Balkan Brass: Šljivovica, Weddings and Wagner Tubas

Brass bands, to most British readers, bring forth associations of mill towns and coal mines, pints of creamy-headed Northern bitter, parades in the rain through cobbled high streets, and the decline of traditional working-class culture and communities as narrated in Mark Herman’s 1996 cult classic Brassed Off. (Actually, that’s not a completely fair and accurate picture – the tradition is thriving and replete with young talent in pockets of the north of England and the South Wales valleys, as a visit to the annual Whit Friday marches or a look at the biographies of a substantial number of Britain’s professional brass players will tell you – but the popular image remains.)

However, what’s perhaps less well-known is that brass band-based music of a rather different variety is alive and well, and hugely popular as a mainstream genre, in parts of the Balkans (in particular Serbia, Romania and Macedonia); over the past decade or so, it’s also been gradually attracting something of a niche following in Western Europe and North America, especially since the return of relative peace and stability to the Balkans after the conflicts of the 1990s.

In looking at the origins of any genre such as this, it’s sometimes difficult to separate mythology from fact (and, as so often, it’s something of a political and nationalistic minefield in which stories differ depending on who you talk to), but the two explanations given most often are either that local musicians were influenced by the instrumentation of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian military bands common across the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries, or that soldiers from the Serbian wars of independence between 1804 and 1813, who had used trumpets to give signals on the battlefield, returned with their instruments to their home villages and began to transcribe folk music.

Whatever, the unique formation of instruments – brass with a very definite flavour of Mitteleuropa, featuring rotary trumpets, helicons, Wagner tubas and sousaphones, plus drums and often saxophones and clarinets – became ingrained into local culture, adopted by the bands of Roma musicians who traditionally provide much of the accompaniment to weddings and other public events in this part of southeastern Europe.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this music, however, is the way in which it’s very much a living, breathing, continuously evolving tradition – especially in Serbia, where it’s still hugely commercially popular and something of a national symbol. The Guča Trumpet Festival, held in the same small South Serbian town since 1961, consistently attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators each year (rumoured at one time to have included Miles Davis) and is said to be a wild, raucous few days fuelled by copious amounts of Šljivovica (plum brandy): as an illustration of the music’s national importance, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama were both invited to the 50th anniversary of the festival in 2011 (whether they actually took up the offer is not clear).

Current artists include Fanfare Ciocărlia from Romania, and former Guča champions the Boban Marković Orkestar from Serbia (recently joined by Marković’s son, Marko). The vitality of the genre, as popular music rather than museum-piece folk tradition, is demonstrated by the way in which alongside traditional dance melodies (often in irresistibly infectious irregular metres), Fanfare Ciocărlia produce inventive re-imaginings of Western European pop and rock classics, and Marko Marković’s recent hit ‘Šljivovica’ incorporates elements of hip-hop culture, both in its musical style and in the imagery of its accompanying video.

O. Hubbard

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