Sex, Drugs, and Gypsy Jazz – A Series

What I imagine gypsy jazz to look like in 1937.

In the next three postings I will attempt to examine social forces of community that don’t come from bright and sunny activities together, but instead the after dusk happenings hidden away from children and the elderly.  Adult fun, mature/immature entertainment, potentially damaging risky behaviour, a post-dark meander through the desires of seemingly plain bureaucrats, school teachers, cops, and people of the cloth (fashion designers, not priests).  This too is community.  That, and it’s really fun to write about – even more fun to research.

Let’s see

how it all


Music and Rhythm of Community

Literally 56m from my front door (I measured) is La Pleine Lune.  This little bar is known the city over for offering good, live music every night.  For free.  Oh, and cheap beer and pastis too, which helps the university kids (and me).  My local watering hole is packed every night.  I know because I can see it from my living room.  I drop in from time to time to see whatever’s being played, but I never miss Monday nights: Gypsy Jazz Jam.  Difficult to find in Canada, gypsy jazz still exists as a popular music form in many European cities.  A Romani born Belgian, Django Reinhardt, is sometimes credited for starting and popularizing his version of jazz standards in Paris in the 1930s and 1940s.  While “gypsy” may be the exonym for Romani people (originally meaning Egyptian), the name is firmly stuck to this form of music.

So what does gypsy jazz have to do with community?  Uh…how about everything? In a quick search of Daily Gumboot posts I have found much discussion about watching music, but I think we’ve forgotten about people playing music as a builder of community.  Musicians on stage performing live, improvising, communicating between each other is magical to see.  Jazz epitomizes this.  Each player takes their turn to shine with the others backing them up, or they all play on top of each other in wild harmonies.  Throwing in a few mordents and trills with some staccato and ghost notes completely changes sound of the jazz standards in gypsy jazz.  Delicate at times and brazen at others, it’s not difficult to imagine the little jazz clubs and underground bodegas with the upright bass player, cigarette hanging from bopping head, churning out the engine for the butterfly fingering of the guitarist.  And that violin!  That just changes everything with sliding notes countering the quick-fingered tapping of the guitar.  Mmm.

I play guitar.  And I can tell you that gypsy jazz is a helluva long way from my abilities.  I’m still working on Blue Rodeo and The Beatles.  But regardless of ability there’s something incredibly unifying when about playing music together.  Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientis at McGill University, published a wonderful book called The World in Six Songs and tells the story of song and community throughout history.  I love parties when someone pulls out an instrument and the focus turns away from talking to singing and dancing together.  I made a New Year’s resolution to see live art at least once a week and have done so for the last nine years.  I think I’ll make another resolution to start playing with people more often – it just works really, really well to bring people closer together.

Gypsy jazz is but one form of music that brings in that beautiful improvisation and commune of musical connection, but damn is it ever a good one.  When it’s right around the corner from your house it’s easy to go.  I always feel bad for people who have to travel to go see live music.  Making sure there’s a place to experience and play music live, I argue, threads swaths of community together.

Maybe we should all increase our own live music quotas.

Put It Out There: Talking into community

AJ works in London as a rickshaw driver. He loves it.

He grew up in urban Bangalore and lives in London as a rickshaw operator.  “It’s kind of a busman’s holiday,” he explained in that Londonized Indian accent you sometimes catch in a movie.  He smiled a broad, a genuine grin, as he spoke.  “The bus driver spends all day behind the wheel and then when he goes on vacation he drives all over the countryside in a van.  That’s me, kind of.”

AJ puts it out there.  He has to.  If you were riding solo from Athens to London, the long way round through Spain and Portugal, you’d be putting it out there too.  And dear sweet Jesus did he ever put it out there.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Well, that’s not true – I see it all the time, just in super low doses.  AJ is the crystal meth of putting it out there, the double absinthe jaggerbomb.  One can learn a lot from a man like AJ.  I’ll tell you what I learned.

