This is a blog about my travels. My "regular" life is much too boring to bother blogging about.

Friday, July 18, 2008

And soon, Guča

I first became aware of Guča through a report on the BBC News. I can’t remember exactly what year it was, but it was either 2001, 2002 or 2003. This I know because I distinctly remember lying on the couch in my old house in Yellowknife, on Finlayson Drive North. The report was one of those hacky “look what these crazy people get up to in Serbia!” numbers. There were people dancing, drinking and, of course, playing brass instruments in this tiny village in Serbia. Of particular interest to me were the young Serbian men shown singing ultra-nationalist songs (“Kosovo is Serbia!” and similar ditties); evidently, Guča was some sort of stage for the expression of Serbian identity, or so said the BBC. It all looked very interesting. I filed the report away in my memory. If I ever found myself in Serbia in August… why the hell not?

I heard my first Boban Marković album in 2005 while I was living in Leicester. Marković is a trumpeter/bandleader who is widely recognized as the best in Serbia, perhaps the best to ever emerge from the Balkans. In 2001, his band received perfect scores from every single judge on the Guča panel during the battle of the bands competition, something which had never happened before (because he’s presumed to be so much better than everyone else, Marković has stopped competing at Guča, though he still performs). At this time, I had never even heard of Boban Marković and had no idea of his association with Guča, I only discovered this after reading the CD’s liner notes. I don’t remember what possessed me to buy the CD. I think I was killing time in the world music section at the HMV at Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in Big London and decided to blow my money on random CDs by random artists I’d never heard or from random countries. But I did buy it and, to make a long story short, I can confirm that Marković is as good as advertised. His music absolutely blew me away and was the catalyst for a fixation with brass music that continues to this day and has introduced me to klezmer, Romanian fanfares, DJs such as Shantel that produce/spin brass-heavy tracks, and god knows how many other musical forms. This in turn led to me rediscovering Guča. Making the pilgrimage to the festival became a priority for me. I originally wanted to go in 2006, but problems with a Macedonian transit visa scuppered those plans. So I am going this year. I have a plane ticket to Belgrade, and I’ve organized accommodation in Guča with an old lady in what might be a barn. Barring a catastrophe, I’m going.

Even though music is among my favourite things, Guča will be my first big festival (Folk on the Rocks does NOT count). I chalk this up to my bizarre aversion to live music - I think I understand and enjoy music more alone, at home, in isolation – as well as my awkwardness in large crowds. And, the music aside, how different is one festival to another? I’ve always assumed that the experience at Burning Man is basically the same as it is at Glastonbury as it is at Exit as it is at I Love Techno: you go, listen to music, get drunk, probably do some drugs, see a few crazy people doing crazy things, etc. etc., all against the backdrop of this obnoxious, vacuous talk of peace and love and harmony and togetherness and community that means nothing except for too much weed and E and too many hours listening to late Bob Marley and John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Obviously I’m generalizing here, but I know a lot of people who have gone to a lot of different music festivals, and I honestly don’t see that much meaningful variance in their experiences. As you may have ascertained from my Mozambique/Malawi chronicles, I try and avoid genericism in my travels. I want my voyages to be, if possible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

This is why I’m going to Guča: I’m hoping that it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Guča is often described as the “Serbian Woodstock”, but the most important word in that phrase isn’t “Woodstock”; it’s “Serbian”. Guča, as the BBC described it to me all those years ago, is allegedly a window into the Serbian soul, and though it has become more and more popular with tourists over the past five or so years, it remains a music festival run by Serbs, for Serbs and according to a distinctly Serbian sensibility. This is how Wikipedia claims former Serbian President Vojislav Koštunica describes Guča:

“Guča represents in a best way what Serbia is today, what does its openness, belief in oneself, hospitality, party and music. [The] trumpet festival is a confirmation on our courage and joy both in good and bad times. It represents people’s return to the roots, joy and meaning of life. It speaks about who we are, what we are, our urges. We express our joy and sadness with [the] trumpet, we are born with sounds of [the] trumpet, and also buried with sounds of [the] trumpet. Guča is [a] Serbian brand, it’s a value that can represent Serbia in the world. Those that can’t understand and love Guča, can’t understand Serbia. If we are going to go in [the] EU without our melodies and colours, then we wouldn’t know who we are.”

So how could I resist? That sounds like the kind of cultural experience that I live for. We’ll see if it lives up to expectations. My guess is that it will… because really, how can you go wrong with slivovice-fuelled Serbs dancing to brass bands and singing ultra-nationalist Serbian folk songs? I can’t wait.


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