Guca Festival: the Remedy to Music Festivals’ “commercial Poison”?

 British music festivals are suffering a lingering sickness, and it’s spreading.  Many have called a year hiatus or cancelled altogether.  Sonisphere, The Big Chill and Glastonbury are amongst the big-name victims. Only an elite few, such as Bestival and Secret Garden Party, haven’t been struck by a rapid decline in ticket sales. Organisers claim the affliction is circumstantial citing the underlying cause as tough market conditions created by the recession and Olympics. Critics have made a more serious diagnosis of terminal illness, resulting from soaring ticket prices and growing commerciality. Allegedly, even formerly ‘boutique’ festivals have been infected, with rapid expansion killing the niche-market ‘care-free’ vibe and bargain basement prices.

Many are going abroad for summer festivities this year. Exit Festival (Serbia), Hideout, and Garden Festival (Croatia) are increasingly popular options amongst British revellers seeking warmer climes, and lower costs.  Yet such festivals are specifically targeted at the Western market. Organisers and artists are predominantly Western. Tickets, though relatively cheap, outprice locals, and online travel companies provide door-to-door transport and accommodation packages. Those seeking the ‘authentic’ festival experience (the Glastonbury of yesteryear) are likely to be disappointed by these Malga-esque music Meccas of the British middle-class. But do not despair! The remedy for the contemporary music festival’s commercial poison can be found in a small town in Serbia.

The inhabitants of Guca number 2,500, but annually a 300,000 strong crowd descend on the town for a week-long festival.  Started in 1961 to preserve Serbia’s traditional brass orchestra, the sabor (festival) is an utterly exhilarating experience. The music, a fusion of bold brass sounds formed during the clash of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman cultures in the mid 19th-century, infused by the infectious rhythms of Romany gypsy tunes. The result is a unique, electrifying Balkan beat that you can’t help but dance to; and in every corner of the festival people do just that. The calls of trumpets sound all day long. Regional beer and rakija (a local firewater) flow, belly dancers gyrate to grinning groups, spit roast goats, bulls and pigs are daily cuisine. Wearing hats and sunglasses, draped in flags, locals and foreigners, old and young, dance side-by-side. Guca provides a beautiful, eclectic form of hedonism. The party doesn’t stop.

Small bands roam the streets, and for a few dinars (Serbian currency) blast joyful music to revellers, dancing on bars, tables, chairs, and in the streets; in just about any available space. More famous acts perform to larger, but equally jubilant crowds in the main arena. Thursday saw Guca’s first DJ act by Shantel, mixing a wonderfully bizarre blend of techno and Balkan Brass. Friday’s delights included a parade through the town and an evening appearance from legend Goran Bregovic. Saturday, the Golden trumpet contest finale. Sunday, an unprecedented performance by Ceca, a folk-pop star with Godmother status in Serbia.

Guca Festival has grown year-on-year, but continues to avoid large sponsorship deals. Most visitors are from Serbia and surrounding countries. Although more (Western) foreigners are coming, the festival remains a uniquely Balkan affair. Not a festival for foreigners, but a slice of Serbia we are privileged to share. This is the secret of its success. Fifty years has passed since the festival began. Admission remains free, and for just a few euros per night you can camp in local’s gardens. Our gracious host provided typical Serbian hospitality; free access to showers, unlimited home-brewed rakija, coffee, watermelon and breakfast.

Time at Guca went fast, too fast. On Monday reluctantly boarding the bus back to Belgrade, it was to cries of “I love trumpets”, and “again!” Only 357 days to wait… We’ll see you next year, Guca!


Words: Harriet Salem