Calling your inner Gypsy

By Mollie Kaye, February 2016

Swain on swing: The 5th Annual Victoria Django Festival.

Oliver SwainFEBRUARY CAN BE A TIME of conflict in many hearts and relationships, as most of us fall into one of two opposing camps: those who would rather ignore the culturally-enforced mass celebration of romantic love in the middle of the month, and those who crave some kind of significant observance. 

It’s hard to know in which camp legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt would have found himself, but the 5th annual Victoria Django Festival offers what I’d call the perfect solution for the Valentine-phobic and -philic who are simply looking for a damned good time. The purpose of the three-day swingin’ smorgasbord is to fill the dark nights with music, celebration, food and drink—and show me the person in this town who doesn’t need some of that as we plod through these stubbornly soggy days of midwinter.

Envisioned and organized by celebrated local bassist Oliver Swain—himself a longtime Gypsy jazz enthusiast—the Victoria Django Festival aims to deliver on more than just the musical front. Back in the day, Swain says, “they would have a full dance floor, good food, a full bar…We’re modelling this after the underground venues in Paris of the 1920s; we try to stay in the spirit of providing fine traditional European bistro food and a kickin’ dance floor—and if you don’t want to dance all night, there’s lots of places to just relax and enjoy the music.” 

Swain hand-picked some of the best local providers of artisan food and drink: Hoyne’s Brewery, Pizzeria Prima Strada, and The Whole Beast Charcuterie, among other favourites. 

If that’s not enough to break the spell of sedentary screen time on the sofa, this festival offers more to those who overcome their inertia and dare to venture out. Friday and Saturday audiences will be in for a true “1930s European Hot Club” scene, with two adjacent venues offering contrasting entertainment experiences each night. Ticket holders can experience cabaret seating and a full dance floor in one area—along with food and beverage service available during concerts. Or pop into the more “concert-style” side of things, where jam sessions organically blossom and the focus is on listening. One admission price allows patrons to freely roam.

Sunday’s event sounds like a winner if you’re looking for a more classically “romantic” experience. It’s fitting that this full-on dinner show—with a four-course, French-inspired Valentine’s Day feast created by guest chef Cosmo Meens and paired with international headliner ensemble Hot Club D’Europe—convenes at the cozy and intimate Hermann’s Jazz Club on the evening of February 14.

Whether you’re a serious student of Gypsy jazz or just a casual passerby, this particular form of virtuosic, guitar-based acoustic swing lifts the spirits and inspires awe without any blare or bombast.

“Gypsy jazz is incredible music, it just hits you with the soul and the technical prowess,” Swain says as he explains his passion for the art form. “No other jazz musician had the impact of Django Reinhardt, and how fascinating is it that this member of the Roma community—a community who faced incredible prejudice in Europe—found a home within African-American music in the 20s…and did it in Paris.”

And while our region boasts a healthy population of what Swain calls “wonderful exponents of the form,” some of whom will grace the stages of the festival, headlining this year’s lineup is top international ensemble Hot Club D’Europe, featuring acclaimed virtuoso guitarist Paulus Schafer. “It’s our fifth year, and we’re finally bringing in some Old World masters,” Swain enthuses. Schafer, a native of the Netherlands, “has played with everybody and grew up in the tradition, not far from where Django Reinhardt was raised. Just the fact that we’re bringing those guys in for two exclusive concerts is a bit of a dream come true.” 

Swain wanted the festival to include some of the genesis of the legendary Reinhardt’s inspiration, and explore the Roma roots of the tradition. Bulgarian-born Vancouver violinist Lache Cercel and The Roma Swing Ensemble, featuring vocalist Miriam Bellamore, will offer this elemental aspect, he says. “It’s a more diverse, more international program than we’ve ever put forward; I’m excited about that.” 

Expanding the offerings into other areas of swing, Swain is also highlighting Vancouverites Petunia and the Vipers, “a veteran five-piece I’ve been following for a few years.” The band’s lead vocalist, he says, “is just a remarkable artist; he’s doing some really interesting things, and diversifying our lineup a bit by bringing in a full-on Western Swing ensemble.” Victoria-based groups the Marc Atkinson Trio and Trio Voltaire (with whom Swain himself will take up his bass during the shows) round out the list of performers.

When I asked Swain whether he would be performing, he said that in the past few years of the festival, he hung back, but looks forward to taking the stage this time. “I’m an artist first; I’ve been passionately performing this music for years, and I wanted to do a Gypsy jazz music festival—and also wanted to do an event where there was food and dancing and concert experience all rolled into one night.”

The impassioned, rhythmic precision of authentic renditions of labyrinthine 1920s and 30s Gypsy jazz repertoire does tend to inspire dancers of all ages to hit the floor; after all, the art form developed in an era when people came out to dance, not just listen.

“All of our groups say they often end up doing [straight] concerts,” remarks Swain, “but one of the things that sets us apart from the way a lot of jazz is presented is to have the dance component, and our artists love it. They absolutely love the fact they can do a concert set on one side, then walk down the hall and play for dancers.”

There are swing lessons offered before the Friday and Saturday shows, and a competition each night (with prizes) for the more experienced and flashy aficionados of the dance. Join in, or sit steadfastly in your chair—either way, the visual spectacle of swirling skirts, fancy footwork, and acrobatic “aerial” lifts is worth the price of admission. “During the show, people are really cuttin’ a rug,” says Swain. “It’s a total crowd favourite. Elite dancers from Vancouver and Seattle are now coming in to participate. Have a drink or snack and watch some pretty world-class dancers; come early and learn a few steps.” 

 

Victoria Django Festival runs February 12-14. On Friday, Feb 12, Petunia & The Vipers and The Marc Atkinson Trio, 8pm at White Eagle Hall, 90 Dock Street: $25 advance (available at Hoyne Brewery, Lyle’s Place & Larsen Music) / $30 door; Saturday, Feb 13, Hot Club D'Europe, Petunia & the Vipers, Lache Cercel and the Roma Swing Ensemble, Trio Voltaire, 8pm at St Andrews Church & Kirk Hall, 680 Courtney: $40 advance / $45 door; Friday & Saturday pass: $60 advance / $70 door. Sunday, Feb 14, 6pm dinner concert with Hot Club D'Europe at Hermann’s Jazz Club, 753 View: $80 advance. Musicians can also check out DJANGOCAMP afternoon workshops with Paulus Schafer (Guitar), Olli Soikkeli (Guitar) and Lache Cercel (violin), $40 per class, booked at Larsen Music, 250-389-1988. See www.victoriadjangofestival.com. 

Mollie Kaye, a local writer and passionate lover of all things swing, will see you on the dance floor.