One's a Montrealer, of Taiwanese-Canadian heritage. The other's from Belgium, of Flemish-Gypsy heritage.
But what guitarist Denis Chang and violinist Tcha Limberger have in common is a deep love of Manouche or Gypsy jazz – and the drive to spend years immersed in its culture and learning from its practitioners all over Europe.
And you can hear some of what they've learned in a trio concert in Ottawa this Thursday evening.
Limberger, 37, is blind. He has taught himself eight languages, most (including Hungarian, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish) to give him the background on and allow him to understand musicians from Eastern Europe, including those playing Gypsy jazz. In his teens, he learned Django Reinhardt-style guitar playing from masters such as Fapy Lafertin and Koen De Cauter. At 17, he started studying the violin, inspired by stories from his grandfather, the legendary Manouche musician Piotto Limberger, and recordings of Toki Horvath. By the time he was 21, he left Belgium for Budapest, where he took classical and tzigane classes from Horvath Bela. He has founded a traditional Magyar Nota band, played folk music from Transylvania in the Kalotaszeg Trio, and started the jazz violin quintet Les Violons de Bruxelles. He also plays completely improvised music with guitarist Herman Schamp.
Chang, 32, has repeatedly learned from Manouche players in trips to Europe, including learning to understand the Romany language. He has performed abroad with top Gypsy jazz musicians including the Rosenberg Trio, Joscho Stephan, Gonzalo Bergara, Paulus Schäfer, and Limberger, and has toured with his own Gypsy Jazz Quartet across Canada, including playing six shows at this year's Montreal Jazz Festival.
Chang and Limberger met two years ago at a Django Reinhardt festival in Washington state. They've played on one recording together, as sidemen for a Dutch guitarist.
Their Ottawa show will be at NECTAR, the New Edinburgh Community and Arts Centre; they will be joined by Chang's rhythm guitarist, William Dickerson. Thanks to Ottawa guitarist Justin Duhaime who was personally eager to hear them play, it became a last-minute addition to a tour that Chang's quartet has undertaken of the U.S. and Ontario/Quebec.
Last weekend, they played the Django Jamboree in Louisville, Kentucky. After Ottawa, they will continue to Perth on Friday.
Chang's usual violinist is Torontonian Drew Jurecka, but he's so busy touring with Jill Barber and other jazz musicians that he wasn't available. “Tcha is a friend of mine. We were planning on doing a recording project unrelated to this tour, and I thought, if I cannot get the best violin player in Canada, what do I do? Well, I get the best violin player in Belgium!” Chang laughed.
Gypsy jazz that's rarely heard outside of Manouche communities
When OttawaJazzScene.ca talked to both of them last week, Limberger had just arrived from Paris that day, and the three had spent the afternoon deciding on repertoire.
“I was agreeably surprised by the nice choice of tunes: some compositions of Denis, and some traditional Manouche songs – Manouche is the Gypsy community whom I belong halfly, because I'm half Manouche, half Flemish. Django [Reinhardt] was Manouche. Or Sinti which is the same thing, but I'm not going to complicate things. And yes, some traditional ones, and then some others, like one really you would call Gypsy jazz things, that are composed by Manouche people in the last 20, 30 years maybe,” Limberger said.
Chang said that “outside of the Manouche community, it's usually always the same repertoire, so to speak, and I decided I would do something a little bit different. I can't say that I speak the language very well, but I have some knowledge of it. And why not play these songs that no one has the opportunity to hear outside of Manouche communities?”
So the Ottawa show will have less of the standard Django Reinhardt repertoire? “Well, yes and no, in the sense that I'm not really going far away from that, either. But it's stuff that people would not always have the opportunity to hear,” Chang said.
Limberger said his father, Vivi, used to sing some of the songs they will play, which is how he learned them – but they're not heard often because most bands who play Gypsy jazz don't know the Romany language.
A language that Jane Austen could not have written in
Both Chang and Limberger speak, and sing in, Romany. It's an Indo-Aryan language, which has many different dialects and can also include words from Eastern European languages like Hungarian or Romanian. Limberger said that, depending on the origins of a song, he might have to change some words to make it understandable for the Gypsy community in Belgium, for example.
Knowing the language allows them to understand the lyrics and the meaning behind the songs. But it's not like singing in English or French.
“Unfortunately it's not a very rich language. So there's a lot of vocabulary which we replace by German or French and that doesn't make it nicer,” Limberger said. “It's a weird thing. But I like to hear people speak it and sing it.”
Chang said he had observed that Romany was “a very, very, very direct language. And it's very similar to a lot of their culture, which is very direct and simple. There's not so much poetry in the language, because everything's very direct. You can say I'm hungry in so many ways in English and in French. As far as I know in Romany there's pretty much just one way.”
“I have just been reading Pride and Prejudice, and I think of Mr. Collins, who speaks in a very, very bombastic language and every phrase is like at least three times as long as it ought to be. And in Romany you couldn't do that, at all. There's no possible way. You just say things flat-out,” Limberger said.
Chang said he has been researching “as many of these Romany songs as possible” – at least 50 so far. And with a few exceptions, “most songs are extremely simple and always about the same things. It's either going to be about love or lost love, about food or drinking, or God.”
