Django Fest, Saturday, Jan. 19 & Sunday, Jan. 20, $10–$25, various times, Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro; www.catscradle.com
Few musicians evoke such a cult of personality around their body of work as Django Reinhardt. In 2018 alone, you could join revelers for a celebration of the Belgian-born French jazz guitarist at dozens of festivals and jams anywhere from Ireland to Texas to Western Australia. This summer, Maplewood, New Jersey will host a Django a Gogo Music Camp for fans of all ages. Even in the college town in southern Indiana where I grew up, one could order a distressingly incoherent “Django platter” of buffalo wings, Tibetan momos, and kimchi at a jazz cafe, again, named after Reinhardt. And this weekend, the Django fever hits Carrboro, too.
The second Django Fest is coming to the Cat’s Cradle Back Room, organized by musician and educator Gabriel Pelli. Pelli launched the festival last year as a way to organize a community around the music popularized by Reinhardt. The 2018 iteration was simple: a single day of music that included a workshop, a jam, and a performance, all centered around the work of Stephane Wrembel, a French-born guitarist who has been instrumental in bringing the music to the United States. This year, the festival will feature performances by Pelli’s group Onyx Club Boys and New England’s Rhythm Future Quartet, as well as opportunities for festivalgoers to participate. Pelli’s interest in the music of Django Reinhardt began about fifteen years ago, when a friend started a group that played the songs of Reinhardt and his contemporaries.
“I had never really improvised or played any kind of jazz.” says Pelli. But the fact that he already played the violin was, as he says “good enough” to gain him entrance. At first, Pelli was simply drawn to the sounds and moods of the songs. “It’s very romantic and evocative music, soulful, but it can also be really fun and upbeat and danceable. It has this wide emotional range,” he says.
The history and culture surrounding Django’s music hooked him further and gave him insight into the feelings evoked by the music. In Europe, the genre had come to be known as “gypsy jazz,” and the moniker prevails as an in-group term by some of those descended from the nomadic people who came from Northern India and migrated to Europe around a thousand years ago. While many still call the musical genre “gypsy jazz,” the associations of the term with the use of the word gypsy as a slur has led some to instead call it Jazz Manouche, named after the faction of the Roma and Sinti migration from which Reinhardt was descended. There’s also the much more simple moniker of “Django music.”
The history of the Roma and Sinti people is complex and includes long periods of persecution and oppression. During WWII, it was reported that Reinhardt was able to survive only due to the precarious protection of occupied forces that he and some other favored musicians were able to maintain. It’s estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 Roma and Sinti died in the Holocaust.
The style of music popularized by Reinhardt was a mixture of Roma and Sinti folk musics, American swing, and the French waltzes known as Musette, and is played mostly on smaller stringed instruments, favored due to their portability. Reinhardt was a particularly compelling figure with a backstory worthy of a shiny biopic (indeed, one was released in 2017 to middling reviews). Born in Belgium in 1910, Reinhardt received his first instrument, a banjo-guitar, at age twelve; he was making a living as a musician by fifteen. At eighteen, Reinhardt was almost killed in a caravan fire, and after recovering from traumatic burns, was able to teach himself to play again despite damage to his left hand that left him with only two fingers to use on the fretboard. His technique and virtuosity as an adult was formidable and unique, and led to great renown as a musician in France until his early death in 1953. After a decades-long period of relative obscurity, a celebratory festival in Reinhardt’s final home of Samois-sur-Seine, France began a revival that continues to grow today.
But despite the focus on the genre’s most famous figurehead, one of the enduring draws of “Django music” is that it is accessible and community-centered.
“It’s really folk music,” says Pelli, noting that in many ways the musicianship and culture are comparable to bluegrass. “It’s pretty approachable in its easiest forms, and, of course, it can get as complex as any other type of music.”
Each day at this year’s festival at the Cat’s Cradle, guitarists, violinists, and other musicians can attend workshops by members of the headlining groups in the conventions and sound of the genre, with the goal of leaving with one or two songs prepared for a culminating facilitated jam. Pelli hopes to continue to grow the festival in future years to include more European musicians, those who can act as cultural ambassadors for the music and man he and so many others hold dear.