Sir Gerry Robinson says ‘Bravo’ as Ramelton hosts international tribute to gypsy jazz 

by Sean Hillen

Sir Gerry Robinson, the celebrity businessman who has been at the helm of top-notch companies in diverse industries ranging from children’s toy to cars to television, and so knows quite a bit about where best to put money, was extremely happy with his latest investment when I met him earlier this week.

Isn’t this just wonderful?” he asked me rhetorically. “In a lovely place like Ramelton to have musicians from all over the world playing here, it’s simply terrific.”

Sir Gerry Robinson, Django sur Lennon festival, Sean Hillen

Sharing a light moment with Sir Gerry Robinson at Ramelton Town Hall after an excellent manouche performance.

The particular genre of music the internationally-renown business leader was referring to was gypsy jazz and Robinson’s social investment – twice in two years – was in support of the annual ‘Django Sur Lennon’ weekend festival.

Seven concerts, a host of pub sessions and a last evening ‘jam’ were among the highlights of the festival, with musicians travelling worldwide from the US, including Hawaii, England, various parts of Ireland, including ‘Modern Swing’ from Belfast, the ‘Hot Club of Tolka’ from Dublin, the ‘Boris Hunka Trio’ from Limerick, violinist Sean Lennon from Galway, and others from across the European continent.

So many musicians, so many styles but all harking back to the one man, Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt, who created the unique genre in the 1930s now known as gypsy jazz or jazz manouche, for whom devotees in Donegal’s riverside town paid tribute last weekend.

Warm and candle-lit with velvet-draped stage and painted Corinthian columns, the cozy ambience of the Town Hall provided a splendid place to showcase sheer musical virtuosity at the Django sur Lennon festival.

And one of the groups on Saturday, ‘The Hot Club of Troy,’ displayed just that, and more.

The group is comprised of four members from Whidbey Island, Washington, north of Seattle, Troy Chapman, Kristi O’Donnell, Keith Bowers and Eric Vanderbilt-Mathews, some of whom are co-founders of the ‘DjangoFest NorthWest’ festival. They were joined by guest guitarist from Hawaii, Emmett Mahoney, to play a range of Reinhardt’s most well-known melodies for almost 90 minutes.

The first, ‘Dancer Mabel Mercer,’ featured a smooth clarinet solo by Vanderbilt-Mathews, and was followed by ‘Dinette,’ an all-time favorite. ‘Fleur d’Ennui,’ written during World War Two, is a dreamy, romantic composition that’s almost an anti-war, pro-peace anthem that featured a brilliant blend of guitar-playing by Chapman, Bowers and Mahoney, including a mesmerizing solo by Troy himself.

Born in Belgium, Reinhardt’s parents moved to Paris when he was a child. There, in a freak domestic fire, the entire side of his body was burned and he was left with two fingers fused together. Thus handicapped, he developed a new style of guitar-playing, also known as ‘hot jazz.’

Named after a district in Paris, ‘Belleville’ is a catchy number that encapsulated a fine interplay of guitar strings, with a rising solo flourish from Mahoney, and a sax solo from Vanderbilt-Mathews, with solid double bass backing from O’Donnell, all combining to create, in the mind’s eye, images of bodies gyrating freely on a dance-floor. Slowing the pace, the aptly named ‘Slowly Miss’ highlighted the intricately-honed skills of Troy’s guitar-work and the poignant, floating notes of the clarinet by Vanderbilt-Mathews, who is also proficient on violin and piano.

Interestingly, O’Donnell, on double bass, told the audience of finding out about Ramelton’s ‘Django sur Lennon’ gypsy jazz festival on the Internet and how, as her grandfather, Myles Emmett O’Donnell, also a musician, playing concertina and cornet, immigrated to the U.S. in 1871 from Donegal, she felt she simply had to come, which she did last year with her sister. Then promptly raised the money, in part through her own artwork including hand-drawn postcards, photographs and poetry, to bring the rest of the band members over this weekend. To which, Troy replied, in a passable Darth Vader imitation, “Don’t underestimate the power of an O’Donnell.”

As Reinhardt was a prolific melodist, he wrote many tunes borrowed from the work of classical composers, thus the band’s rendition of ‘Bolero,’ a complex tune that demonstrated the enchanting, fast-moving finger-picking of Mahoney and Bowers.

Ending their set with the hefty, hard-hitting ‘The Golden Door,’ this talented band received a well-deserved standing ovation from a very receptive audience, then returned for an upbeat encore of ‘Are You In The Mood,’ which Reinhardt arranged with Stéphane Grappelli.

A second concert later Saturday night featured the fleet-fingered Dario Napoli from Cortona, Italy together with Dutch guitarist, Paulus Schäfer, Slovakian violinist Rudi Bado, who flew in the festival from Brazil and José Anselmo on double bass. Having had the pleasure of enjoying their performances also at last year’s inaugural festival, ‘International Gypsy Jazz Festival Enlivens Donegal’s Ramelton Town,’ I was delighted to do so again.

Experienced veterans on the international circuit, the foursome simply launched into one number after another, no need – or time – for titles or explanations. They simply wanted to play the music they loved, slipping seamlessly from one tune to another, almost as if they were enjoying musical conversations with each other.

To illustrate their prowess, their set with ‘Promptu’ – a fast melody in which one guitar seemed to be racing after another, followed by double bass and violin, each overtaking at certain junctures, and then colliding, cascading into a shower of musical fireworks (after all, it was Halloween weekend).

And for the encore, when the bass and violin players switched instruments… well, what more need be said about their supreme musical brilliance.

Aside from Sir Gerry and Lady Heather Robinson’s generous support, event sponsors also included barrister Peter Nolan from the same town; Cleary and Co. Solicitors, Raphoe, Hugo Whoriskey, Spar supermarket, Ramelton, Cllr. Jimmy Kavanagh, Donegal County Council, and Le Pompe, Donegal jazz manouche band.

Organising committee members included Donough Cleary, Damian Doherty, Donal Casey, John Kinsella, Simon McCafferty, Aisling Cleary, Mary Kinsella, Violet Buchanan, Ann Casey, Martin McGinley, and others at the Town Hall such as Brian and Jean Winston and Dom McDaid. Percy Robinson was on sound.

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