Jazz Manouche on the French Festival Stage

Jazz manouche, also known as Gypsy jazz, is a genre rooted in the 1930s-40s recordings of guitarist Django Reinhardt and typically features guitar-centric swing tunes.  Over the past
 three decades, jazz manouche has become a distinctive cultural practice within certain communities of French Manouches (a subgroup of Romani, or “Gypsy” people), especially in Alsace.  Today, Manouches and non-Manouches alike perform Django’s music worldwide.  Its cultural significance is perhaps most salient in France, where it is considered simultaneously a paragon of French jazz and an emblem of Manouche identity.  My dissertation project explores the politics of jazz manouche and the extent to which this music constitutes an effective form of cultural activism for Manouches.  I have been fortunate enough to kick off my year of ethnographic fieldwork in France by attending a number of jazz manouche festivals, which have been both a pleasure to experience and sources of invaluable insight.

Jazz guitar legend Django Reinhardt

Of all the jazz manouche events in France, the Festival Jazz Manouche de Zillisheim is a relative newcomer, inaugurated last June in honor of the Manouche guitarist Mito Loeffler.  However, when I attended its second edition this June, it had already gained the following of a well-established annual festival.  Over the course of three days, approximately 2,700 concertgoers attended 13 performances, in addition to jams and picnicking outside of the concert hall.  Zillisheim was advertised as “100% jazz manouche,” an intentional move to distinguish it from other jazz manouche festivals that program a wider variety of genres.

A sign points the way towards the Festival Jazz Manouche de Zillisheim

Another thing that sets Zillisheim apart from such festivals is its deliberate involvement with the local Manouche settlement.  Although Manouches such as those in Zillisheim are French citizens and have lived on the territory for generations, they are often considered (and consider themselves) quite apart from surrounding communities, a fact that breeds mutual distrust.  Those living in caravans are legally categorized as gens du voyage, or “people of the voyage,” and are obligated to regularly present a special form of identification to officials.

The Manouche community of Zillisheim lives right next to the grounds of the Salle Polyvalente (multipurpose/recreation center) where the festival was held.  The area on which these Manouches live is called a “campement,” even though they have been settled there for about 50 years.  They are thus legally categorized, paradoxically, as “gens du voyage sédentarisés,” or settled travelers.  With the exception of seasonal travel, such as during religious pilgrimages, they mainly stay put; but, for whatever reasons, the state maintains their status as “gens du voyage.”

In day-to-day life, very little personal interaction occurs between this community and the surrounding gadjé (non-Manouches).  According to some of the festival organizers, there are only a handful of gajdé who ever set foot on their territory.  The festival at Zillisheim is therefore an unprecedented opportunity for gadjé and Manouches to interact in a convivial setting, with the performance of jazz manouche as the main draw and common ground. This is a photo of the main festival stage, featuring one such collaboration, and a video of Saturday's final concert:

From left to right: Zaïti and Fleco Loeffler, sons of Mito Loeffler (pictured on panel in rear); Dorno Loeffer, brother to Mito; and Guillaume Singer, a gajdé violinist who learned jazz manouche by playing with the Loeffler family in Zillisheim.

Guitarists Yorgui Loeffler and Stochelo Rosenberg invited a number of other guitarists on stage to perform the jazz manouche classic, “Minor Swing.”

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Although the “typical” jazz manouche repertoire primarily consists of particular tunes that Django recorded, depending on the tastes of the performers and the audiences, other pieces are also frequently featured.  Among Manouches and Sinti (a closely related subgroup of Romanies), a handful of songs with Romani lyrics are especially well-known, such as “Duj Duj,” here sung by Titi Bamberger:

I took this video of Titi, with guitarists Bertino Rodmann and Feigeli Prisor, at the Camping de Samoreau last week.  They, along with a plethora of other highly devoted jazz manouche enthusiasts, spent a number of days at this campsite during the largest Django-themed festival in the world, the Festival Django Reinhardt in neighboring Samois-sur-Seine.  The scene at Samoreau virtually, and necessarily, constitutes its own festival apart from the one in Samois.  As I heard repeatedly from Samoreau campers, the Samois festival has become too commercial and far-removed from jazz manouche (including, especially, the Manouche and Sinti communities who play it), to the extent that they prefer to spend most or all of their time at Samoreau.  For these musicians and their families, Samoreau is a much more welcoming, jam-friendly environment, and one that is more or less exclusive to the most committed Django admirers.

As I continue my fieldwork over the next year in Paris, Strasbourg, and other locations where jazz manouche festivals are held, I’ll follow these themes of inclusion and exclusion that prevail in this broad musical scene.  To stay updated, please visit my field blog, Du Terrain.

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Siv B. Lie is a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology. She researches the cultural politics of jazz manouche, also known as Gypsy jazz, in France. Siv is particularly interested in the legacy of Django Reinhardt and representations of Manouche/Romani identities in jazz manouche practice. She is a founding member of the Initiative for Romani Music at NYU. Siv, an active violinist/violist, is also Co-Director of Raklorom, NYU's Romani ensemble, and has recorded her own work.

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