Toby Guise

Balkan brass

The secret to the success of Guca Trumpet Festival is not complicated: it involves large amounts of plum brandy, barbecued meat and brass music

When brass instruments with button-operated valves were introduced in the first half of the 19th century, music-making changed. Once requiring a semi-professional approach, it could now be quickly mastered by large groups of working people. A noisy result were Britain’s colliery bands: but a more spirited upshot was Serbia’s trumpet tradition.

Like the colliery bands, Serbian brass music had a political imperative — re-weaving national identity after 500 years of Turkish occupation. The leader who first hit on trumpets as a vehicle for this joie-de-liberté was Prince Milos Obrenovic, who created the first Serbian brass ensembles in 1831. They took swift hold, providing an outlet for everyday south Slav exuberance.

The resulting fast, rhythmical brass-playing has led to the panacea term, ‘Balkan beats’. To western hipsters, the distinctions between (Latin) Romanian culture and (Slavic) west Balkan culture are secondary. Within the region, however, the semiotics of a regional folk dance or costume crackle with contemporary relevance.

When it comes to exporting their culture, the Serbs have wisely put such granularity aside. Filmmaker Emir Kusturica — who has lately retreated to a model village near Guca — creates a fantasy version of the Balkans perfectly suited for overseas consumption. Similarly, impresarios such as Sanja Ilic of Balkanika and Goran Bregovic have produced export versions of Balkan music. Like the ciabatta — invented in the 1980s to compete with the baguette — there is nothing not to like about it, providing it doesn’t make too full a claim to authenticity.

The reality of Balkan music is too serious for export. Pop performances last four hours, and wedding bands play for ten. Competitors on reality music shows perform two songs — one folk and one mainstream — then get detailed feedback from the living legends of Serbian and Yugoslav music.

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