Dishing out Django

Decades after his death, guitarist Django Reinhardt is as much a star as ever, as Israeli jazz ensemble Swing de Gitanes shows.

Swing de Gitanes 311 (photo credit: Ronen Goldman)
Swing de Gitanes 311
(photo credit: Ronen Goldman)
Django Reinhardt, the Belgian-born French-bred gypsy jazz virtuosi may have died in 1953 at the tragically young age of 43, but his legend lives on, not only in the recordings he made but also in the many artists who were inspired by his spectacular guitar playing.
All three members of Swing de Gitanes answer to the latter description. The group started out around four years ago, although their first official CD, Muza, only came out a couple of months ago. Yacov Hoter, one of the two guitarists in the trio, alongside fellow guitarist Ori Ben Zvi and double bassist Oren Sagi, feels that the album release came at just the right time.
“We are improving all the time, in terms of our individual skills and also as a band,” says Hoter.
“I think the dynamics between us and our level of professionalism have come a long way.”
Besides his blistering musicianship Reinhardt’s music conveys a sense of undiluted joie de vivre and Muza, and the rest of the trio’s onstage output, clearly feed off that spirit.
“I think we can carry on getting deeper and deeper into this music forever,” declares Sagi.
“It’s just wonderful stuff.”
While Reinhardt’s main focus was on jazz, Sagi says he connects more strongly with the ethnic side of his work.
“It is the folk aspect of Django’s music that means the most to me.
It is music that appeals to the emotions and there is no intricacy to it just for the sake of complexity. The strong roots of the music, combined with the jazz element which is more sophisticated, is very appealing to me.”
One of the most incredible aspects to Reinhardt’s guitar wizardry is the fact that he played all his solos with only two fingers on his left hand after suffering serious burns in a caravan fire when he was 18. He only used his partially paralyzed other digits for chord work. Thankfully, Hoter has the use of all his fingers, but he says that all serious practitioners of gypsy jazz guitar playing learn to cope with Reinhardt’s disability too.
“In order to get to know the music properly I learned to play with two fingers. All gypsy guitarists, up to the age of 13 or 14, learn to play with two fingers. I do that in shows too.”
Swing de Gitanes is clearly a gypsy music-based outfit, although there are one or two extraneous elements in there.
“Traditionally gypsy bands have a soloist and the rest back him up,” says Hoter.
“All three of us our leaders and share the music equally. That includes Oren, even though double bass players don’t generally lead groups.”
Muza feeds off numerous influences and there is a nod in the direction of The Beatles, with a tripping rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Honey Pie” and a number called “Rhythm Israel” that feeds of vibes much closer to home.
“I wrote the song,” says Hoter.
“I have always been interested in mixing swing [jazz] with ethnic rhythms. I love our folk music, from the Middle East, so I try to fit that into what we do.”
This Saturday’s Gypsy Fest concert at Beit Shmuel (9 p.m.) will not just be about the new CD.
“We always look forward but, with this show, we are trying to relive the experience we had in Europe when we’d start jamming and suddenly there would be 30 other people playing with us,” explains Hoter.
“There would be guitars, violins, accordions, flutes, you name it.”
Besides the threesome, the Beit Shmuel stage will accommodate violinist Fabel Levin, Emile Kreuter on accordion, clarinetist Gal Dahan, and Sagi’s guitarist brother Alon and a fourth guitarist called Shir Teper.
The musical entertainment will be complemented by more visual activity, in the shape of four dancers.
“We called the show Gypsy Fest, because it really is a festival, a celebration of this wonderful joyous music,” says Hoter. “It has been a powerful experience putting the show together and I’m sure everyone will have fun.”
Swing de Gitanes will perform at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem on May 28 at 9 p.m. For more info: or (02) 620-3463.