On Listening to Django Rienhardt

Musical Journey Flowing from Listening to Django Reinhardt’s Minor Swing

One frigid and dreary Vancouver Island February afternoon, I decided Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz would be the antidote to my chilled sense of displacement. Django had developed a fingering style to suit his injured fretting hand, mangled in an accidental fire that left him able to use only two of his left-hand fingers. He’d been born to poor parents in Belgium in 1910, and went on to play full houses in 1930’s Paris. And though Django is long gone now, thousands still emulate his jazz guitar style and many more flock to Django festivals and workshops the world over.


Snowflakes breezily float down to earth outside my window. And I realize this music, this lugubrious but bodacious bounce, could have flourished only in a being who had known suffering and displacement; a being whose heritage had been anchored in years of oppression. A heritage of the road. Django had been a descendant of Gypsy travelers. Roma roamers.

Gypsies (Gitano, Tsigane, Rom, Roma, Romani, etc) left India over a thousand years ago on what is believed to have been a forced migration, for reasons uncertain. As they travelled and settled foreign lands, they held on to their culture, but especially to their music and dance.


My four grandparents were all Russian Jews. My American father and Canadian mother met in New Jersey, became Zionist pioneers, and conceived me in a kibbutz in the Negev desert in Israel, a kibbutz twenty kilometers from Gaza city. I had been a passenger on an airplane while in my mother’s womb; born in Winnipeg, then returned with my mother to the Negev desert, celebrated my first birthday on the kibbutz, later left with my mother at age two or three, moved with my father to the Negev city of Beer Sheva. A sister came along, and then a brother. We made two more cross-Atlantic moves Israel to Canada and back (one by ship), until I finally left Israel for Canada on my own at 21.

Living in Winnipeg in the 80’s, I first heard gypsy music from a cassette tape of the Gipsy Kings playing in an Italian restaurant in Fort Rouge. I remember my wonder and being intrigued by the arresting barrage of guitars, deep-voiced Spanish harmonies, and a distinctive exotic and chromatic sound. I interrupted my dinner to find out what it was.


http://www.gipsykings.com/about/ (click on history)

Most of the world’s Romani live a more or less settled life in Europe. Some say when they first arrived 700 hundred years ago, people assumed their dark skin meant they were Turks or Egyptians. According to Patrick Kiger, one legend describes them as descendants of 12,000 musicians gifted to the Persian king in the 5th century. This legend says the king grew tired of them and sent them away. Linguistic analysis, however, suggests they came from northwestern India and spread in waves westward, through the Balkans and Egypt, then to central Europe, France and Spain.

The legend of the Gypsies brings to mind the legend of the Jewish people in Egypt (with minor differences). The Jews, enslaved by the pharaoh, had a very powerful ally. With God’s help, the Jews persuaded the pharaoh to let them go. A journey of forty years, which included a thirty-eight year sojourn at the oasis of Kadesh Barnea in the Sinai, took them out of Egypt. Beyond Sinai, to the east, lie Gaza, the Negev desert, and the gateway to Canaan – the Promised Land.

Both Romani people and Jews have been portrayed in history as having similar traits. Both groups had been stereotyped as wandering, disease-infested pickpockets and cheats, with a tendency to stealing children and violent and irresponsible behaviour.


Dr. Ian Hancock, director of the Program of Romani Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, (and author of The Pariah Syndrome), tells me while there are a number of historic similarities between Jews and Gypsies, “the difference between these two peoples is that Jews are outsiders on the inside, while we are outsiders on the outside.” Jews are also a literate people, continues Dr. Hancock. “We are not. Jews have always had Israel, and in 1948 finally got it back. We forgot our roots in India, and we are only now rediscovering these roots, but not with any desire to return.”

They may be a people without a country, but the Romani do have a flag. Its blue and green background represents heaven and earth; a 16-spoke red cart wheel at the center alludes to their roaming history.





Legend tells of persecuted Lazarus expelled to sea in a boat with his sisters Mary Magdalene and Martha, Mary Salome, Mary Jacobe and Maximin. Arriving in France, they were helped by Saint Sarah, also known as Sara-la-Kali (Sara the Black) and in Romani Sara e Kali. Sara was known for her charitable work and collecting alms, which led people to believe she was a Gypsy, and ever since, Saint Sara has been the adopted patron saint of the Romani. Gypsies make an annual pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, in the Camargue, in southern France, in veneration of Saint Sara.


In France today, Tsigane still travel in horse-drawn caravans, all their possessions on board, always on the move, never settled. When they do settle, word gets out and locals soon arrive and persuade them to move on. And they move on, like the migrating starlings in the sky. If you came to see your Tsigane friends, and found they had left, you could follow the clumps of flowers along the road to their new camp.



I’ve nowhere to go and no one is chasing me. But like the Wandering Jew who taunted Jesus, cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming, I feel sometimes like a homeless fool. Legend dating from the 17th century gave the name Ahasver to the Wandering Jew, adapted perhaps from Achashverosh, the Persian king in the Book of Esther, who some, according to Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum, mistakenly believe to have been a benevolent king, but had been wicked from the very beginning to the very end.

But I think I’ve identified that elusive arresting quality in the music of the Romani. It’s what the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca called duende; a ghost, an evil spirit. For Lorca, duende is inspiration, magic, fire. The Flamenco singer El Lebrijano said “When I sing with duende, no one can equal me.”

Dr. Hancock believes an oppressed people need the support of a nation state. I wonder who we should admire more. The Jewish people, with their unswerving determination in resettling Palestine (‘a land without a people for a people without a land’), or the Romani people, not seeking a state of their own but wanting only to live free of oppression.

How then should we feel about the Palestinians?

Oh, do not mistake the sadness of my face

It is the sister of joy.

Oh, do not mistake the lunacy of my heart

It is the source of my pain.

–        from an old Gypsy song