Beaufort Jazz

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Samois – time to reconsider?

Django Festival Samois

Festival goers take a moment to relax at Samois

A recent article in Songlines caught the eye as it raised concerns about the Django Reinhardt Festival held each year in Samois-Sur Seine. The thrust of the article was that Gypsy Jazz, the music made famous by Django, was slowly being edged out by more mainstream jazz. It’s now argued that the festival which bears the Django name no longer plays his music.

More often referred to as just “Samois” the festival as always been considered as the definitive tribute to Django. Musicians travelled across Europe to play and ensure the Django legacy was kept alive. Much of the appeal was the informal nature of the festival combining staged events with the opportunity for visitors to jam together.

The situation seems to have alienated many Django fans and musicians, to the point that many no longer attend the event. For such a narrow genre as Gypsy Jazz the threat is great. Without a flagship festival it is feared that the music will slip further from the public gaze and eventually rely on the odd advert or film score for wider appreciation.

Equally if the Gypsy Jazz musicians no longer attend there will be less impromptu jamming. Without this annual opportunity to collaborate with like-minded musicians, there is the concern that Gypsy Jazz will lose some of the energy and inspiration which attracts new talent. If the music doesn’t evolve the fear is it will eventually disappear.

Perusing the festival programme suggests that the music is now much more diverse than you might expect at a Django Reinhardt festival. Seemingly a little out of place, George Benson the king of smooth jazz headlines the bill. Wikipedia offers a possible explanation for his inclusion when it claims that “Benson uses a rest-stroke picking technique similar to that of Gypsy Jazz players such as Django Reinhardt”. Further examination suggests that the programme is less guitar orientated than in previous years with other instruments now taking centre stage.

There are still some traditional names with David Reinhardt the grandson of Django billed to appear. There are also artists such as Titi Robin who brought his unique fusion of gypsy and world music to Samois following his widely acclaimed performance at the Wychwood Festival earlier in the year. For some die-hard Gypsy Jazz fans, even Robin may be pushing the boundaries, which for them leaves the inclusion of mainstream jazz artists well outside original intent of the festival.

It would seem that the organisers of Samois have taken the view that diversity strengthens rather than weakens the festival. That it is acceptable to include music which has contributed to and spun off from Gypsy Jazz, no matter how tenuous the link might be to some.

It is one of those situations which raises as many questions as it provides answers. The festival relies heavily on the local residents of Samois who started the festival 32 years ago in memory of their famous resident and still volunteer in number to keep the festival running each year. Normally such an enthusiast led festival is sure-footed and true to the original cause. Volunteers only get involved because they care. To now find such disparity between what is offered and what the traditional supporters expect of such a niche festival is unusual to say the least.

The concern recently escalated with the launch of an online petition calling for a return to the Gypsy Jazz format of yesteryear. Judging from the online comments, it has struck a chord with many. One theory put forward by the petitioner is that commercial interests have taken precedence over the cultural heritage of the festival. As it is difficult to get any financial or management information about the festival it is hard establish what the motivation for change might be.

The idea of that the festival has been rebranded by stealth for financial gain is a worrying thought for many who have signed the petition.They see the original Django festival now diluted to such an extent that it is rapidly losing its original audience, something which could prove difficult to reverse if left unchecked. If this was allowed to happen the festival would then be almost totally reliant on its new audience for revenue.

Others see the way forward to have two separate festivals. There is a proven demand for the original Gypsy Jazz festival and however controversially, 2011 did at least demonstrate that Samois can also attract high calibre mainstream jazz musicians, which must be encouraging for the concept of a new jazz festival. Two festivals may be the solution and if successful could considerably enhance the local Samois economy. Most importantly for traditionalists it would ensure the legacy of Django lives on in Samois with a return to an authentic Gypsy Jazz festival.

It’s not clear what the future holds. The online petition is still accumulating signatures and there seems to be little feedback to date from the festival organisers. What is clear is that something precious and unique has been called into question by its core supporters. That in itself should cause the organisers to reflect.

Artists of the stature of Reinhardt probably only arrive on this earth once in a generation. It shouldn’t be too much to hope that a small festival in the heart of France can recapture its audience and celebrate his genius. Gypsies and music lovers worldwide are hoping for a successful outcome.

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August 8, 2011 - Posted by | Django | , ,

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