Gypsy strings

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2007, 12:00am

It would be nice to think that up there somewhere, Django Reinhardt is looking down and smiling.

The Belgian jazz guitarist was known as much for his eccentricities as he was for his groundbreaking fretwork during the 1930s and 40s. It was said that if you were a club manager and you booked him, you'd better keep your fingers crossed. Sometimes he'd turn up. And sometimes he'd go off to 'smell the dew', as he liked to say.

He would apparently give a nod to his gypsy heritage when quizzed about this attitude, saying it was part of his nature.

Reinhardt would have been pleased, then, to know that some 50 years after his death, his spirit is alive and kicking in a French outfit named Poum Tchack.

The six-piece, formed in Marseille in 2000, cite Reinhardt as their chief influence and say their wild brand of music has its roots firmly planted in the style of jazz that the Belgian made his own.

'For us, first of all, there's Django Reinhardt and his guitar,' says Poum Tchack's guitarist, Oliver Dambezat. 'I don't know if he's famous in Hong Kong, but he's a real god to us. He's the one who invented gypsy swing. The way he introduced his gypsy culture into American jazz is the signature of an unquestionable genius.'

Although Poum Tchack are quick to allay any fears that they might have picked up Reinhardt's tardy ways, one thing they have in common with their idol is a love of the open road. They've played everywhere from Vienna to the New Caledonia Gypsy Jazz Festival - and this week they make their way to Hong Kong to take part in Le French May celebrations.

'We don't know Hong Kong at all,' says Dambezat. 'This will be a discovery for all of us. We're just a little piece of the actual French scene, which is very rich and broad. But we're proud of representing through music the generous part of French culture, which has been, and should never cease to be, a land of welcoming and mixing between many different people.'

Alongside Dambezat on guitar, Poum Tchack comprises Jean- Philip Steverlynck on violin, Lionel Elian on bandoneon and piano, Emmanuel Reymond on double bass, Alexandre Morier on oud and Samuel Bobin on drums. This instrumental range allows them to cross countless musical boundaries.

'Our place on the French and European music scene is a little special,' says Dambezat. 'We're often described as a kind of bridge between the rock, jazz and world music spheres.

'We want to keep the energy of a teenage rock band, but the music we play requires an instrumental mastery often reserved for jazz or classical musicians. This allows us to play different festivals and places, with many kinds of audiences.'

Poum Tchack - the name is derived from the sound the band say is made by strumming a swing guitar - came together through their love of Reinhardt's music and began to develop their gypsy swing sound as more members joined.

'Ours is a typical 'friends band' story,' says Dambezat. 'At the beginning, there were only three of us - two guitar players and the drummer. We were old school friends - but not so old, as we were hardly 20 at the time.

'We began playing gypsy swing and eastern European music. The others arrived gradually. A violin, a double bass and a bandoneon.'

The music, it seems, came naturally and Poum Tchack quickly established themselves on the European jazz festival circuit. 'Our sound isn't something we found after long hours of painstaking work, but the natural mix of our different styles of playing, our feelings and personalities,' says Dambezat. 'The first time the six of us played something together it was wonderful. A tune I'd already played a lot of times suddenly sounded the way I'd always wanted to hear it.'

The band's reputation has been built on the passion and energy they bring to their live shows. 'People tell us all the time that they can feel our deep pleasure and strong complicity during the show,' says Dambezat.

'I think this is the most important thing for us - knowing that this isn't like a recording. Something else has to happen on stage, something that you don't only hear, but that you can also see and feel.'

It comes as little surprise to hear that they learned their trade the hard way - on the streets. 'During our first two years there was an exercise we loved above all: playing in the streets or in market squares, places where people didn't specially come to see us,' he says. 'We had to be good or people didn't stay. We learned a lot about our music in the streets.'

Poum Tchack are never afraid to try new things and to let individual influences chart a course for the band. 'Each one of us tries to bring our personal musical experiences, which are very varied, into the Poum Tchack laboratory, into the common melting pot,' says Dambezat.

Reinhardht would be proud.

Poum Tchack, tomorrow-Sat, 8pm, Sheung Wan Civic Centre Theatre, HK$150-HK$200 Urbtix.

Inquiries: 2734 9009