Limberger: immersing himself in Hungarian culture to learn their music
But what the Ottawa audience should hear, Limberger said, is “a meeting of two persons and bringing together things that we like in common. And then just play and whilst playing try to make the best of each and every note.”
In the last decade, Limberger said, he's been moving away from this style of music, and into jazz and free improv and traditional Hungarian music. This wider viewpoint may be because he was half-Manouche, he said. Or because he “grew up with the music played by Manouche, but looked at from other points of view, by colleagues of my father who were not Manouche and who explained to me things about musical theory. and also about the origins of some pieces that Manouche might think themselves are Gypsy music and other people know that they are, for example, Hungarian.”
“As a child as well, many people came to our house who had been travelling through the world, and I always asked them for tapes of music from wherever: India, Africa, Indonesia. And I started collecting instruments. I've always been interested in different things.”
He decided to learn Hungarian from the inside, gaining insights into its music “which I could not have got any other way.”
[I found out] what their breakfast is like and what their hangovers are like, and what is theirs.
– Tcha Limberger
He learned the language and lived with the people. He found out “what their breakfast is like and what their hangovers are like, and what is theirs.”
“I lived in Hungary for one year and a half. I got involved with very brutal, primitive, angry Hungarians who didn't like my practicing violin and almost smashed my violin.”
“As you live with people and you speak their language and you live their everyday life, you get much more of an insight into the music. When we were on tour with the Budapest Gypsy Orchestra, for example, we would sit in this big bus, there's seven musicians, and there's always somebody telling one or another stories. And the cello player, he has played with in fact basically everyone who was important in that style, so he knows a lot of stories. And he would just sit and tell them, and if I wouldn't have spoken Hungarian, I would just sit there and wait until be able to play one or another tune that I tried to learn, which is different, not the same thing. And then, of course, there's the actual practical aspect of the fact that all the melodies have lyrics and if you know the way the language works, it easier to play the melody right.”
For example, he said, the only rhythm in Irish slow ballads is in the lyrics. If you don't know the language, “you would read a text and put all the points, commas, and question marks in totally weird and different places – if you don't know the language and you start to try to play the melody. You would end up doing strange things.”
Chang: Gypsy musicians play like they are
Chang said he discovered the music of Django Reinhardt about 15 years ago, and loved it because of how well Django played the guitar. “He was playing jazz and I could hear elements of classical music and melodies that made me want to dance. So I found everything I liked in there. And from there, a friend told me to listen to Gypsy players after Django because Django was Gypsy and he influenced a lot of Gypsies later on, who took Django's music and simplified it into their own folk music. And I discovered the whole Gypsy Jazz world through that.”
But one day, he was shocked to be told he would never be able to play like a Gypsy because he wasn't one. “And I thought, 'Why not? What is it that is different?'” So, in his early 20s, he started going to Europe on and off, and making friends with different Gypsy (and a few non-Gypsy) musicians.
“And I noticed there's definitely a way that, I would not say that it's a superior way, but I definitely noticed that they do play a certain way, that many non-Gypsies do not. It's hard to describe. But if I can say just one simple thing: a lot of them, they play like they are. Whether they are good musicians or not. And I can appreciate that, even if they're bad musicians, they're very honest about the way they play. And they're very confident in the way they play [Limberger laughs.] I hear that whether they're good or not. I try to do that myself, to play very confidently.”
Chang also studied classical music and music theory at McGill University – a completely separate study from his Gypsy jazz music. That gave him the theoretical background, he said, to teach the music, and he has set up a website with video lessons, mostly on Gypsy jazz, including some from Limberger.
“I'm very passionate about learning and teaching and sharing knowledge in as an authentic way as possible. So I try to bring out the best in each artist because sometimes some people don't know necessarily how to explain things so I help them.”
A CD of just Limberger, but on many instruments
After the quartet's tour, Chang will be producing a new recording for Limberger. It's a solo album – but it won't sound like that, because Limberger will be repeatedly overdubbing himself. It will be a collection of long-forgotten Gypsy songs, with Limberger singing and playing guitar, violin, clarinet, or “whatever he can get his hands on”, Chang said.
It's a process which Limberger is used to: as an adolescent, he had a multi-track TASCAM recorder, and “every single second when I didn't have to go to school. I made a lot of recordings of me myself playing a whole Bolivian orchestra or whatever. For me it's fun to go back and see what happens if I do this now.”
"He's really quite a phenomenon.”
During our three-way conversation, Chang risked embarrassing Limberger several times, by praising him and urging Ottawa audiences to come out to discover him.
“I have personally worked with many famous musicians but I think that Tcha is very exceptional. He has some of the most incredible ears I've ever heard, quite really a genius. It's not that he's not famous, but that he's not about fame, and he's more about the passion and the search for music. So that's why he might not be as famous as some others who will seek glory, but that does not make him any lesser.
“I would really, really like people to come not for me but for Tcha. He's really quite a phenomenon.”
– Alayne McGregor
You can hear Tcha Limberger, Denis Chang, and William Dickerson at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 13, at NECTAR (the New Edinburgh Community and Arts Centre), 255 MacKay Street at Dufferin. Tickets are $20 in advance (recommended) and $25 at the door. You can purchase tickets in advance at www.eventbrite.ca/e/tcha-limberger-and-denis-chang-tickets-13771680467 .