Rob Davidson

A Week of Living, Learning, & Listening to Gorgeous Django Through the Eyes of Stepháne Wrembel

The Django style of guitar is a stunning culmination of heart, soul, and soul. Expert Stepháne Wrembel discusses why that is in our conversation, but also demonstrates such at the camp he is putting on this week in New Jersey and New York.

Stepháne Wrembel, a French-born, classically-trained, and critically-acclaimed musician, knows a thing or two about expressing oneself through art. His own discovery of, and appreciation for, jazz compositions by one Django Reinhardt, has furthered his love for music in ways the world has yet to experience. From learning the details of Sinti guitar in the countryside of France from the Gypsies to utilizing it during his time at his alma mater, Berklee College of Music, his musical roots run deep and are ever-exploratory.

A professional composer and prolific collaborator, Wrembel is able to almost effortlessly educate, yet strives year after year to further what he knows, where he can teach, and how he can inspire. This time around it’s the internal influence of Django melodies and jam session-style improvisation in Maplewood, New Jersey, for the Django AGoGo Festival and Guitar Camp beginning tomorrow, March 1, leading up to a concert for all at The Town Hall in NYC on March 5. and concluding at Barbés in Brooklyn on March 6.

What do you hope that students are going to get out of the guitar camp leading up to the “All-Star” show in New York?

It’s targeted to 30 students, so I keep a very small group. We do three group of 10 and we rotate the groups with the different teachers and the different players. The goal is not only to acquire a bit of information, but is to be in the presence of these great masters that I bring from Europe. 

For example, Raphael Fays is a guy that…. Well, he was like a God to us. When I was young, 18, and starting to play, he was one of the greatest masters. I would’ve given anything to be able to spend five days, all day long with him – listening to him, playing, asking him questions, those happenings where you just immerse [yourself] in the sound and in those techniques. Information is not only information in itself; information can come alive. There is information that doesn’t mean anything, but when someone plays it, it comes with the life of it. […] To be able to spend like five days with great guitar masters is for sure going to change the way all of the students play. There is Raphael and Laurent [Hestin] and Sebastian Felix and more. They’re going to inspire and students will be inspired. The sound that they’re going to hear is a sound that is never going to leave them. It’s a very unique opportunity.

It seems like quite an intimate learning experience for all kinds of guitarists.

Yes, exactly. You see, there is yearlong learning of technique and stuff like that, but that is best done one on one. There are other ways of learning that are best to jam with and hear from others. That thing is part of it, too: everything who practices at home is to be playing with one another for five days. This is the right time and sound for that, but, really, once again, it’s that immersion with masters full time that will be an unforgettable experience for those who are here.

Wow, this is going to be a very creative and communal experience – all leading up to a grand, and aptly masterful, group show in New York.

Music is a sharing and loving act. For these guys, these performers from Europe to come share what they have with people, it’s a brotherhood. It’s like a fraternity and it’s humanity. We’re in a group of people and people love people. These musicians love to share and they love to see people progressing and learning about what they do. That always makes you feel good, too, when you show something to someone and suddenly they get it and they’re happy. Watching someone understand and pick up something you taught them… it’s a positive action in the world.

These shows at Town Hall in Manhattan and in Maplewood at Woodland – how are they different, or similar, to the classes and experiences the students will be having through the week?

They are public concerts for people to come and experience those special guests. These are shows that you cannot have outside of here, outside of the Django camp. I specifically pick the musicians to come play together. I know that the combination of tones and arts and artists is hard to find but I know the right combination of players. I know that with this combination of players, this tune needs to be crafted for everyone to play together. I am not a concert promoter. That’s not a job for me. I do it once a year, cause I love Django, I love teaching, and I love people, and I love my fellow musicians. I’m happy to put a year of work into it for only once a year. The thing is, I’m a musician, so I know how to produce a show. I know what a good show is. I know how to put musicians together. I know which songs everyone can perform well, so I can give it very good direction. 

In reality, my real pleasure is, of course, performing with all these guys. Still, I love the musical direction I can take on with these masters at this one special Town Hall concert. We’re gonna have like seven guitars on stage! We’re gonna have violins and horns and more. I have people asking, “How do you make it work? Because that’s a lot of people, Stepháne.” I just know how to make it work.  I have a special ear as a musician that I know how to craft the show. It’s going to be amazing.

The same thing with the camp in Maplewood where we have two shows, too. One is my band, The Django Experiment with the [European] guests. It’s like very oriented towards the more traditional Django stuff. On Friday night, though, it’s Django New Orleans. I bring musicians from New Orleans so we have the sound of trumpets and clarinets and saxophone, but also wood instruments and string instruments like the guitar and the violin. It’s a special blend of all that.

Usually, you cannot just decide to do a blend of people like that. I have a specific line of musicians and I know that what changes and everyone’s sound and everything in between what happened in New Orleans with Django. The foundation is the Django is bass and guitar, but I move the bass out and I put a saxophone in instead. This New Orleans style changes the whole groove and the whole atmosphere of the thing, but it’s all there – all Django. That’s the key part: how do you make the guitars and the violin and the traditional string sounds match with the groove of horns and saxophones? It is similar, but it is different. You need the right musicians and the right direction. That is where I have a strength here as a musician. I’m an artistic director, sp I can compose a band that will produce a very unique sound. This is very difficult to do… and it works very well. We already played that show a couple of times, and it’s very, very successful, so I’m very happy to produce it, bring it to people, and teach with it, as well.

We know that Django is an important musical style, especially for those who play guitar or other string instruments, as you mentioned. Why, in your eyes, is Django so important and worth spending five days learning with you and others at the camp in Maplewood or going out to see live in New York City?

Django is to guitar as Bach is to the keyboard. With music today, it seems to me that we are going way too fast with it. A lot of people think that they can play a couple of his songs and they know how to play him, but we haven’t understood Django yet and we haven’t understood his sonic impact on all music yet. We are still working very hard on finding how the guitar works through him. It’s unbelievable what I’m finding even years into playing and composing and teaching him – there is just more and more to uncover and it is completely unbelievable. I think that there is a mechanism that can be found in how the guitar works with him, and this is that it allows you to find yourself in it. 

Django is all instruments and it’s all of us. If you work on Bach, it’s going to be good for you no matter what you play. It doesn’t matter what you play. Nothing matters if you work and if you learn Bach. It is the same with Django; you work on him and it’s going to be good for you. I’m doing a lot of the groundwork by simplifying everything and finding out how it works to then be taught. I see it in my students, how fast they learn after getting Django. I also teach a lot online outside of in person here in Maplewood. I work very hard with my students and for my students to learn the simplicity of the system that’s behind Django, because it is fundamentally very simple. That’s why it’s so difficult to play – because it’s very simple! We always think that there’s going to be something complicated. Actually it’s not, you just have to move it a lot. It’s very dynamic. It’s very creative. You cannot rely on patterns and premade things. You have to find the melodies within yourself. You have to look within yourself and produce art. That’s the reality of it. […] With the Internet and the telephone and the smartphone and all of that, everyone is plugged outside of themselves while there is a whole universe within ourselves. There is a whole universe that is infinite and eternal inside of us where we can tap into and get those melodies for Django. That’s where it comes from and that’s what I teach: it doesn’t come from the outside – it comes from within.