Django’s Influence

Ho’olohe Hou celebrated the January 23rd birthday of famed Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.  But why? Perhaps because of his undeniable influence on music all over the world – including Hawai’i…

As mentioned in our discussions of steel guitarist Billy Hew Len, Django Reinhardt was a jazz violinist whose career radically changed course after a caravan fire robbed him of the use of the pinky and ring fingers of his left – or fretting – hand. Django turned to the guitar and developed a fiery Gypsy style like no other guitarist before or since and which required only two fingers and a thumb. Many who followed tried to emulate Django’s style with all five fingers, but none has come close. And this is because – like so much Hawaiian music – Django’s style could not be boiled down to technique. It doesn’t come from the hands. It comes from the soul.

This blog is reserving a more in-depth discussion of Django’s influence on Hawaiian music until such time as we can begin to seriously explore the development and evolution of Hawaiian music in a more chronological fashion. But we also could not let Django’s birthday slip by unnoticed. So here is what we might say for now…

As early as 1926, Django began recording with an aggregation he formed which became known as le Quintette du Hot Club du France with his lifelong musical partner, Parisian violinist Stephane Grappelli.  The group – which consisted of violin, lead guitar, two rhythm guitars and upright bass – was a veritable freight train of rhythm. They could play at lightning fast speeds, but the rhythmic aspects of their playing even translated into their ballads. The popularity of the group around the world could be keenly felt – even among Hawaiian musicians, especially those rooted on the mainland U.S. where the sounds from Europe more quickly arrived than they did more than twice as far away in Honolulu.

Rather than show the influence of the Reinhardt/Grappelli relationship on a traditional Hawaiian song, how about turning that concept on its side and hearing an example of a Hawaiian group doing a jazz standard in the style of the Hot Club? Django and crew recorded “Limehouse Blues” no fewer than five times over their 25 year recording career. I have chosen a 1926 version since it most resembles – in tempo and arrangement – a version by Johnny Pineapple’s New York-based group dating to the early 1940s. Johnny’s group was then known as “Lukewela’s Royal Hawaiians” – “Lukewela” presumably being a Hawaiian equivalent of “Roosevelt,” in honor of New York’s famed Roosevelt Hotel which the group called home. With Johnny’s group, the role of Django’s lead guitar is played by the fiery steel guitar of Johnny de Toro and the violinist is the amazing Tony Atero.

There is more to Django’s influence on Hawaiian music than this one example. And Ho`olohe Hou Radio looks forward to returning to the subject soon.

Click here to listen to both the Django Reinhardt and Johnny Pineapple versions of “Limehouse Blues.”