Photos Courtesy of Stephane Wrembel
By: Mike Cobb
Stephane Wrembel is widely regarded as a world expert on gypsy jazz guitar and Django Reinhardt. He is perhaps best known for “Bistro Fada,” the theme song from the 2011 Woody Allen Oscar-nominated movie, Midnight In Paris.
Born in Fontainebleau, the home of Impressionism and Django Reinhardt, he began studying classical piano at the age of four, discovered Pink Floyd in his teens, and was smitten by the music of Django soon after. To gain experience with “Sinti style” guitar, he spent extensive hours playing in gypsy camps in rural France.
In 2000, he enrolled in Berklee College of Music in Boston, from which he graduated Summa Cum Laude, and moved to New York City in 2003. Looking for gigs, he called “every single restaurant and club in New York.” His persistence paid off, and he is now recognized as the local authority on Django’s style, and one of the finest guitarists in the world. He currently lives in New Jersey and runs Django A Go Go, a music festival and camp for people passionate about gypsy jazz and Django Reinhardt’s style.
Music was always an important part of Wrembel’s life. His mother insisted that he get a musical education “whether he liked it or not.” He grew up on the pop music of the 1970s & 80’s, though he is a fan in particular of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. About Gilmour’s style Wrembel says, “I don’t really have the words to describe it, but for me when he plays, it makes me vibrate. But I like all kinds of music. You like a band because there is something that resonates within you. For me music is an irrational experience; it’s the feeling that’s most important.”
Later, Wrembel discovered jazz, world music, and soon Django Rheinhardt. Growing up in Paris, the spirit of Django loomed large. “In Fontainebleau, there was a strong presence of him in the background. I went to the Django Festival, bought my first Django record, and just felt that I had to do it.”
But learning Django’s unique playing style required more than just listening. Wrembel immersed himself in the music by living amongst Sinti gypsies outside of Paris.
About that experience Wrembel says, “In the camps, you play all day long, nonstop. You don’t learn technical things. The culture doesn’t use names for things; they just practice melody. By playing constantly you become entranced. The music just comes by itself. This is the way I learned. It was a completely oral tradition with them showing me, just playing for hours and hours. You soak it in, and the information becomes part of you.”
A much-maligned ethnic group, he found kinship as well as great learning amongst the Sinti. Wrembel states, “The Gypsies have a very different culture than western culture. There are many misconceptions about them. We don’t understand them because we’re trapped within our own worlds, which is unavoidable. But the fact that I really wanted to play it made it easy to access.”
Many believe that to play gypsy music, you have to be gypsy. Wrembel says, “There is some truth that if you’re not Sinti, there’s always going to be something missing because you’re not expressing your Sinti identity. Maybe if you marry in you can assimilate somewhat, but most likely you’re going to get their style integrated into your style. For us as non Gypsies, you get to go into that world, but you can’t express what’s not your identity. It’s better to learn from them and expand. Just be what you are.”
The history of gypsy music and culture is fascinating and complex. Legend has it that gypsies originated in India and were driven out centuries ago. Most went west, eventually splitting paths north or south of the Mediterreanean sea. The 1994 documentary Latcho Drom by Tony Gatlif is an excellent crash course. The film has no narration, but is highly effective in telling the story via incredible cinematography and fantastic music.
Today gypsy music and culture are well known throughout the world. Spanish Flamenco is typified by percussive guitar, hand clapping called “palmas”, castanets, dance, and mournful singing, for example.
“In France the Sintis are unique because of Django. The “Roma” have Romanian style (typified by fiddle and brass). But this is a very simplified explanation,” admits Wrembel.
What Makes Django Unique
As to what makes Django’s particular style unique, Wrembel expounds, “You have the French music waltzes, which was primarily accordion music, the Sinti influence, which has Roma roots, and there is of course the influence of Debussy and Ravel, who are known as the modern or romantic composers. And then you have jazz, which arrived to Paris in the 20’s, so all of that colors his music. But Django is special because he did things that no-one else in the history of music has done. You have Django festivals all over the world. Other composers will be featured in programs, but it’s strange to have so much focus on one guy. It’s irrational. There was something about him, I don’t know what it is. It can be played at Carnegie Hall, in a small club, or around a campfire. It’s danceable, listenable, there is composition, virtuosity, there is everything in it. It’s a very strange crossover of things. I like to say that Django might be the first real world musician.”
