The gypsy guitar genre factor: fact or fallacy?

Stochelo Rosenberg Trio at the Adelaide Guitar Festival
Stochelo Rosenberg Trio at the Adelaide Guitar Festival


Hard on the heels of the perennial poser ‘can a white man sing the blues’ comes the query that questions whether non-gypsy guitarists can authentically perform flamenco and jazz manouche.

Spanish maestro José Antonio Rodriguez and Dutch master Stochelo Rosenberg, who were programmed to respectively open and close the 2014 Adelaide International Guitar Festival (AIGF) last month, on their Australian debuts, are perfectly qualified to opine on that conundrum … and also to put their genres of expertise into some kind of historical context.

It’s a given that any conversation about jazz manouche will inexorably gravitate towards Django Reinhardt, the world’s most iconic Romani musician and a guitarist who pretty well single-handedly invented and refined the style of music more widely known as gypsy jazz or string swing. Likewise, that most discussions about flamenco guitar will inevitably home in on its close ties with the gypsy world.

As a payo (non-Romani), Señor Rodriguez is living proof that you don’t have to be a gypsy to perform authentic flamenco. As a player, composer and music professor who has won several prestigious national flamenco prizes and shared the stage and recordings with such revered maestros as the late Paco De Lucía (another non-gypsy), Manolo Sanlúcar and Fosforito, he speaks with some authority. “The gypsies have a unique way of seeing life and playing music, but it’s not the only way,” he told Rhythms. “Although flamenco and jazz manouche come from a specific oppressed ethnic group, the two music forms do not exclusively belong to the gypsies. What’s important, certainly in flamenco, is the personality, the differences between the interpreters.”


José Antonio Rodriguez
José Antonio Rodriguez


Stochelo Rosenberg, who’s regarded among aficionados as the finest practitioner of gypsy jazz since Django, is a bona-fide gypsy, a member of the same central European Sinti-Manouche clan from which Reinhardt emanated. And yet he shares Rodríguez’s sentiments. Speaking from his home in Holland, prior to the AIGF, he commented: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a gypsy or not. But it is necessary to start young and to really feel the music. In traditional flamenco, it’s the same thing. I play a couple of Paco de Lucía’s rumbas, ‘Entre dos Aguas’ and ‘Rio Ancho’, but I don’t play the real flamenco, although I love the music and my grandfather was a gitane (professional gypsy flamenco guitarist) so I have some Spanish influence in my playing.”

From a family steeped in the jazz manouche tradition, Rosenberg started playing guitar as a ten-year-old. By 17 the prodigy had Django’s repertoire pretty well off pat. “I can’t read or write music … my music school was the family,” he discloses. After that, Django’s records were his teacher. “I spent a long time learning everything he did, note for note. I copied it all, down to the last detail, including vibrato, bends, etcetera, so I could play all of Django’s solos from memory. Later I discovered that it’s not only good to copy, you need to find your own style. So that’s what I did, I started to compose tunes and I discovered my own style within this style of music.”

While clearly awkward at comparisons with the progenitor of gypsy jazz, whom he regards as a one-off genius, Rosenberg concedes that he’s honoured to be considered an ambassador and to play in the style of Django. This Dutch master had the pleasure of performing with Reinhardt’s right-hand man, Stéphane Grappelli, at a handful of concerts including one at New York’s Carnegie Hall to celebrate the great violinist’s 85th birthday. Forging a liaison with the Frenchman brought him closer to the source of his and every other jazz manouche player’s inspiration. “When I was playing with Stéphane, it was like I was playing with Django,” he says, while revealing that the violinist didn’t talk much about his famous partner in the Quintette du Hot Club de France, a group that was largely responsible for instigating European jazz.

Unlike Stochelo Rosenberg, who was born 15 years after Django’s death, José Antonio Rodriguez was fortunate enough to work with his own and pretty well every other flamenco guitarist’s mentor. “I collaborated with Paco De Lucía in several recordings and in Carlos Saura’s film ‘Flamenco’. Without him, without Serranito, without Manolo Sanlúcar, possibly we would not be talking now … I would not be a guitarist. I got the news about Paco’s death while on tour in the US … the loss of a teacher, friend and genius is very sad.”

While he also started playing guitar as a youngster, Rodriguez, unlike Rosenberg, enjoyed a formal music education, which started when he was just seven. He later studied at the academy of flamenco guitarist Merengue de Córdoba and at the Conservatorio Superior de Musica de Cordoba, where the first faculty of flamenco guitar was established in Spain. He says his playing has evolved considerably over the years, much like the genre itself. “Flamenco music is very young and alive; it practically unfolds day by day. At first, there was no standard methodology and that made every guitarist play only in a way that matched their own physical and musical characteristics. That created a series of important personalities who initiated the development of what we now know as the evolution of the flamenco guitar. In flamenco, the composer is also the performer. It’s very difficult for someone else to interpret your music, since it’s tailored to your own technical and expressive abilities. In flamenco the difference is appreciated.”


