When it comes to gypsy jazz, there's one undisputed home. That place is Samois sur Seine, the home and resting place of the man who invented gypsy jazz - the great Django Reinhardt. For the past 50 years, gypsy jazzers from around the globe have descended on this little village on the Seine to jam together and keep the spirit of the music alive. This year we figured it was high time we checked it out 🙂
Getting ready for the trip
Me and Ben (that's us in the pic above) have been mates for over twenty years. We shared an apartment together in Spain years ago (in Murcia to be exact) and have a knack of being complete numpties in each others company. As individuals, we hold down jobs and support our kids. Together we somehow turn into a Laurel and Hardy double act.
As an avid gypsy jazz fan and amateur player, I've wanted to make the trip to Samois for years. This year it felt like the right time to do it.
I'd probably put more energy planning this than my own wedding (no, seriously). We always had a feeling something cataclysmic would go wrong during the journey. We'd forget a passport, have a major breakdown, get robbed at knifepoint - something along those lines.
Oh, and by the way we'd be doing the trip in a 1979 VW campervan known as 'Hux' that I bought last year. What could possibly go wrong?
Getting to Samois
Traveling from London, UK, we took the Dover to Dunkirk ferry crossing which neither of us had ever done (sheltered existence!). After a walk along the beach to pay our respects (Ben's Grandad was one of the last off the beach) we had a bite to eat, practiced some ropey French with the waitress and then took to the road.
For the next two hours we drove through villages and rural country lanes trying to find somewhere to camp. We finally chanced upon a sleepy, picturesque little village called Fromelles.
With a brasserie still open and a quiet car park that was, rather disconcertingly, the site of a battle in the World War I. We bought a bottle of wine, flipped open the pop top and settled in for the night.
After a quick wash and breakfast at the nearest service station, a few more befuzzled looks from the locals, it was time to clock up some miles and get to Samois.
Our plan was to get to Samois sur seine in one run.
And we did it without any issues! Good old Hux!
For our stay at Samois, we'd booked in for 3 nights at a village across the river called Hericy sur seine. Campsites were in short supply this year (2018) and one of the two - called Le Petit Barbeau - had been 'taken over by gypsies' according to local sources.
The only other campsite, the infamous Samoreau (more on this later) was impossible to get a pitch at. I came across a website called homecamper.com (a sort of 'airbnb for campsites') that helped us find the spot in Hericy sur seine.
Here it is below. The place was called MonBania, a Russian spa - the first in France according to proprietor Jean Baptiste - that had a small patch of land for a few pitches.
We shared the camp with a few other very cool people who were also going to the festival. A German couple, Roland and Heike (who came in an awesome Mercedes 680 van - see pic), and their marvellous friends Martina and Olaf. Two couples from Spain - Jorge and his family (in a quintessential caravan) and a young couple (Maria and Guille) who 'roughed it out back' in what looked like a one man tent!
Campervan pitched. All sorted. It was time to head to the festival.
Festival Django Reinhardt aka "Samois sur seine"
Finally, it was time to check out the festival.
To honour Django and his music the festival known as 'Festival Django Reinhardt' has been held on an island next to Samois sur seine for over 50 years.
That is, until two years ago when the island on which the festival took place was waterlogged. After severe flooding, the festival was moved to the grounds of the Fontainebleau palace which is a few miles west of the village.
Who was Django Reinhardt?
In case you're reading this and not really sure who Django was, he was the founding father of Gypsy Jazz and also one of the most respected guitarists to ever live (some, including us, would say the best). Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel...they all reference Django as a major influence.
Django Reinhardt lived from 1910 to 1953 and popularised a form of music now known as Gypsy Jazz.
Gypsy jazz was a blend of traditional Parisien music - called Valse Musette (translated as 'music hall') and American jazz. No one had blended these two forms of music until Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli did.
The rest is history, as they say.
Django was laid to rest in Samois, hence why it's become something of a pilgrimage every year to visit his birthplace to play his music.
The Festival in Fontainebleau park
As mentioned, the festival took place in the Fontainebleau park. According to some hard core gypsy jazz people we got chatting to, the festival organisers were repositioning it as a jazz festival. Which kind of figured, as what felt like about half the acts weren't gypsy jazz.
You still had gypsy jazz royalty like Bireli Lagrene and Stochelo Rosenberg on stage (hear them below) but also old jazz luminaries like George Benson in action. Bizarrely to me, the headline acts weren't gypsy jazz. For a gypsy jazz festival, that felt a bit weird.
But I didn't worry - as my friend Geoffrey has already given me a tip off: the best gypsy jazz is heard in the campsites, not at the festival anyway.
Here's Bireli and Stochelo playing Minor Swing.
The real festival begins...The Shuttle Bus Jam
So, mildly disappointed with the official festival (not enough GJ) we jumped on the shuttle bus and then the real festival began.
The bus was full. With not a lot of space to move around in, a little jam started up.
Take a listen, it was incredible!
It turns out these guys (at least the people you can see here - guitarist Damien and violinist Colin) are from Canadian gypsy jazz band Tcha Badjo. Listen out for the harmonica solo at the end. Harmonica in gypsy jazz...crazy!
