The Genesis of my trip to the Django Festival this year traces back to a convoluted wish that my marriage would survive. Last year, in Germany I described the festival to my new friend Wolfgang. My German wife and I had been to Samois in 2016. It was her most lovely birthday present to me a 1/2 year before I proposed and a year before we married — something we now regret. Agnes had rented a “Wohnmobile” (mobile home) and we drove, with her lovely Labrador Frida, to the festival south of Paris, stopping in Trier, Belgium along the way.
Things went “south” with our marriage, but I always remembered what a wonderful time Agnes and I had on that trip. She drove most of the way through the tiny, twisting streets of the Belgian and French towns. So when I talked about it with Wolfgang, who is a fantastic photographer and retired geography teacher, he was intrigued. And I thought, this is crazy but it could be fun to go again — with Wolfgang. So we made tentative plans back in early 2017.
Fast forward to this year. Marriage continued dissolving, but the festival plans gelled. Samois — people still call it — is a festival in honor of Django Rheinhardt, the gypsy guitarist who became famous because of his many recordings with Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club of France. He integrated gypsy style music with swing from the 20s and 30s and had a great career in Europe, even touring in the US with Duke Ellington’s band. He ended up living and dying, eventually, in Samois, a small village south of Paris on the Seine river. Django wrote a song, “Peche a’la Mouche” (Fly-fishing) based on one of his favorite past-times in Samois.
The festival has been popular since the 1980s, featuring some of the best Manouche (gypsy) players and bands. In the last few years, the festival organizers have attempted to reach a broader audience, and thus have invited non-Manouche musicians. The festival grew. And for the last few years has been in Fontainebleau, next to the massive palace of Napolean 1, Louis the 14th, a Pope, and many other people from French royalty. This year, the headliner was George Benson, a guitarist that probably all of the Manouche guitarists revere.
“Manouche” is a word I use because I have heard many in the tradition prefer it to “Gypsy” or “Gipsy” which has some negative connotations for some people.
Samois is a charming little town, full of stone houses, standing on the slopes of the Seine. If you wander up the streets, as Agnes and Frida and I did in 2016, you pass an ancient Roman bath — a 4 x 2 meter stone pool by the street. I had to help Frida out after she jumped in (typical Labrador).
This time, Wolfgang and I didn’t camp. We stayed in a very cheap Airbnb in Avon, halfway between Fontainebleau and the Samourea camp, where the serious musicians hang out to talk and play music from mid-afternoon (when they wake up) to the next morning. In fact, many of the campers never buy tickets to the festival at Fontainebleau. They just crave the jamming at Samoureau. There is also another camp, Petite Barbeau (little woods) just down the river, where musicians also camp and play into the wee hours. Agnes and I had stopped some Gypsies in 2016 asking for a recommendation. They told us the serious Gypsy players all camp in Petite Barbeau because there they aren’t expected to play all night and can get some rest. We found out though that the other campers often played all night. That year, we saw Dorado Schmidt and Hono Winterstein hanging out at Petite Barbeau, but indeed (at least when we saw them) they didn’t have guitars in their hands.
Wolfgang and I drove his car from Soest, leaving about 10 a.m. Thursday. George Benson was to play that night at 10:30 p.m. and the trip was about 7 hours. As with my trip with Agnes, we depended on outdated maps — a continuing source of frustration as Belgium and France have so many tiny roads with multiple names e.g. A4, E42 etc. Oh well. I nearly crashed when I was driving in Belgium, recovering from a trip down the wrong road. It was a bitter pill to swallow, as I think of myself as a good driver. But Germans (and I think most Europeans) have to take a year or more of driver’s education. I have to admit, Wolfgang was a much superior driver.
Finally we arrived. Wolfgang and I were both worn out. When he found out my Airbnb choice was 3 km from the festival, he erupted, complaining that he wanted to be able to walk to the festival. He muttered in German that he thought I couldn’t understand, about how much better it would be to have a hotel room within walking distance. But I did understand. Then it was my turn to explode and call him a “big baby”. Things got worse. He wouldn’t listen to my GPS directions to the festival, and snatched up his own smartphone to reconnoiter. I had had enough and said, “Now you are starting to piss me off!”. Then I jumped out of the car, holding onto the keys to the Airbnb gate and our house. I ran into him later at the festival in Fontainebleau and we worked things out.
Enough chaos. I realized I was feeling sorry for myself for not being there with Agnes. Wolfgang was tired from the driving. So “geht” understandings between friends. Sheesh.
