only be described as a feel-good, rip-roaring party.

On Sunday afternoon, I stopped in the calm of a hilltop cafe that overlooked Guca, normally home to 1,900 people. Three students from Belgrade were preparing to walk down the footpath to a wide field, where carnival vendors had set up rides and more food stands, and then into the center of Guca, and I joined them.

"It is like after the winter, there is a spring. We just woke up to see what we can do," said Marija Rados, 26, tall, and calm. She was talking about life after Milosevic and the fact that, as I'd heard from others of her generation, these past years marked the first time that many who opposed the decade of war in the name of Serbia felt they could celebrate their Serbian roots.

Serbia's musical identity, the trumpet, had helped fuel the chaos of the 1990s. In one news report, a Bosnian Muslim woman said Serb soldiers had broadcast "Mars na Drinu," a classic wartime song, from mosque speakers before raping villagers. The Milosevic regime supported a brand of music known as Turbofolk -- a frantic hybrid of new and old -- as entertainment for the country's wartime social life. Opponents to the madness countered with their own musical stands: Protesters at anti-Milosevic rallies in Belgrade in the mid-1990s raged to "Kalashnikov," a song still heard frequently at Guca.

As we reached the bridge that crossed back into the tight center of the festival, Rados turned the question to me. The United States had invaded Iraq five months earlier. She criticized President Bush's patriotic calls, his tough diplomatic talk about other countries being either with the United States or against us. She imagined what would come next.

"I cannot even look at the television when your president speaks to his nation: 'We must do this,' " Rados said.

The day before, I had met Velimir Ilic, a regional power broker and mayor of Cacak, a city 15 miles north, as he walked through parting crowds along Guca's main street. In October 2000, as Milosevic tried to steal an election, Ilic had rallied cars, trucks, buses, and a bulldozer to roll through the countryside and into the center of Belgrade. The crowd overwhelmed police and stormed Parliament. Milosevic was done.

"Every nation has its traditional festival, where people can relax and forget all their problems," Ilic said, his eyes working the crowds approaching the trumpeter statue.

Yet can such times of celebration and joy be only that? In cultivating identity, in sharing in dance and song and drink, people court a powerful force, a force of joy and happiness, yes, but also one that can be united by leaders and followers toward destructive ends. Doesn't this, then, become the crucial issue for any nation: Who will come forward to lead a people, to harness that shared sense of identity, once the party is over?

Tom Haines can be reached at 

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