"Everything is self-explanatory in music" - Biréli Lagrène

For a long time, Biréli Lagröne was perceived above all as the most important custodian the legacy of Django Reinhardt. Celebrated as a child prodigy who recorded his first album at the age of twelve, it naturally took some time for the guitarist to emancipate himself from his great role model and the music of Manouche. He sought experience with international stars. Especially from the world of jazz, such as Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius, Elvin Jones or his guitar colleagues Di Meola and Mclaughlin. He also switched to the electric guitar at times. At the beginning of the 2000s, with these diverse experiences behind him, he largely returned to the heritage of Sinti music. Whereby his two albums entitled "Gypsy Project" from 2001 and 2002 and the recording "Djangology/To Bi Or Not To Bi", partly recorded with the WDR Big Band, are considered milestones not only of Sinti jazz, but of European jazz in general.

Note: This interview originally took place in 2018 and is published here to mark the 25th anniversary of Enjoy Jazz. The statements and references made in the interview refer to this date.

In my opinion, what has not yet been sufficiently recognized is that gypsy jazz was the first independent jazz form to emerge outside the USA.

BL: That is indeed the case. And what's particularly exciting is that this first generation of musicians, which of course included Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, had heard very little of what was happening in the USA. Indirectly, at least for us European musicians, this makes them co-founders of jazz. Although Django Reinhardt certainly didn't think in such pigeonholes and in such words.

You yourself still played with Grappelli. 

BL: That's right, once or twice. I was only thirteen or fourteen at the time and unfortunately still too young to ask him the questions I would like to ask him today. The appearances were also rather unofficial. It just so happened that we performed several times at the same festival on the same evening. We already knew each other casually back then. So he invited me back after each of these encounters and we played a bit together.

Jazz has become very academicized, at least as far as training is concerned. The roots of your music still have a lot to do with values such as family, with privacy, with trust, with oral history.

BL: Our music is still not part of the musical school. You can't officially learn it anywhere. But at least there are a lot more seminars and master classes dealing with our music these days. But I am not aware of the existence of anything like a permanent lecturer position or even a professorship for jazz guitar with a focus on gypsy jazz.

Is it even possible to teach this kind of music in your opinion?

BL: That's where it really gets difficult. Today, people like me naturally go beyond the traditional formal language time and again. But the old Sinti guitarists played and still play this music every day. Because it is part of their culture. So it's more than just music. But unfortunately there are fewer and fewer people who live this culture according to tradition. As a result, this pure form of our musical heritage is increasingly disappearing, perhaps also because it is not academically preserved. Today, everything is more or less carried out under the aspect of marketability. I don't have the confidence to judge whether this is good or bad. The world is changing. Of course, some things fall by the wayside.

You yourself made a significant contribution to the opening up of Sinti jazz by going to America and trying out new forms and contexts. During this time, you also discovered the electric guitar for yourself. Your sound arsenal has changed permanently as a result of all these experiences.

BL: I simply needed that back then. I had to somehow get out of this one music that was absolutely set for me at the time. At fourteen or fifteen, I just wanted to go somewhere else musically. I also listened to other things back then. Things that were more modern. That took me away from my roots for almost 20 years. But from 2001, I turned back to this old musical home and love, now of course with a broader background.

The records after this return were very successful.

BL: Let's put it this way: I had collected enough ideas. I never wanted to be a copy of the old one. And I was and still am lucky that the audience was generous enough to forgive me for that. That is not a matter of course. People obviously understood that I was getting older and didn't want to be confined to the role of a successor to Django Reinhardt.

We are sitting here together not far from Heidelberg. Heidelberg is a focal point of antiziganism research. Is your music political? 

BL: Not necessarily, no. Of course, I notice a lot of things and have also experienced myself that I'm not always the most welcome and often don't fit in with society's expectations. For me, of course, this feeling of exclusion has disappeared somewhat thanks to the many concerts all over the world. But; and I would like to leave it at that: It remains difficult.

I want to be quite frank. I have the feeling that your performance is not sufficiently understood and appreciated.

BL: Then I'll answer you with the same frankness: you can indeed see it that way. It's a problem of adaptation and demarcation. But one thing is clear: when such music is heard, when people talk about it, when people try to grasp and name its meaning, then it reflects on all of us as a Sinti community and does us good. Because that means recognition. And perhaps better times really will come at some point. There have been signs of this for some time. But as I said, it remains difficult.

In half an hour you will be on stage at the "Enjoy Jazz" Festival and play the closing concert and play the closing concert with Stochelo Rosenberg and Hono Winterstein. How would you explain your music to someone standing outside the door, undecided?

BL: I don't know. It's difficult to put into words without prior knowledge. But there's no substitute for music anyway. That means he would just have to listen to the music to understand it. Let it sink in. And if he has reservations, perhaps you should take him by the sleeve in a well-meaning and friendly way and gently pull him into this hall. The music will then explain itself.