1930s Paris comes to Victoria as Django Festival turns a local hall into a gypsy jazz club.
Victoria musician Oliver Swain is once again at the helm of Victoria Django Festival which takes place at the White Eagle Hall in James Bay which will be transformed into a 1930s Paris cabaret.
“It’s the fourth annual Victoria Django Festival, I can hardly believe it,” says Swain.
He took his experiences playing at a variety of Django festivals and worked them into the Victoria festival which now takes place over two days, Feb. 13 and 14. “The response has been amazing,” he says.
Swain, a Juno nominated folk musician, spent more than a decade in some of North Americas most popular roots bands (Outlaw Social, The Duhks, The Bills) before releasing In a Big Machine in 2011. He felt a lack of music festivals in his hometown and took a risk on Django.
“There are places in the world like Montreal and Winnipeg even, that have great cultural festivals. … and it’s nice to orient it around Valentine’s day for people who celebrate that.”
Django Reinhardt was a jazz guitarist, known for his music stemming from French gypsy culture and for composing standards such as Minor Swing, Swing ‘42 and Djangology.
Respected in his own time, Reinhardt is now considered one of the greatest guitar players of all time and legions of modern day musicians honour him through his style and songs.
“I’m so excited to bring in the Gonzalo Bergara Quartet, he’s a top artist originally from Argentina who is a world-class instrumentalist,” says Swain. “He’s innovative in the genre in a way that’s very, very interesting musically.”
Bergara, though demurs to the flattery. “I think I’m the worst,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Buenos Aires. “But I have that kind of personality. I work to play as well as I can.”
Bergara grew up in Argentina and began playing the guitar at a young age. “When I was very young, about age 11, I met a guy at grade school whose dad played bass and every weekend he would host a jam session at his house with his older friends. My friend told him I played and I got invited to jam – I was just a kid, but already I could play a little.”
Argentinian culture embraces family dinners and get togethers that begin as late as 10pm and include even young children. “We eat very late, go out very late in my community. You meet your friends at 1:30 in the morning and have long dinners that start at 10pm and end at 1am. It’s a fun town, a passionate culture,” says Bergara.
From age 11 to 16, he would play long into the morning. “They wouldn’t let you sleep, it was a healthy environment, no drugs or alcohol. (My parents) knew at least I was at someone’s house and not out all night,” he says.
One day the jam session included a viewing of blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Live at the El Mocambo. “I was into the blues before but by then I was into older rock, the Stones and AC/DC, then I saw that video and my life changed.”
At 19, his parents split up and he moved to Miami with his father. “At the time I had a big passion for the blues and I wanted simply to learn to play the blues. What better way than to move to where the blues started? I know it wasn’t Miami, but Miami was my (ticket) to the rest of the States.”
He got a student visa and began college classes but at night, he played guitar wherever he could. “I slowly started to meet people and started to play until I was playing six nights a week with fake ID so I could get in.”
After just 18 months, he realized the Miami music scene was far from where he wanted to be, so he packed up his Toyota Corolla and hit the road. “I drove across the country to LA illegally – I had no driver’s licence – to pursue my passion.”
Woody Allen’s 1999 movie The Sweet and Lowdown about fictitious jazz guitarist Emmet Ray who regards himself as the second greatest guitarist in the world after Reinhard – and includes Reinhardt’s music – set Bergara down a new road after years of studying the blues guitar.
“When I started to play the guitar I was very obsessive. It’s my personality. Whatever I love I become super-obsessed about. The blues were limited in trying to learn the instrument. Blues is not just about what you play, it’s how you play it. You can do a lot with very little; it’s mesmerizing music in general, there’s not one definition of blues. I’ve always been a fan of classical music, but I didn’t want to stay in one little box, so when I heard Django Reinhardt it was like the doors opened and I had a chance to dominate an instrument.
“You can play anything you want to play with a knowledge that goes deeper than the blues.”
Bergara was in California just a short time before he was in a band that was going down both roads. “I was keeping blues and gypsy jazz alive as much as I could, then gypsy jazz took off and I started to become more recognized in the gypsy jazz world than for the blues.”
His current California-based quartet evolved over the past six years and Bergara moved permanently back to Argentina just last year, now travelling to play with the band.
“It’s common for jazz and blues players to go it yourself,” he says, but he enjoys playing with the group. “Most of the music is written by us and arranged, heavily arranged. We work less, but more intensely.
“These guys formed old-school. In the beginning we travelled for three weeks in a van all together sharing a room. When we first started we all slept in one room. We get along as friends not just with the music. To find that is very lucky. It’s very lucky to find guys with the attitude and energy to make it work,”says Bergara.
The Gonzalo Bergara Quartet includes Bergara on lead guitar, Jeffrey Radaich on rhythm guitar, Leah Zeger on violin and Brian Netzley on upright bass, they headline Feb. 14. at St Andrews Church, 924 Douglas St.
Marc Atkinson Trio, Daniel Lapp, Dennis Chang, The Capital City Syncopators and Sound of Light Circus act round out the Valentine’s weekend event. Go to victoriadjangofestival.com for more information.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the location of the Feb. 14 event.