When Wrembel played India and Korea “People were crying.” As to why, he says, “This is where it becomes irrational. The more you try to put names to it, the less you can describe it. But there is something that is so human. It’s part of being joyful, it’s like being with friends. You know sometimes you’re in a moment that’s magical. You hold it for a moment because you know it’s going to disappear. If you try to analyze it, you lose the magic of it.”
In terms of what Django invented musically and stylistically in his playing, he adds, “No-one has understood it yet. No-one uses his rhythms or solos. You can reproduce it, but you cannot pretend you’re him. There is something in his playing that no-one has found yet.”
Wrembel has taken his knowledge and passion for Django’s music to record four studio records and one live album in a series called The Django Experiment. About this project he states, “I don’t want to be a cover band. We do his sound but with other influences as well. The Django Experiment was born in the studio, and this is something I want to do every year.”
These excellent albums are available on Wrembel’s website through his label Water Is Life, and a portion of the profits go to water conservation projects around the world. “I gave a lot to Water For People, which is a great organization. At some of our shows we have donation boxes, and the money goes to them. There are other great causes, but I chose one. You have to pick your battles.”
Working with Woody Allen
Regarding his work with Woody Allen, Wrembel remembers, “It was very quick. He asked, and I did it. You prepare for years so that when something like this comes, you are ready. To compose and record Bistro Fada took me three hours from start to finish. He called me at nine and at noon they had it. And they kept the original version. The only guidelines they gave me was wanting a Parisian waltz. In a way it was vague and in a way precise because they knew I’d know what they were talking about.”
Wrembel is also known for organizing concerts at venues like Carnegie Hall with some of the world’s greatest guitarists like Al Di Meola, who is both an inspiration and a contemporary. He has also performed with bluegrass guitarist Larry Keel and mandolin master David Grisman. As to the connection between Sinti and Americana, Wrembel says, “The arrangements and instrumentation are different, but the feeling is similar. I went to a bluegrass festival where people were jamming around a fire under the moon, and it was a similar sensation to gypsy camps.”
When asked how audiences throughout the world react differently, Wrembel says, “In France people are very polite and quiet, which can be disturbing because I don’t know if they like it or not. In America it’s the opposite. People are louder and shout things when you’re playing, a question or something. But they all love music. We’re all human beings. We do a human being thing for other humans. It’s like eating. If you eat a good bucket of French Fries or a crepe, you’re going to like it whether you’re French, American, Indian, etc.”
Cycling back to the importance of music education, Wrembel teaches at Django A GoGo, a music camp based in Maplewood that focuses mainly on the musical style of Django Reinhardt. Students learn in intimate small group settings and workshops. The camp is limited to 30 students with three groups of 10 students and has classes on rhythm and improvisation with guest teachers and a concert in the evening.
Teaching is important to Wrembel. He says, “It’s a big part of my life, and I’ve been doing it for over 20 years. The Buddha said that ‘teaching is a miracle.’ I like that. Someone teaches you something and you change; and then you teach someone and they change. I think it’s an act of love and freedom to teach and be taught. The idea behind the camp is to bring the greatest players in the world so that students can be transformed in a miraculous way.”
Living in the USA
Compared to France Wrembel says, “The US has a lot of freedom. It’s a very liberal country by French standards; it’s very open. There’s not much of a social structure, there’s a lot of space for the individual. And people are trying to figure out how to put rules to this. In France it’s the opposite; the state comes first. In the US, you have more freedom but also more responsibility, whereas in Europe you have more protection, for example from the socialized systems, but it’s very sleepy and takes a long time to get things done. I don’t say one is better than the other; they’re two different places.”
The Final Word
As to the future Wrembel says, “I believe the best thing you can do is to do what you love best. I don’t have any plans. I’ve found my group and my voice and I just plan to keep composing. You bring some light and some love into this world and that’s all you can do. I believe in bringing a positive action to this world. A free act of love.”
To find out more about Wrembel and hear his music, go to www.stephanewrembel.com.