Brassed off

Ed Stocker visits the home of Balkan music - a trumpet festival in Serbia

The spiritual home of music in Serbia is located far away from the capital city. Three hours' drive west of Belgrade, not far from the border with Bosnia, the village of Guca is situated at the end of a winding mountain road that leads from the town of Cacak, passing the occasional Orthodox monastery and small farm. It's a beautiful setting, nestled at the bottom of a deep valley and bordering dense pine forests.

With only a few thousand residents, the village is not the most obvious location for perhaps the most important celebration of Balkan brass music in the world, a sound that has its roots in the marching bands of the 19th century. The Guca Trumpet Festival - which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year - attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, descending en masse in August for five days of partying (extended to ten for this year's celebrations).

Guca is by no means a normal festival. For a start, it doesn't have any of the big stages or tents that one sees at similar events. There are only two arenas: one small area outside the ­village cultural centre and a larger stadium stage where players compete for the coveted Top Trumpet (jury) and Golden Trumpet (audience) awards. Instead, the heart of the festival is the itinerant group of brass bands - mostly Roma musicians from the south of the country - that wander the streets of the village searching for custom at the packed bars and restaurants where people tuck in to steaming plates of stew and grilled meat. It's a musical tradition unique to this corner of the globe, and watching the exchange between hustler and potential audience is a fascinating experience.

The barter starts with the group picking a table and swarming around it, where they immediately launch into playing at trademark lightning speed. It's up to the table - treated to an intimate performance - to coax ever more dazzling displays of virtuosity from the players as the trumpeters move ever closer to their seated audience, a wall of sound closing in on the listener.

If the music is good, the table will erupt into clapping, arm waving and possibly dancing on the tables. Appreciative listeners stuff 200 and 500 dinar notes down the bells of the players' trumpets as a sign that life is good and they must play on.

Occasionally, as a player works up a sweat, a note will be plastered to their forehead as a means of payment. For visitors from western Europe, it's a wonderfully anarchic way of paying for music.

The festival has certainly changed over the past few years - foreign bands are programmed to play at the stadium for the first time this year - and German, French, British and Italian voices now regularly mingle with the Serbs'.

In the past, the festival, although never aligned with a political movement, was accused of being too nationalistic, and there are still occasional vendors who sell Slobodan Milosevic or Radovan Karadzic T-shirts. But this is now minority behaviour and people I spoke to were both welcoming and eager for the world to move past the newspaper headlines that have marred Serbia's reputation since the break-up of Yugo­slavia in the 1990s.

For all the changes, Guca is rightly proud of its traditions and clearly not ready to sell out. Much of the year, not a lot happens: the villagers mingle on their doorsteps, chatting to neighbours, and grow their own fruit and vegetables. Aside from camping, accommodation is with local families that give up their beds to make a quick buck during the festival. It's quite an experience being invited into their homes and their hospitality is humbling. Almost no one speaks English - but after a few hand gestures and several shots of rakija (the local plum brandy that fuels the festival), none of that seems to matter.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

Show Hide image

The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.