The Joy of Django

  • November 10, 2007 12:00AM –

EWAN MacKenzie knows exactly where his journey into the heart of gypsy jazz began.

“One day in 1969 I walked into a Brisbane record shop and bought a John Coltrane record, a Deep Purple album and a Django Reinhardt album,” MacKenzie says. “So I was obviously exploring and looking for something new. I still have that Django album and still listen to it.”

Reinhardt was the Jimi Hendrix of gypsy jazz – no one had made an acoustic guitar sound like this before, and more than 50 years after his death he is still revered by guitar players and aficionados of the style, a blend of European gypsy melody and hot American jazz.

The timeless quality of the music speaks for itself, but what makes the story even more piquant is Reinhardt’s struggle to recover from tragedy. He was a precocious guitar talent making a name for himself in Paris when, aged 18 in 1928, he was burnt in his caravan.

Doctors planned to amputate his left hand, and even when his family spirited him away from the hospital it seemed he would never play again. Instead he taught himself to play with just two fingers on his left hand, developing a style which leaves guitar players with full faculties in awe.

When Reinhardt heard the music of Louis Armstrong and then met the equally virtuosic violinist Stephane Grappelli to form the Hot Club de France, a new style was born.

The music – also known as jazz manouche and hot club swing – might have originated from Europe, but go anywhere in the world and you will find a group of enthusiasts.

As MacKenzie has in Australia, which led to the Oz Manouche Festival, now in its second year with a celebration in Brisbane from November 23-25.

MacKenzie says: “Django revolutionised the way guitar was played, and he and Stephane had that thing which characterises this music at its best, the joie de vivre.

“There was more interest in this decade when this music was featured in various films like Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown.

“That’s when I discovered that the style did not die with Django, that it is still contemporary and that there are hundreds of players doing this stuff in Europe, many of them descendants from the Manouche gypsies who settled in France, Belgium and Holland.”

MacKenzie’s passion for the music took him to explore European festivals, including the Django Reinhardt Festival at Samois near Paris, the town where Django spent his final years before his death at 43.

MacKenzie has two groups which explore facets of the style, Mystery Pacific, with the classic two-guitar-bass-violin line-up, and his duo with accordionist Kay Sullivan.

Oz Manouche 2007, over three days on two stages at the Brisbane Jazz Club, features performers such as George Washingmachine and Ian Date, the Michael Trabelsi Quartet from New Caledonia, and Brisbane’s Laique.

“It’s music that you have to play with fire and guts and it’s improvised, which is always what has attracted me to music,” MacKenzie says. “The thing I love about it is that it’s so portable. You can play it by the campfire, in the kitchen, and it feels the same way that it does on a stage.”

Oz Manouche 07, Brisbane Jazz Club, Kangaroo Point, November 23-25; info and bookings at


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