History of Serbian Trumpet-playing

When the soul starts to shiver and the heart overflows with love, the mountain slopes of Ovčar, Jelica, Čemerno, Golubac and Krstac, the river banks of the Bjelica, Moravica, Gorušica and Dragačica suddenly begin to echo with the song, chaste like a young girl and daring like a young man of the highlands: ''Dragačevo, crowned with the rose, entwined with the basil''.

The song echoes and gives love to all who hear it. Its gentle tones, its epic history and roadside monuments make Dragačevo a unique place in the culture of the ancient heart of Serbia, nestling among the three Moravas…

Wherever you go, in all parts of the world, on every continent including probably the Antarctica, Guča and Dragačevo are synonymous with the glory of the trumpet. The tones of its trumpet – sometimes harsh and sometimes soothing – are heard in the largest metropolises of the world, while the photos of trumpet players have reached the outer space, where they travelled in the company of cosmonauts. Since 2000, the official flag of the Dragačevo Trumpet Festival has joined other flags on the highest mountain peak on earth, Mount Everest in the Himalayas (8848 m), where it was brought by the first Serb who conquered this peak - Dragan Jaćimović from Puhovo in Dragačevo. To use the modern terminology, the Dragačevo Trumpet Festival is one of the most prominent Serbian brands.

The outer world… the trumpet and its music embarked on their journey around the world from the villages of Dragačevo, passing through Guča, making their first steps at the Dragačevo Trumpet Festival where for five decades the God-blessed musicians have flocked together to coin the gold of the Serbian trumpet. After 1950s the once rural Dragačevo underwent the strong economic, social and cultural development, turning Guča into a truly modern town – a process that will reach it climax in the early 21st century, primarily owing to the Trumpet Festival.

Although a relatively small town, Guča goes a long way as the capital of the modern trumpet, since the first trumpet here was sounded back in 1831. It was nearly two centuries ago when Knyaz Miloš ordered that a ‘Serbian orchestra’ be formed in Kragujevac, appointing Josip Šlezinger (1794-1870) from Sombor as the first educated musician of Serbia to conduct the orchestra. Mustafa, the violin and the flute player who had been given the title of ''Oberlautar'' had been the sole entertainer of the Serbian ruler and his suite, ‘entertaining even foreigner who did not have a taste for Turkish music’. Immediately upon his arrival in Kragujevac, Šlezinger started to organize the ‘band’. Since he did not have enough trained musicians at his disposal, he asked the Knyaz to fill the band with young men from the country with enough talent and disposition for the job. Miloš was quick to respond and ordered each municipality to send in five young men for the orchestra. And this is how it all began. Not without difficulties, of course, the young lads were soon tackling their new ‘golden’ instruments, trying to play the familiar dances and songs, as well as the new ones they were taught by the maestro Šlezinger in the then Serbian capital of Kragujevac.

Almost two centuries after these events, a series of military orchestras and their conductors have marched through history. However, it was not until mid-19th century that foreign musical influences had started to permeate our folk tradition, and it would take a few more decades before these influences were visible in the folk music of Dragačevo, especially in the development of the trumpet playing tradition and homophonous polyphony, i.e. the ‘bass’ singing. The stories of how the brass bands were formed are passed from one generation of players to another. For example, in Dljin it is well known that ‘the first trumpet player was a certain Ćebić, who used to play before the Great War, and that he was taught how to play by some old players before his time’. The first band in Goračići was founded by the Davidović brothers from Dragačica, ‘sometime around the Great War, and there were only four players to the band’. In Rti, the chief and the first trumpet was Milisav Kostić – Tralja, and his present-day successors are the trumpet players from the Srećko Obradović band. Following this thread, we come to the story of trumpeter Desimir Perišić from Goračići and the winning orchestra at the First Festival held in Guča in 1961.
The songs are mostly two-bar pieces and melodies, with a typical two-part structure comprising 4-5 tones.

Music accompanying the vigorously playful dances of the western parts of the country is characterised by recognisable occasional gaps in the leading trumpets, making room for the basses to take over the melodic line, while at the same time maintaining the basic harmonic elements of the composition.

As opposed to this, dances from the southern parts typically have oriental overtones, sustained by the so-called ‘aksak’ rhythm, accentuated by the role of the drum player, pronouncing the rhythm made by the ‘čukana’ (right hand), combined with the thinner stick (played using the left hand, around the edge of the drum, skilfully accentuating interchanges of two- and three-part sections within specific rhythmic formulas and scales, taking the form of 8/8; 7/8; 9/8 and other rhythmic patterns) This is especially noticeable in song-dances of the ‘čoček’ type, when the music provokes the dancers’ spontaneous and oblivious movement, driving them to the limits of their capabilities.

A large number of dances from the eastern regions resemble the so-called ‘batrna’ (old dance) and the ‘old Vlach’, including dances like ‘ Timočka rumenka’ or ‘ Svrljiški laskava’. These dances have preserved the genetic code of the old Vlach and Serbian ‘oro’ dance, with the dancers hold each other by the belt, interlocking the arms. While all Serbian dances and songs comprise up to five tones, the Vlach melodies are more cheerful, with occasional interchanges of slower parts with a faster refrain. Singing to the trumpet music is becoming increasingly popular in Serbia nowadays. Just like the first trumpet players from the days of Knyaz Miloš, the modern trumpeters are mostly autodidacts and intuitive players, capable of reproducing a huge repertoire of songs and dances relying on their natural musical flare and improvisation, playing from the bottom of their hearts.

The first orchestras provided a suitable climate not only for the advancement of individual musicians, but also for the growth of their numbers. From the initial composition of an average band comprising four to five members, the orchestras continued to grow to their present-day size, which includes around ten players on average (three to four ‘B’ trumpets, three bass fluelhorns, one bas horn - helikon or euphorium, and finally the drum and the large drum with cymbals. At the same time, three distinctive regions have emerged as the three renowned centres generating the best trumpet players in Serbia today.

Although the tradition of trumpet playing may not have far-reaching roots comparable to our vocal musical tradition, it is a fact that the cultural officials four decades ago sewed abundant seeds of the trumpet culture in the small town of Guča, from where it continues to grow as if released from a long period of dormancy, spreading swiftly and easily in those regions of western, eastern and southern Serbia providing a fertile ground for its further growth, ever since it was first sawn in central Šumadija back in 1831.