Music history is characterized by cultural transmigrations: musicians traveled medieval trade routes between Europe and the Middle East, Mozart borrowed Turkish-inflected melodies, rock and roll was nurtured in the cross-Atlantic lovefest between early British rockers and African-American blues musicians, reggae and ska were the offspring of Jamaican musicians and American radio waves. Arguably, no other genre embodies the cross-cultural the way that jazz does: if the music landed on American soil, and often even if it didn’t, it was ripe for the jazz picking. Today, it’s hard to even draw definitive lines between jazz, blues, rock, calypso, world music, and a million other shades of improvisation and syncopation.
Halifax-based 7-piece band Gypsophilia started out in 2004 as a Django Rheinhardt tribute, meant to play only one show at the Halifax Jazz Festival, in honor of the Roma master. But the great musical chemistry was unstoppable, and before they knew it they were booking churches and bigger venues, and people were lining up around the block to hear them. Audience members started coming in costume and swing dancing, and before long the group was a Halifax phenomenon with a reputation as a ridiculously fun party band. They started dropping the Django covers and started composing their own tunes, drawing on the varied musical backgrounds of their members, some of whom have played reggae, klezmer, or country, some of whom are classically trained, and others who come from a strong jazz background. As guitarist and percussionist Ross Burns explains, “Everybody has multiple musical backgrounds. It’s the nature of music these days — everyone has many musical hats instead of specializing. We’re all postmodern, we all grew up listening to music from all over the world.”
I wanted to know more about Ross’s thoughts on fusing musical traditions:
Nancy Berman (NB): Do you think the trend toward fusion is a form of cultural appropriation?
Ross Burns (RB): People have to be sensitive to the fact that you’re learning about things from around the world. But it’s not a new thing that musicians fuse different cultures. Whether it’s Jewish musicians or Roma musicians that are traveling and assimilating different influences, people fall in love with cultures and sounds and want to explore them in different settings. Still, you have to do it with love and integrity, you have to be sensitive to it and care about it. This is definitely not a get-rich-quick scene, it has much more to do with love and passion. Fusion and cross-pollination is integral to music. And it goes in every direction. Musicians are omnivores.
NB: Is your focus on improvisation?
RB: We have maybe a little less emphasis on improvisation than say a jazz band with long solo statements. In every song we have improvised solos, but the emphasis is on the collective, on the arrangements and the interlocking nature of the compositions. The organism is greater than the sum of its parts. On stage we feel free to create new stuff, and we turn on a dime if the party goes a certain way. We are always excited about spontaneous moments in live performance. That’s a big part of why we love what we do.
We’re in the process of recording our fifth record. All of our recordings are of original music only. It’s been important to us because we know that there are so many great musicians doing traditional Roma jazz or Django jazz, so we realized that the way we could be the best is by being ourselves, not by trying to sound like another stylistic idiom. We let whatever influences come to bear on the music: Balkan, klezmer, Brazilian percussion, organ, keys, synthesizers, handclaps. The band gives us the chance to express our musical selves from a strong unified launching pad but not feel limited by it.
NB: Do people always dance?
RB: Yes, when there’s room. We’ve had a lot of fun being a party band, because we can make it happen! Our music is not about sitting down and listening quietly. We want to get the audience engaged. It’s not art music where we want you to stand back and watch us do our thing. We’re here for the audience and we will do what’s necessary for people to have a good time and enjoy themselves!
Definitely a party you don’t want to miss.
Gypsophilia plays Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill (1254 Mackay) Saturday November 15 at 8:30 p.m. ($16.50), 10:15 p.m. ($11.50), and 12 a.m. (free).