Guča festival or my yearly fix of Balkan madness in a Serbian village

All my friends know how much I love Guča festival, as I’ve been there more often than the average Serb has. But this year, I’m not going. Not because I don’t want to go – I would love to. But now that I have reached the golden number of 7 visits to Serbia, I think that it is time to explore new sources of happiness (same reason as to why I am not going to Russia anymore).

To give you one example: last year, a random Serbian dude recognised me from the previous years and offered me a cold beer to celebrate that! As much as I was honoured, I realized that I had become a pillar of Guča, and I am too much of a wanderer to let this happen to me.

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This is me, enjoying every minute of it.

But I still would like to encourage everyone to visit Guča this year and experience the incredible.

Guča is a village in Serbia. It hosts every year, for a couple of days in August, a gathering of trumpet players that, in the old days of Yugoslavia, was quite modest and not taken kindly by the regime. It has grown to what is is now since the 90s and Kusturica’s movies made the Balkan brass bands music so popular.

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Band walking around in the streets in traditional costume.

Let me share seven things I love about Guča.

1. It is not really a festival, it is basically just a village

A village with a few streets, a small river and a bridge – and that’s where the event takes place. You walk around along with brass bands, that’s all what it is. A number of temporary outdoor eateries are set up where there’s space and people pitch their tent where they feel like doing so.

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Roasting pigs and lambs are everywhere as this is the official celebration food in Serbia. Not my cup of tea as a vegetarian of course, but it interesting and somewhat pleasant to see so many people truly enjoy something.

Every morning at seven, they shoot in the air with cannons to wake you up and parade in the village playing trumpet, which makes a good day start!

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The local villagers always observe their village’s transformation with curiosity and kindness.

2. It is a free event

There is no entrance gate with officials checking your tickets, because there are no tickets. The whole event is free. The local house of culture organises performances and a parade of all the brass bands who officially play in the festival, that can all be accessed for free. Of course if you slip a few hundred dinars in someone’s trumpet, they will stay longer and play songs on request for you…

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Every year, all the artists parade in the village in traditional folkloric costumes.

Almost every year, well-known artists like Goran Bregović or Boban i Marko Marković play on the stadium’s big stage. There is a competition of trumpet players, the winners of which perform on the Saturday night.

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This is one of my favourite players for photos because of the size of his cheeks. He is there every year.

In the past couple of years, there have been a few deviations from this model – for example last year Serbian superstar Ceca played on the Friday night in the big stadium, and the entrance was not free. I have no information who initiated and organised this, but I hope it will not become a norm, as I feel this denatures the festival.

3. Guča is small, and not growing

One of the things I regret most about all festivals in Europe is that they always grow out of proportion and become overcrowded events that sell out too fast and where you spend more time looking for your mates than really enjoying it.

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Guča is all about spontaneity and freedom to do what makes you happy the way you want.

Guča is not of this kind, and it has not grown in the past years. You keep bumping into your old and new friends all the time, and that is one of the most wonderful things about it.

4. Guča is the greatest cacophony I have ever heard

Imagine that you are sitting on a terrace, sipping a Jelen Pivo (official sponsor) beer. A brass band comes closer and plays Bregović’s famous Kalashnikov. Right behind you, another brass band is playing Gypsy anthem Ederlezi. And from the other terrace at the other side of the street, you can hear a third brass band that is playing traditional folk song Mesečina. What a sweet cacophony!

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Everything is outdoors and brass bands walk along all terraces to play for the guests.

5. Spontaneous, and therefore different every year

Some people ask me why I keep coming. Isn’t it the same every year, after all? Well, yes and no. It is so spontaneous and somewhat disorganised that you do not find the same every year. One example is the camping: there is no official campsite in Guča.

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You can pitch your tent in someone’s garden against a few euro, or settle in a more organised campsite in someone’s fields at the edge of the village. Or just drop your tent in the middle of the action, along the river. I have tried all these options and they have all made for a slightly different atmosphere every year.

Many villagers offer to rent their spare bedrooms, or organise a campsite in their garden, but technically you can also just pitch your tent in the middle of the village and to be honest I have done that several times. An old man created a makeshift open-air shower down the hill, and this where I washed myself.

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People party wherever they feel like, and there can very well be a spontaneous party going on right in the middle of the parking.

6. There is so much Balkan positive energy in Guča

Like in every festival, people are happy, celebrating, sharing a laugh with strangers. And moreover, in Guča they do that in a Balkan fashion: it is spontaneous, rustic, collective, crazy, and fundamentally irrational.

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These guys have spontaneously created their own little island in the middle of the river.

By no means do I believe that everything is perfect in Serbia, and I’ve always found Guča a sort of exaggerated microcosm of what Serbia is – both in the positive and the negative. But to be honest, I don’t feel like talking about the negative here and the truth is that, over the years, I have only noticed things improving.

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There is a trumpet player statue in the middle of the village, that (drunk) (male) people like to climb with a flag in the hand. This can be sometimes experienced as a sort of epicentre for Serbian patriotism but it all remains most of the time very friendly.

7. People visit Guča from everywhere in the world

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Besides the officially invited bands from Yugoslavia, a few bands joyfully join the cacophony, like this one which I believe came from France.

I always meet new people and make new friends in Guča, and am thrilled by the number of nationalities I have met. Over the years, I have been saying “Živeli!” (“cheers!”) over a Jelen Pivo beer with Serbs and Gypsies, Europeans of all sorts, Australians, Americans, Russians… Really like in anything in the Balkans, Guča is a cultural blend.

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Posing in front of the trumpet statue with a group of randomly met festival goers from the whole world: Canadian, French, Polish, Australians… We had not even noticed the Serbian dude on the top of the trumpet!

Have you every watched Kusturica’s movie Black Cat, White Cat? If not, do me a favour and watch it. Being Guča feels like being in the movie.

So, are you going to Guča this year?

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8 thoughts on “Guča festival or my yearly fix of Balkan madness in a Serbian village

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