Research in Paris, Day 4: Tzigane Jazz



This is my great-great grandmother Mathilde. She was the last generation of our Romani family to live, though briefly, as a nomad, travelling up and down the Danube from Germany to Hungary, dancing in riparian towns along the way. In the picture, she’s posing in her dancing garb. She’s pretty fabulous.

Obviously I’ve never met her, but I love the idea I have of her from my grandmother’s stories. Her stories about Mathilde are the reason I became a dancer and a fortune teller when I was younger– I set myself the task of reviving old family trades that otherwise would have died out with Mathilde and the Holocaust. Now, being a writer lets me revive all manner of things, some I’ve seen and some I haven’t, so I can only hope this novel breathes good life into something.

On day four, Len, Sean, and Jen and I went to Monmartre and explored the windy streets, the vendors, the cafes and drank pastisse in the sun at a table on the cobblestone street, and chocolate chaud in The Two Windmills. That’s what you do there. Tourists and pigeons dotted the grass below the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.

Later that night we ventured to L’atlier Charonne for some Manouche or Tzigane (Gypsy) Jazz. They have performances every night from 9-12 and oh holy chickadees it was incredible. We saw the Moreno orkestra tzigane quartet, and the performers, though in their later years, had more energy than most of the young-ones I’ve see on stage. Two men played steel string guitars with the ghost of Django Reinhardt in their fingers. At one point, they both played the same guitar, occasionally holding each other’s hands to show that yes, they really can play that quickly, and yes, they really are that good. And for a few songs, a woman sang with a voice as powerful as a sob, but she was laughing almost continuously. She brought the microphone around the crowd, a happy mix of Parisians, tourists, and Romanies, and good-naturedly teased some audience members into singing the chorus. She wore a magenta and violet ankle-length skirt with ruffles that my grandmother would have gone mad for, and she snapped her fingers above her head and swayed her hips as she warbled her laugh-cry songs. 

That evening, I noticed that as the Romani flower sellers came along, the majority of the audience who adored the performers reviled the sellers with icy sneers and without so much as a non, merci. The only person the flower seller could coax into buying a rose was the guitarist, who seemed to give into his “help a brother out” appeal. He gifted it then to the singer, who twirled it in her left hand as she smoked with her right.

This is the evening that I realized I had come to the right place to research Tzigane Jazz and recreate what these performances might have been like from 1920’s-1950’s. Romani culture changes, of course, like any other, but some things, like music and dance, change very little. They simply enrich. I also realized that I’m going to need a hell of a lot more than a week to get what I need to write this novel.

Did I mention that the Tzigane Cultural Center is closed in August? It is, I discovered that day. Another reason that the research trip, while fruitful, didn’t quite fill me up. I’m currently seeking grants that might allow Len and I to live in Paris next summer, preferably funded, so I can continue my research. So, if you hear of anything, help a sister out, will you? 😉



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