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The Gypsy in My Soul: A Visit to Samois-sur-Seine

Yes, I took a couple weeks off from this column. Disgusted by the gutting of our city's print news service and NOLA Media Group's loathsome online platform that mocks the core values of the journalistic craft, I needed to regroup. Fortunately, like generations of New Orleans musicians before me, I'm on the road for the summer and I have plenty of time to reflect.

This week, I've been at the Festival Django Reinhardt about 40 miles south of Paris. It's an annual celebration of the legendary guitarist and the Gypsy Swing tradition he pioneered and transformed. Much like the traditional jazz of New Orleans, Django's music has followers and exponents of his music worldwide, and thousands make their pilgrimage here.This five-day festival with one main stage takes place on an island in the River Seine just outside the village of Samois, where Django lived in his final years.

Last night I sat for dinner with the mayor of Samois, who founded the festival in 1968, his wife, and other musicians of the festival. Monsieur Robinet and I had some catching up to do since my group performed here in 2009.

A spirited man with a background in television, he was curious about New Orleans and was very proud that Dr. John and John Cleary were in this year's program. Everybody asked about our city usually, referring to the flooding even though it's been nearly seven years. Depending on the song of their questions, I alternated between either trying to sound reassuring that the city is still slowly improving or trying to impress upon them that it is quite different now, smaller, and less of a city.

As evidence, when I really want to shock them, I tell them about losing our only daily print journal.

Monsieur Robinet talked about his experiences, good and bad, with musicians over the years and I told him some stories, too. I said that we must keep the New Orleans dimension, and told him of Django's connections to New Orleans musicians, mostly clarinetists, including ex-pat Frank “Big Boy” Goudie in the early '30s, Barney Bigard who recorded with Django in 1939 when Duke Ellington had a European tour, and Edmond Hall, who hosted Django at Café Society in New York after the war. They are great jazz stories, but unfortunately my French isn't great, so the mayor got the less colorful versions.

I know you're puzzling over how Dr. John and John Cleary ended up at a festival celebrating Django Reinhardt's legacy.

Well, it’s simple.The mayor and the festival's artistic director, Sébastien Vidal, have a refreshing vision that builds on this metaphor of Django. Just as Rom Gypsies like Django are always on the move, music traditions also are incessantly changing and evolving when in the right hands. Consequently, even though Gypsy Swing is King, there is an ambitious range of offerings representing many cultural specific genres, including New Orleans music. Vidal's introduction in the print program sums it up well (translation mine):

"Samois becomes like a ‘nature preserve’ in every sense. An idyllic setting, a deeply devoted community of volunteers, diverse offerings with universal appeal, a public of every background coming from far and wide, and above all maintained by passion, passion that each year bolsters the human bond that connects us."

We need more festivals like that, you say? Well, actually, there's more than a few. Next week we'll take a closer look at George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival.

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and a founding member of NOLA Art House Music. He writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie. All of his columns also are archived at Clarinet Road.com.

Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at [email protected]