Then they fired up a mean version of Minor Swing...
Pumped by the shuttle bus jams, it was time to hit the campsite.
The campsite to beat all campsites - The Samoreau Jams
Along with Samois island, Samoreau (on east side of the Seine, almost opposite Samois) has gone down in Django folklore as a hot spot for gypsy jazz. And it didn't disappoint.
Here's an excerpt of a jam at the little bar on the campsite.
And here's another jam in one of the many caravan awnings...
For me the best bits were around a large tree in the middle of the campsite. The energy was incredible!
Want to go to Samois? Here's what you should take...
So you fancy going yourself? Cool, you won't regret it. Here’s what I recommend you take if you’re thinking of taking the Django pilgrimage.
For jamming take a cheapish guitar
If you’re planning to join in at the jams you’re obviously going to need a guitar. If you’re in the market for a gypsy jazz guitar, it turns out Samois is probably the best place to grab a bargain as many of the top luthiers have stalls in the festival grounds.
The thing is they're mostly selling high end guitars ($1000 upwards). If you’re not ready to drop 4 figures on a gypsy jazz guitar just yet, bring your own. For the purposes of Samois a cheap option is definitely ok to begin with. Sure, rocking up with a Dupont MD50 is nice, but pulling out a super expensive guitar comes with a couple of issues.
First, you’d better be good at playing it, or you’ll look ridiculous, secondly, it’s a target for thievery. I didn’t come across any robbing while I was there, but I’d imagine it does happen. Taking a cheap alternative (like the Cigano) means you won’t worry about it. Also, the inevitable knocks it gets while on the road are less of an issue.
Take one of those rucksack style gig bags
You see a lot of people wandering around with those rucksack gig bags to carry their guitars. Carrying a hard case about can be a pain - with it on your back gives you super flexibility, letting you freely cycle around the area with guitar on back.
Download the iReal Pro app
Unless you already have a repertoire of 100+ songs, you’re gonna get caught out on songs. The best advice is to buy the iReal pro app which is the best place for gypsy jazz chord sheets that I know of. It's not free, but it's worth it IMHO.
One big regret of mine is that I didn’t practice in the lead up to the festival. In hindsight, I should have been drilling songs for a few months in the build up to the festival. In my gypsy jazz band we have about 7 songs we play so far. 7 songs gets you nowhere at Samois. Treat it like prep for a running race. I arrived totally out of practice.
Take a decent map, but really your phone’s sat nav is all you need
If you’re going by train or flying you can probably skip these section entirely, but if you’re considering driving a good map of northern France is nice to have (even if it’s purely for comfort). I bought one of those maps of France in a binder and opened it once the entire trip. You don’t need the whole of France, even northern France is pretty huge. We picked up an ordinance survey of [Port du Calais etc] which is all you need. When we got lost on our first night, that map really helped.
Sat nav works a treat, but you have to make sure your roaming is on and you have sufficient data available. Check your mobile provider before you hit the road.
Bikes are nice for getting about
It was a last minute decision to take bikes, but I’m glad we did. Samois is rather rural and the distance between festival and campsites (certainly Samoreau) is a lot of miles walking. Bikes get you about super quick, and cycling along the Seine was a real treat. Beware though, the village of Samois is on a big hill.
Take fully charged power banks for off-grid camping (and make sure you take plenty of portable lights)
Power banks are ridiculously cheap these days. Buy a couple and get them charged up before the trip. We also took a ton of portable lighting devices (too many probably). We found head torches like the ones below are perfect for walking / cycling at night. Here's our Blair Witch Project rendition...
Other stuff worth taking...
- French phrase book (just for the hell of it, you won’t use it)
- France road travel kit (buy beforehand, don’t get stung like me)
All in all it was an amazing experience. The music was best gypsy jazz I'd ever heard (actually the best jazz I'd ever heard), the people were fantastic, the setting gorgeous, weather pleasant and food simply incredible.
Staying at Samoreau campsite would be the ultimate but you’d have to arrive much earlier in the week I think. We got lucky and met some great people in our mini campsite (Mon Bania) who we had a lot of laughs with.
My only reservation was the festival itself - I'd like to see more gypsy jazz, and ideally see it move back to its roots in Samois sur seine. But regardless, the spirit lives on in the campsites so does it really matter who's on the main stage? No, not really.
Thanks to all at MonBania for sharing their pics, videos and being genuinely very cool 🙂
Other titbits / stuff you may want to know:
- (For the campervan nerds) Hux is a 1979 Type 2, Devon Moonraker Conversion. He'd had new tyres fitted and a new starter motor (didn't want to risk him not starting when boarding the ferry). He'd had a new reupholstered pop top and cushions too.
- France is great for touring in a campervan. Sunday is an amazing day to travel too, relatively empty roads though not great for groceries etc (most shops are closed, except kebab shops bizarrely).
- Stop overs. On the way there we stayed at Fromelles which was nice. On the way back we stayed over at Montreuil-Sur-Mer - a perfect stop over location and good craft beer bar. In fact we met fellow Samois people there too 🙂
Any other Q's drop them in the comments.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.