Saturday, July 12, 2008

NY Gypsy FF: Guca

“Music and sport make a nation” says a fan at the Guča trumpet festival. Those who excel in each are uniquely capable of making emotional connections with scores of people they will never meet. Once a year, there are a whole lot of connections made at the Serbian music festival, as recorded in Milijov Ilic’s documentary, Guča: the Serbian Woodstock, an Untold Story (trailer here), screening as part of the New York Gypsy Film Festival.

The music of the Guča festival is the traditional brass band music of western Serbia and the more Roma influenced Sevdah music from the Southern and Eastern provinces (as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina). With the Sevdah music considered freer and more spontaneous than the western Serbian style, one of member of the festival jury likens the differences between the two forms to the distinction between Dixieland and genuine New Orleans style jazz.

Although not jazz at all, the music of Guča should be readily accessible to jazz ears, particularly those who follow the New Orleans brass band scene or frequently hear Slavic Soul Party at Barbès. Again like jazz, there seem to be definite notions of authenticity regarding the music. An ethnomusicologist who serves as the film’s expert commentator clearly favors the most traditional bands and is critical of past champion Boban Marković for diluting his music with commercial elements.

Sports comparisons are particularly apt for Guča, because this is not just an exhibition, but most certainly a competition. The Golden Trumpet audience award, the jury’s First Trumpet award, and several other prizes are at stake. As documented by Ilic, it seemed the bands of the 2005 festival are near evenly matched, making it difficult to forecast a winner.

More than anything, Guča looks like a heck of a party. The usually sleepy rural Serbian town attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, including Miles Davis one year, to dig those crazy sidewise looking Dragačevo trumpet. Ilic captures that festival spirit, filming revelers passed out on park benches and the hoods of cars. Clearly, the music and carnival atmosphere has a restorative effect on those in the troubled country who attend.

While actors are allowed to occasionally phone one in for a pay check, whenever musicians and athletes take the stage, they are expected to perform at the peak of the abilities. In Guča, everyone seems well satisfied that indeed happened. It screens again Tuesday night at the NY Gypsy FF, which has extended its run through Wednesday the 16th.