José Antonio Rodriguez
José Antonio Rodriguez


In both flamenco and jazz manouche, rhythm is the starting point. Players can’t progress to lead until they’ve mastered what are known in the respective vernacular as compás and la pompe. If a guitarist’s compás or rasgueado (a rapid-fire strumming technique) is not metronomic, there will be swift chastisement from the dancers, who tend to rule the roost in flamenco troupes. “Flamenco is a very strict musical genre, although it might seem the contrary,” says Rodriguez. “Everyone talks about the feeling (duende) and the expression in flamenco, which are undoubtedly very important, but the technique, the development, and the particular forms are what you have to study from the beginning. And only then can you create innovative flamenco.”

Each part of Andalusia, flamenco’s home in the southernmost part of Spain, is unique, both in the character of the people and in customs, and this shows in the way music is created and played in each region. Rodriguez enlarges: “There are many styles or palos, which got their name from the town or the village where they were created … as ‘Malagueña’ or ‘Granaina’, referring to styles created in Malaga or Granada, for example. My own town Córdoba does not have its own palos, but it does have particular ways of interpretation such as the ‘Alegrias de Cordoba’ or the ‘Soleares de Cordoba’.”

In gypsy jazz, the pulse is also generated by a distinctive style of strumming, the aforementioned pompe or pump, which gives the music its fast swing accent. The percussive rhythm is not dissimilar to the “boom-chick” of bluegrass. Like every other jazz manouche guitarist, Rosenberg paid his dues playing rhythm, for two years. “If you play good rhythm, and you have a good sense of swing, then your solos will swing too,” he observes.

After touring the world for 25 years with cousins in The Rosenberg Trio, Stochelo decided it was time to make room for upcoming young talent outside of the family, to develop fresh repertoire, hence his new alliance with French guitarist Sebastien Giniaux and German double bass player Joel Locher. “What’s so special in this trio is that you have three soloists as well as three rhythm players. That means I can breathe now … we can play double solos together and things like that. You can hear the gypsy jazz influence of Django but also a Balkan influence.”

On the final night of the 2014 Adelaide International Guitar Festival, Stochelo Rosenberg and his new sidemen were accorded a prolonged standing ovation from a clearly blown away Aussie audience. Memories of the Hot Club de France were revived with some incredibly fast and clean renditions of some of the great man’s compositions, such as ‘Festival 48’, ‘Heavy Artillery’ and ‘Minor Blues’. Both Rosenberg and the equally dexterous Giniaux performed with an admirable sense of abandon and adventure (and a wonderful appreciation of dynamics) — whether playing breakneck lead or the driving rhythm of gypsy jazz, la pompe. The leader and his partners-in-rhyme were equally impressive in their slower paces, in the encore number ‘Nuages’ and ‘Clair De Lune’. Away from Django, their rhythmically distinctive and no doubt technically challenging medley interpretations of the ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ and Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ was right on the money too.



On the opening night of the AIGF, José Antonio Rodriguez trawled through his three latest albums, La Leyenda, Cordoba … en el Tiempo and Anartista, in the company of his own trio, which comprised Chico Gallardo on second guitar and Raúl Botella on percussion. “They’re musicians and friends, so when we are playing, the camaraderie we share is great.”



Less than inspired in the early stages of his concert — possibly caused by cold digits, to judge by his hand wringing between pieces — Rodríguez certainly warmed to his work. His performance (and the front-of-house sound) got better and better as it progressed, and the set finished in a frenzied flurry, with the maestro’s left hand moving like a tormented tarantula up and down the fret board and his right hand in a butterfly-winged whir above the guitar’s sound hole.

Purists would no doubt have been perturbed to see Señor Rodríguez’s instrument plugged in to an on-stage amplifier and connected with effects’ pedals on the floor. His distinctively phrased, Cordoba-nuanced interpretations of alegrias and soleares and other flamenco staples might also have sparked some consternation amongst aficionados, although they certainly generated much excitement within the throng at Festival Theatre — as evidenced by a standing ovation. Following a spellbinding solo tremolo study, the maestro’s arguably under-utilised accompanists (Chico Gallardo and Raul Botella, on second guitar and a range of percussion instruments) re-joined their master on the one guitar for a Tommy Emmanuel-esque party piece of an encore that predictably brought the house down.

• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms — Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.

Author: Tony Hillier

Tony Hillier is an Australia-based freelance music writer, broadcaster, musician, MC and band leader. He writes album and concert reviews and feature articles for The Australian (the country’s only bona fide national newspaper) and Rhythms (Australia’s only dedicated national roots music magazine) and prepares/presents weekly programs for the national broadcaster (ABC) and community radio. He is also a member of the Transglobal World Music Chart (TWMC) panel.


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