So we caught George Benson, and Wolfgang took some incredibly good pictures and videos. We got back after midnight. Our Airbnb hosts, Myriam and Benoit, were a lovely young couple, she a piano teacher, and he an organist. Benoit had a fabulous organ setup in his living room. He subbed in churches when the regular organist was sick or otherwise unavailable. They only did the Airbnb thing to supplement their incomes as musicians. I understood.
The next day, Wolfgang and I walked to Fontainbleau Palace, a bit of a hoof — 3 km — but good exercise, and then we did the self-tour. What a fabulous, and fabulously large palace. Opulence beyond belief. I took lots of pictures of the furniture for my sons Owen and Noah, cabinet makers in Milford, Ohio, to check out. Lots of gilt gold, carved wood. Stuff they don’t do much these days.
Then we went to the festival. We heard Bireli Lagren, Stochelo Rosenburg, William Brunard. I checked out the guitar booths luthiers had setup. I ran into my friend Ken Allday from Louisville, Ky, who had come there on a lark by himself, though he has several friends in the GJ music community. He is a great young guitarist.
I contacted my friend Sasha, who also had come over for the festival from Kentucky. Sasha was one of those who only go to Samoureau to jam. I met him at the campground that night. He was accompanied by his “driver” Martin McFie, a fascinating, friendly retired English industrialist who lives in Hiltonhead, and summers in Nice, France, and now just goes around reviewing live music and writing books. Martin was driving an old London taxi, vintage 1953 — my vintage also.
Saturday, while walking around the campground with Ken, we encountered Rino Van Hoojidonk, who is a musician and luthier. He made my guitar, which I decided not to bring with me this trip of 11 days. It was his 26th Selmer-style guitar. I filmed Ken and Rino playing “J’Attendrai”, made famous by Django and the Hot Club of France.
Both Sasha and Ken let me play their guitars, so I had some experience jamming at Samoureau. Also I tried a couple guitars at the Fontainebleau festival from Cyril Gaffiero, a French guitar-maker, and AJL, another luthier, from Finland. Sasha kept texting me asking me to ask the AJL guys questions about the Montmartre guitar that he was interested in. I sent him various pictures I took of the guitar, with a curly maple back. The AJL sales guy, Kimmo, smiled when I told him “hello from Sasha”. Sasha has many friends.
Saturday afternoon, I saw Ken and he was haggard looking. He said he had jammed at Samoureau until 6 a.m. That’s what many do, primarily the young. Ken seemed to be having a great, classic Samoureau experience.
I would arrive back around 3:30 or 4 a.m. at the Airbnb, call Wolfgang, who had stayed at the Fontainebleau festival until 11:30 or so, making photographs. He would let me in the outer gate and then the front door. We slept in the same bed, which I thought would be ok, since he is European and uses a breathing apparatus for sleep apnea — and also it was only $155 for 3 nights. Later, I was to learn that another friend of Sasha’s also had a much bigger private Airbnb, complete with a pool table, for the same price. Oh well. Our hosts were charming and I didn’t regret it, even when the first train ripped by about 30 meters from our open window on the first night. “Oh…” I thought to myself, fresh from my slumbers. “That’s why it’s so cheap.” I was used to trains from Agnes’ house in Soest, that has two tracks 5 meters behind the back of her garden. You get used to it.
Wolfgang got a great video of Bireli Lagren, William Brunard and Stochelo Rosenberg playing “Djangology”. It went viral after I posted it on Facebook. The view and music quality were both so good.
I enjoyed walking around Samoureau late our last night (Saturday), looking for a good jam. Borrowing Sasha’s guitar and playing with some Gypsy guys who were trying to sell two guitars. After we finished a song, the older guy (30-ish) said something to me that I didn’t understand. My guess was either he was complimenting me (unlikely) or saying I was playing too loud (more likely because another guy from Germany actually put his hand on Sasha’s guitar while he was playing and told him he was too loud — I guess it’s a loud guitar). Then a nice young lady from California wanted to play a couple tunes with us on her violin. In between Martin would talk about Plato, how he had run a shipping company that drove trucks through Germany, and owned a ship that plied the east coast of the US, how he learned how to play golf, and quit after his first shot was a hole-in-one. Very friendly guy, and quite a talker. Generous also, as he agreed to pick me up and drive me to the Airbnb in the middle of the night one night.
On the last night, around 3:30 a.m., I started walking/staggering towards the Airbnb from Samoureau. Only a few cars. Nice view of the dark Seine as I crossed the bridge. In the morning 4 hours laster (we had to be out by 10 a.m.) we grabbed some great coffee and a croissant, and ran into Dario Napoli, Italian guitarist, who was there with his band to play Sunday. Ciao, and we started our journey back to Soest.