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Serbia blows its own trumpet with wild street party

By Simon Hooper, CNN
  • Only four bands participated in the festival's first edition in 1961
  • Over 2,000 musicians performed during this year's edition
  • Serbians' passion for brass music dates from the 19th century
  • The trumpet call has traditionally meant a call to arms to defend their nation

Guca, Serbia (CNN) -- When a group of musicians in Guca, central Serbia, launched a competition in 1961 to determine the most accomplished trumpet band in the region, it's safe to assume they had little idea what the small rural town was in for.

Just four bands took part in that first contest. Almost a half century later, Guca's trumpet festival is now synonymous with the wildest street party in the Balkans and a musical event with a burgeoning international reputation.

Organizers say this year's 50th edition of the competition -- doubled in duration to 10 days to mark the anniversary -- has been the biggest ever with an estimated 800,000 visitors and some 2,000 musicians taking part.

Saturday night's final saw more than 40,000 people crammed onto the field of the local football stadium to see Ekrem Mamutovic claim the "Golden Trumpet" title as the competition's outstanding performer.

But it's beyond the festival's formal program that Guca really swings into life, with packed streets lined with beer stands and food stalls serving sizzling grilled meats, and entire farmyards of pigs and sheep slowly cooking on spit roasts.

It's a celebration of our traditions, but it's also the best party in Serbia
--Dejan Aleksic, Serbian visitor to the festival.

Meanwhile, football-team-sized trumpet bands roam from bar to bar, seeking the patronage and approval of revelers who dance on tables to their muscular rhythms, throw money into the instruments or stick banknotes to the musicians' sweaty foreheads to show their appreciation.

The result is cacophonous bedlam, as bands separated by a few tables attempt to drown out and outplay their rivals.

Guca is not a festival for the faint-hearted, with the tireless bands playing into the dawn, before the "Awakening Call of the Trumpeters" at 7 a.m. marks the beginning of another day of brass-fueled mayhem.

Every surplus vuvuzela also seems to have made its way from South Africa to Serbia since the World Cup, adding a tuneless drone to the general dissonance.

Still, it's a mix that attracts a growing numbers of tourists, both from Serbia and abroad. "It's a celebration of our traditions, but it's also the best party in Serbia," said Dejan Aleksic from Obrenovac, a town south-west of Belgrade.

Stefan Vutov and Miroslava Rakiovska, first-time Guca visitors from Bulgaria, said they had been impressed by the friendly atmosphere, despite the raucous pandemonium.

"Our friends told us it was great here so we decided to try it and see what it was like," said Vutov. "And we are not disappointed at all. We hope to come again."

Serbians' passion for brass music dates from the nineteenth century, when the first military bands were formed. With Serbia still under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, trumpet music became a form of national expression and celebration, mixing traditional Serbian music with eastern-influenced Turkish and Gypsy rhythms. Many of the best bands and performers, including Guca legend Boban Markovic, come from Serbia's Roma community.

Guca organizer Adam Tadic told CNN that the sound of the trumpet had once been a call to arms for Serbs to come to the defense of their nation. "The trumpet isn't a traditional Serbian instrument but, through the history and the struggle for survival of this nation, it came into our hearts. Now it's a part of Serbian identity forever," he said.

In a country still bearing the scars of the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and which this year marks 10 years since the fall of late dictator Slobodan Milosevic, the issue of Serbian nationalism remains a sensitive one at Guca, with some stalls selling t-shirts featuring images of former Bosnian-Serb president Radovan Karadzic, currently on trial for alleged war crimes at The Hague, and his fugitive wartime commander, Ratko Mladic.

Still, the t-shirts are hardly flying off the racks and t-shirts celebrating Josep Broz Tito, the former leader of socialist Yugoslavia, are at least equally represented, often for sale on the same stalls.

Tadic insists the festival has no political agenda and says the organizers do not exercise any control over the festival beyond its core cultural and artistic program.

"For the participants on the stage, it's mandatory to perform Serbian traditional music dressed in Serbian national costume. In the street, under tents, you can wear whatever you like, play whatever you like, and do whatever you like. We have complete freedom and democracy," he said.

With the election of a pro-western government in 2008 and the capture and extradition of Karadzic soon afterwards, Serbia's years of isolation are also now history for a generation of young Serbs. Tadic said Guca was a way of presenting a more positive image, with the festival becoming a celebratory expression of Serbian identity.

Still, Serbs may not yet be quite ready to surrender their supremacy in the field of trumpet virtuosity. This year, for the first time, Guca staged an international competition in which bands from all over the world were invited to participate alongside those from the host nation -- but it was still a local ensemble who walked away with first prize.

Tadic insisted the result had been agreed by an entirely impartial international jury: "The competitors were really good -- but the best trumpeters are still from Serbia."