Upon arrival in 1995 in Purgatory for a job, I swung by my new mailbox. I was surprised to find that the only piece of mail was a postcard announcing an exhibition by a Serbian painter. I wondered: who knew I was in a band that played Balkan folk music and that toured Serbia in the late 1980s? No one, it turned out. I went to the exhibition, met the artist, Svetlana, and her husband, Bogdan, who became my best friends, my family, really, from that point forward. They felt isolated during that time of war in former Yugoslavia, unwilling refugees from Sarajevo stranded once they departed for what they thought would be a Fulbright year in the U.S. We bonded over our love of Serbian culture, food, and music. Nowadays, they return to Serbia to spend a few summer weeks with friends and family, and to visit vineyards first planted by Romans long ago and serene monasteries tucked into the mountains.
We occasionally exchange summer missives, but I was stunned when I opened the one Svetlana sent several days ago. They were in Šumadija, a rich, hilly agricultural area south of Belgrade, where they stayed with a couple while exploring the region. Since they live in the U.S., that topic arose, and Bora and Bisa eagerly told them their America story, about a band that came to visit, whose members were distributed among local farms during their brief stay. They produced the issue of Illustrovana Politika, the Life Magazine of former Yugoslavia, with a photo of Zlatne Uste on the cover. Svetlana stated that her friends in Bloomington had been in the band, and it turned out that I (a tag along during the band’s first visit in 1987, an experience that inspired me, a former French Horn player, to pick up the baritone) and my daughter’s father were the band members who stayed with them! The world seems so small sometimes!
Zlatne Uste was ‘discovered’ by Illustrovana Politika’s New York correspondent while attending a folkloric performance at Lincoln Center. ZU mainly provided musical accompaniment for the Tomov Dance Troupe. Dušan Simić found it curious that ten Americans, none of whom had ancestral roots in the region, played the brass music from his homeland with such enthusiasm. He contacted his editor, who generated sufficient interest that a ten-day tour was planned around the brass band festival in the very small town of Guča. It was a thrilling adventure during which I learned, among other things that when someone utters the words nema problema (no problem) it signals that the opposite is true.
As the band (and I) debarked the plane at Belgrade airport, one of the country’s top brass bands (transported during the wee hours in their folkloric costumes from a village more than two hours distant) played as the passengers exited. What a welcoming country, I thought, believing briefly if naively, that all incoming flights received such a festive and regal welcome. We were then led back to the tarmac, where the cover photo of the band was taken, under the wing of an airplane (airfare was comped by JAT, the official airplane).
We were never quite sure what was happening or when, but after ZU performed on television, they were sudden celebrities. They played at ground breaking ceremonies, paraded around town squares, and were the first non-native band every to play at this festival, which back then was still a competition for the best band and best trumpeter, with Romany bands competing against bands from Serbian villages. The festival was an especially important event for Romany bands, who earned much of their annual incomes playing in café tents from midday until after midnight with the endurance of triathletes.
Afterwards, saddled with heavy jars of homemade jams and honey gifted by our hosts, we had a few days of rest, on the large spreads of the ‘rich’ farmers of Šumadija (as they were called by farmers elsewhere). There, we met Bisa and Bora, who offered their hospitality to three of us, including our fatherly interpreter, Doča, who took a shine to me, the least competent in the national language.
Locals wanted to showcase the best of local culture, so early one Sunday morning we were transported (passive voice works for pretty much everything that happened on that trip) to a tiny village, whose fire department consisted of an axe and bucket mounted on the tiny-house-sized community center. The village men were famous for their gourd band. They transformed gourds into instruments, some adapted for playing with reeds, mostly double-reeds, if I remember correctly. Gourd band members dressed in their most beautiful, Sunday-best, folk costumes, which included Aladdin-like, leather opanci, stiff leather moccasins with an upturned point or funnel at the tip. They produced an astonishingly rich assortment of harmonies and gifted a particularly inquisitive ZU member with one of their ‘instruments’. Afterwards, we visited took us to a medieval church whose interior was decorated with frescoes. The priest/guide pointed to an image of a table setting, proudly informing us that it was the first ever image of a knife and fork in Western art.
At Bisa and Bora’s we watched women make filo dough by hand and the process of plum schnapps (šljivovica)-making; stills in that part of the world are as common as lawnmowers in the U.S. It was a lovely and relaxing time, and they fed us like kings and freighted us with bottles of šljivo when we left.
Svetlana sent a picture of herself and Bisa, a document of a moment in which two of my worlds— separated by many years and long distance—collided, evoking treasured memories and delight in the magic of serendipity.