The sea breeze blowing through the Galle Face Hotel carried harmonious notes of gypsy jazz with it on Friday, 24th of June. Those who wandered into the Traveller’s Bar and Verandah Restaurant for Dinner must have been served extra delight in the form of music that night. It was the courtesy of the French gypsy jazz band – Gala Swing Quartet – who played in the Checkerboard area. Guitarist Alexis Desmarais, acoustic bass guitarist Alexandre Florentiny, violinist Gaspard Doussière and guitarist Tom Valdman created an aura that is magical by blending their music with the roaring of the sea, a bit of funk and a bit of groove. The stars peeped through the clouds, the sea breeze danced and the waves reached shore to hear them. It was a midsummer night’s dream.
The band was formed five years ago with Alexis and Alexandre and two other musicians who have left. Gaspard and Tom have joined in their stead. “I am very happy to be the brand new member of the band. I chuggle a lot and make good music,” says Tom. They first played music in the streets of the Aix-en province of the South of France. Gradually, they started playing in concert halls and restaurants as well. “It was a real pleasure to play in the streets, because if a person stops to listen to your music it means you are good. They have no obligation to listen to you, no hall or stage to capture them. If they stay on and listen, it means they like your music,” says Alexis. They have released two albums and hope to compose another. “There are no limits to our music. It’s about atmosphere and energy. It’s about simple feelings and sharing moments,” they shared.
Originally, gypsy jazz was created by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli. Django Reinhardt was a French gypsy who used to listen to jazz and play it with his guitar. People started calling his music as gypsy jazz. “Django Reinhardt fused the music he likes together. This includes American jazz blended with traditional gypsy music from Eastern Europe. It is similar to American jazz but without any drums, saxophones, trumpets and piano. You just go there and play your music. The guitar and the violin are the best instruments to hold when you want to move around,” says Gaspard. As a child he used to play the accordion. “Then I just got into playing the violin. That’s why I took up gypsy jazz, because it is for the violin and guitar.”
Alexis used to play black metal in the beginning. Then, he took to jazz and gypsy swing. “Even when I was playing black metal, I used to listen to classical music. I have been very broad in what I play and what I listen to. Then, I met a great guitarist from my city that showed me the gypsy style. I used to listen to gypsy jazz even before this,” he says. Gypsy jazz is closer to people. “Even if you play this music to someone who has never heard of it, they can still understand what you play,” says Alexis. “Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli were amazing musicians. Django died young and Stephane lived a long life. Even after so many years people love their music,” says Gaspard. “People like gypsy jazz because it’s nothing intellectual. It’s simple, they can understand it, dance to it and have fun,” says Alexandre.
When they play, what matters to them most is the audience. “You can be in a bar, in a concert hall or in the streets. Music forms a connection between the musicians and the people. So, when we play, it’s not about the venue but about the way people receive our music that matters to us,” they shared. To them music is about where they play and who they play with. “We like how we could invite guest musicians to play with us. We could invite a saxophonist or a clarinet player. It’s about sharing the music with everyone. Sometimes we meet people who can’t speak our language. Still, we play our music together and communicate with each other through our music. It’s incredible,” they opined.
They found the experience in Sri Lanka amazing and beautiful. “We would like to thank Alliance Francaise and French Embassy for giving us this opportunity. So far we have only heard Sri Lankan bus music. We hope to discover more Sri Lankan music tomorrow when we play in Barefoot. We hear there will be some local bands as well as a traditional drummer. If we could tour in other countries all year long it would be amazing. Maybe one day we could. Then we will come back to Sri Lanka.”