It was actually me who approached him in La Place de la Comedie in downtown Montpellier on

Watch the movie and you'll understand why it's here.

a Friday afternoon, just as the daytime workers were hopping in the TRAM and nightlifers were gearing up at the brasseries and bistros.  He was engaged in conversation standing beside his Kona, a cross-over bike he’d retrofitted as a touring bike.  Kona is a Vancouver company so I wondered if he were a fellow Canadian, a fellow tour cyclist.  The rest, as they say, is la histoire.  After minutes we launched into philosophical discussion, bike talk, and all the while AJ called out to passersby, a legitimate wellspring of energy and fervour.  I am no shy guy, really, yet I felt dwarfed next to this gregarious, fearless chatterbox, an Indian Dean Moriarty and accented Elwood P Dowd.

That night we visited with, well, everyone.  Old and young, interested and interesting.  AJ does not speak French and yet his immediate connection to people, like hummingbird to nectar, broke through with those bright eyes smiling and a “enjoy life!” being called out to the doldrums of social sinners, closed in their little lives.  The next day we rode our bikes down to the beach.  We saw AJ chase girls like a Jack Russel bent on a ball.  We’d sit watching the waves and AJ would pass talking with one group of girls, and then pass minutes later talking with another group.  We all laughed at his tenacity, his brilliant tenacity, and I caught myself staring an incarnation of outgoing I’d never seen before.  “Weeks on the road lacks certain…company, you know.”  It’d be easy to call fault to AJ’s shameless approach to the women he’d pass, but we decided to absorb it into the average that was his incredible…putting it out there.

The world needs AJs.  Sure, he’s probably taken as crazy as often as he makes someone laugh or think.  That’s society’s fault.  The world needs AJs because otherwise we’re left with those we know, those we avoid, and not much in between.

Talk more. Think less.

So I ask you: how often do you put it out there?  Do you talk with cashier who scans your groceries?  Do you get a giggle out of an old woman on the bus?  Do you ever just talk to someone without wanting anything in return?  Are you afraid to do it?  I admit that I sometimes am afraid.  I’m afraid of being mocked, rejected, or thought an idiot.  And my world is smaller because of it.  So today I am going to up the ante.  I’m going to put myself out there more than I did yesterday.  That’s how you make good community.

The Code of Community: Breaking Barriers Anyway Possible

Accessing a community is much like hacking into a bank’s computer system.  It either takes a code, mad esoteric nerd skills, or time.  When you don’t know the computer’s language, just add one power of magnitude to the difficulty of access.

As written in a previous post, I have tried to use the code of as my entrance into the system that is my new home, Montpellier, France.  And if you’ve parachuted into a new country before, where you don’t speak the language, you must use whatever codes and nerd abilities as you can muster to crack into an entire culture, one unsuspecting host at a time.  One of the main tools you may employ is “open-mindedness.”

Open-mindedness in action is saying yes, accepting difference even when it’s uncomfortable.

I arrived in the late afternoon into the Montpellier airport after a horribly long layover at Gatwick and an even longer period crunched into a window seat of an Airbus 319 from Toronto.  I left behind a snowstorm and walked out into palm trees and Mediterranean heated breeze.  Gorgeous, non?

I was picked up in Place de la Comédie and we walked to my host’s place.  An interesting and spiritual soul, we talked and drank some wine for a few hours.  Then the conversation moves to “naturalisme.”  I’m thinking nature, non?  “Oh, me too!  Totally love naturalisme.”  All of a sudden my host began pulling off shirts and pants.  Efficient too – buck naked in just a few seconds.

Open-mindedness is tested constantly in new places with new people.  So, as they say, when naked in Rome…  I’ve been to Wreck Beach and feel quite comfortable in the raw.  So, there I was, hours into my new community and the ice was long but broken between us.  I’d hacked into the mainframe.

I’ve been in my new community for nearly five days now and everything else has seemed easy and simple compared to that first night.  And the real work begins.  Opening the doors of this new community will indeed take understanding those social codes, lots of smiling, and a keen eye for those who may be my new community.

But the question hangs:  how far are you willing to go to be open-minded?  How far is too far?  Can you lose yourself by trying to fit in?