Manouche and all that Gypsy Jazz

When Richard heard that he was going to interview Manouche, the renowned gypsy jazz band from Cape Town, we had some trouble subduing the excited man and getting him to hakuna his tatas. While we were restoring the office and picking the shattered glass off the floor we discussed our safety concerns regarding this project. It was obvious that he liked the band but we weren’t sure whether he is a fan or fanatic…but then we thought, meh, what’s the worst that can happen? Manouche is playing at Park Acoustics on 31 July and it would be folly not to interview them.

So we unleashed our Richard on the unsuspecting Bernard Kotze, guitarist of Manouche. Fortunately he came prepared and what followed was a delightful conversation about getting high, masking tape and a lesson in Hebrew genital slang:

Richard Chemaly (RC): Statistics like video views and page likes are important for bands to track…so how do you track the statistic of Lebanese people who come to your shows expecting their national dish of the same name as your band, get disappointed when their expectation isn’t realised but stay because the music is awesome? Since you’re from the Cape, can we expect you to do a gig in Stellenbosch at our peoples’ favourite local restaurant and market it as “Eat Manouche, while listening to Manouche in Manouche”?

Bernard Kotze (BC): About the only thing we have in common is that we have gotten a couple of calls through the years with people wanting to book a table. We might do a Lebanese/French mash up evening at some point if only for the joy of a good pun. Spelled with an ‘S’, Man’oushe is Lebanese for flat bread. Spelled with a ‘C’, Manouche is what the Romani gypsy people in France call themselves. Our style of music originated in Paris in the 1930’s and was pioneered by gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli so the style of music came to be known as Jazz Manouche among other names. [editorial note: the Lebanese bread is actually spelled “المنقوشة” so we’ll call that little battle a draw]

Some of our Jewish friends also later notified us that Manouche in Hebrew slang means ‘dirty vagina’. Too late to do anything about it now.
manouche weekend-19RC: Gypsy Jazz…not quite the first genre people think of when starting a band. Would I be correct in guessing you were the only SAffer in Paris and your SAA flight got delayed for a couple of years so you each felt inspired to each learn an instrument and form a band while you waited for SAA to find the masking tape to fix the plane?

BC: We might steal that story but the reality is a bit different. I found out about gypsy jazz for the first time about a decade ago when a French animation feature, ‘The Triplets Of Belleville’ got an oscar nomination for best song. It was a swinging gypsy jazz tune and I was instantly hooked. At the time, there was nothing like it in SA so I spent a great deal of time on youtube trying to pick up as much as I could. The band changed drastically both in sound and lineup over the years but we started out as 3 friends just jamming on our own then eventually playing at markets. Over the years we shaped what we wanted to sound like and started pushing the music away from the traditional sound into something that includes influences from Hip Hop to Rock.

RC: I recall the first show of yours I saw was at some hotel in 2012…loved it. I even bought both albums you had at the time. Imagine my disappointment when the song about getting high wasn’t on either one. Is leaving your cool material off your albums a good tactic to get fans to your live shows? Can we be excited to be (hearing the song about) getting high at Park Acoustics?

BC: I’m gonna say “yes” and pretend that was our strategy all along. At the time ‘High’ was a pretty new tune and we hadn’t really got round to recording it yet. It was also our first experiment to try and push the music in a very different direction that was ultimately to become our sound now. We did release an EP in 2014 that included ‘High’ but the process of producing our albums have always been painstaking and messy. We have always been fiercely independent both because we have a very real problem with authority but more because nobody ever really cared about signing a band like us. There are songs on the albums that we have hardly ever played live and plenty that we had taken off our setlist by the time the album came out. 

And yes, ‘High’ will most definitely be on the set list for Park Acoustics.  

RC: I’d like to question you on your sing “Swing Revolution” in particular. It sounds like it came straight out of the 1930s both in the way it’s recorded and the notation itself. Of course the vocal click is in there giving it an awesome South African flavour. How have you found the revolution and are more South Africans getting into gypsy jazz now that there are bands like you putting effort into its authenticity yet still making it palatable to the ears of today?

BC: There is definitely a growing scene for this type of music. When we started there was only one other group in SA playing this style of music. Back then we were all taking the traditional approach and trying to recreate the style as authentically as possible. Swing Revolution was a result of me listening to a lot of vocal big band music at the time so the vibe, full big band horn section and orchestration is very reminiscent of the 30’s. It was something big and elaborate to showcase Anneli’s amazing voice. Before that we were largely instrumental and was relegated to playing background music.  Anneli also very naturally brought in the South African flavour. 

For us it is less a question of balancing the authenticity/palatability equation and more just about getting bored easily. Our sound evolved because we were listening to all sorts of different music and we got bored with our approach at the time. The fact that is a bit more palatable for modern ears is really a favourable offshoot to us just exploring and having fun. 

RC: You’ve toured a stack this year and played all the regular venues but one stands out in particular… Mystic Boer in Bloem … famed for high tequila sales, grungy atmosphere and the fact that any rockstar who plays in the Free State is surreptitiously naturally drawn there for the afterparty. How does it feel that you potentially performed for Koos Kombuis and wouldn’t have even known if you did…even if you remembered the night at all?

BC: We met some really interesting people there and had a great time even if some of the details are a bit fuzzy. It was maelstrom of Jagermeister and double brandy & cokes. I don’t remember encountering Koos Kombuis there but we would definitely have bought him a drink if that was the case. 

RC: My favourite part of Park Acoustics is when families take their kids and their kids get really into the music and start dancing in front of the stage. Being pretty distinct, do you find that the next generation has a way to go in growing to appreciate gypsy jazz or is that appreciation there? If a kid got that swing, would Anneli give up the mic and let them sing, “It don’t mean a thing”?

BC: One of the things we love about this style is that it cuts a across generational gaps. Kids just seem to be naturally drawn to gypsy jazz. They need absolutely no encouragement.  We’ve played at numerous schools and we always get an amazing response. Kids have a tendency to to throw themselves in and dance with a reckless abandon that is really fun to see. If a kid feels the vibe Anneli will most certainly bring them on stage.

manouche weekend-3