The leafy suburban enclave of Maplewood is worlds apart from the ragtag Gypsy caravans where the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt first learned to play from elders. But the spirit of that oral tradition will inhabit the town for the Django a Gogo concerts and music camp.
The Django a Gogo festival — the creation of French-born guitarist Stephane Wrembel, who now calls Maplewood home — brings world-class musicians into an informal series of classes with students of all levels, capping each day with a public performance from the master teachers.
This year, the festival also marks the launch of Wrembel’s new album, Django New Orleans, which aligns Reinhardt’s French swing with the jazz from the Crescent City that inspired his playing in the 1930s. The album taps New Orleans classics like “Tiger Rag” from 1918 and “St. James Infirmary,” first recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1928, as well as Reinhardt tunes such as “Nymphaes.”
On Django New Orleans, Wrembel takes Reinhardt’s melodic, swinging music — typically played by guitar and string instruments — and adds tuba, horns and drums (played by fellow Maplewoodian Scott Kettner, whose band Nation Beat blends Brazilian and American styles).
While Reinhardt is associated with French jazz or “manouche swing,” he was born in 1910 in Belgium. He learned banjo and then guitar from others in his Sinti group of Roma or Gypsies, and was supporting himself playing on the streets and small clubs by the time he was a teenager.
One night, just as he began to gain wider notice, a candle toppled over in his trailer and began a fast-moving blaze that burned him badly, mangling two fingers on his left hand. He eventually battled back to relearn how to play and developed a facility that still astounds today. As he recovered he was introduced to American jazz and eventually formed the iconic Le Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934 with violinist Stéphane Grapelli, and became world famous.
In 1953, Reinhardt died of a brain hemorrhage while walking to his home in Fontainebleau, France, from a gig at the age of 43. In the decades that followed, his style and guitarwork have developed an international cult following.
Likening Reinhardt to Bach, Wrembel said he is a “genius, which is a very rare event of nature. It is the one that brings new archetypes and gives birth to a new archetype.”
Wrembel was born in 1974 in Fontainebleau and played classical piano at an early age, but took up guitar as a teenager to mimic his favorite bands, such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. After attending a Reinhardt festival, Wrembel was blown away and began to study the late guitarist’s music. He eventually won a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music and moved to the United States.
“I’m not trying to copy Django; it’s impossible,” he says. “I’m trying to learn from him and from these songs, to try to produce something that has a good swing.”
An extraordinary guitarist himself, Wrembel released several albums titled The Django Experiment that used Reinhardt’s music as a starting point, taking it anywhere from prog rock to impressionism. He was tapped by Woody Allen to write songs for three films, including the waltz “Bistro Fado” from Midnight in Paris.
“I’m trapped between two things,” Wrembel says. “I love the past. I love the tradition. I love roots. … But that doesn’t mean that I’m trying to copy the path and I want the past to be back or anything. I’m just learning from it and I’m just doing things with it.”
The annual Django A Gogo festival was peripatetic at first, but Wrembel eventually brought it to his adopted hometown of Maplewood. The first concert on May 3, “The Art of the Guitar,” will feature Wrembel performing with his band and several of the teachers; the May 4 show is “The Art of the Violin,” featuring a new instrumental focus of the festival; May 5 will feature the band from the Django New Orleans album. Many of the performers will perform again May 6 at Town Hall in Manhattan.
“It’s an incredible immersive experience,” says Wrembel of the camp’s process of having students and teachers play and jam for hours at a time. “The important part is not only the information that’s conveyed, it’s the vibe … That’s something you cannot learn from YouTube. That’s something you cannot learn from a book or something you cannot learn from transcribing from a record.”
The festival is also a celebration of the Roma or Gypsy culture that gave birth to Reinhardt’s music as well as many of the teachers.
“It’s important for me to bring the real Gypsy masters and to show people the Gypsy culture, because it’s completely misunderstood or unknown,” Wrembel says. “They are not trying to own, like, a golf course or like five boats. They don’t care about that. They just care about the simple pleasures of life: just being on Earth for a few years, playing music, eating, being with family and friends. And there is something very beautiful and poetic about that, something very simple.”
The loosely structured, almost chaotic aspect of the festival is part of the message, Wrembel says. In fact, after the concerts, the musicians typically reassemble in a nearby bar in Maplewood and continue to jam.
“We do a very simple human thing, to play music,” says Wrembel. “It belongs to everyone. Everyone’s a musician. So that’s what we do. We just play music. We’re happy and we hope people are enjoying themselves, too.”
Django a Gogo will run from May 3 to May 5 at The Woodlands in Maplewood, then move to Town Hall in Manhattan, May 6, and end with a jam session at Barbès in Brooklyn, May 7. For information and tickets, visit djangoagogo.com.
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