Nestled in the South Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn is Barbés,
a quaint performance space that brings a little bit of Paris into
the concrete jungle. Owned by two French musicians, Barbés is part
listening room, part art film mecca, and the general community
center for the area’s artists and musicians. On most Sundays, if you
wander into the back room, you can find one of the city’s best-kept
musical secrets. Guitarist Stephane Wrembel holds court during this
weekly gig and not only pushes the boundaries of what is considered
Gypsy jazz, but gathers influences ranging from Greek and North
African music to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd into an entrancing,
yet accessible style.
After graduating from Berklee, Wrembel planted himself in
Brooklyn among a healthy community of musicians, artists, and
other creative types that bolstered and inspired his muse. Unlike
many of his derivative contemporaries, Wrembel pushed the
ghost of Django Reinhardt aside when making his latest album,
Origins—a collection of fresh and sometimes cinematic acoustic
tunes full of precise picking and hummable melodies.
Wrembel’s music caught the ear of Woody Allen (who happens
to have a deep love for all things Gypsy jazz), which led
to Wrembel’s composition, “Big Brother,” being chosen for the
soundtrack to Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. That partnership
continued, and soon after, Allen asked Wrembel to write the
theme for Midnight in Paris, which Wrembel performed at the
2012 Academy Awards. It was quite a break for the DIY musician,
who reflects on his big year by sharing with us his affinity
for stargazing, his compositional style, and why he views the
Django community as one big competition.
Tell me about your childhood
in France. When did you first
pick up the guitar?
First, I was playing the
piano. I’m originally from
Fontainebleau–which is the
home of Impressionism. I
studied piano at age 4 and
was classically trained in the
Impressionist style by an
old piano teacher who knew
Debussy, so I was trained in
that old traditional school. I
started playing guitar when I
was 15 and I was playing more
’70s rock like Pink Floyd and
Zeppelin. When I was about
19 or 20 I really wanted to
expand my horizons so I practiced
Django stuff, jazz, Indian
music, African music, and stuff
Did your parents push you
I have two sisters, and my mom
really wanted us to play an
instrument. We started with the
piano because that is what she
knew. She wanted us to continue
with an instrument and
when I was 15 I said, “I really
wanted to play the guitar.”
When I was a teenager I really
loved David Gilmour—he is
still my favorite—Frank Zappa,
Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page.
Loved Andy Summers, too.
So Django wasn’t one of your
primary influences when you
Django’s music has always been
around, especially because I am
from the area where he settled.
For us, it was just traditional
music, much like bluegrass is
here. It’s always been there but I
never really paid attention to it.
It was only when I studied jazz
and French traditional music that
I really started to discover him.
Did you move to the States
specifically to study music?
I have been fascinated with
the United States since I was a
kid. I always wanted to move
here. It was a childhood dream.
Being a musician, going to
Berklee was another dream
from when I was a teenager.
When I was 26 I got a scholarship
and was able to go get my
tutorings. I concentrated mostly
on jazz and all kinds of world
music. I studied Indian music
there, Western African music,
and Greek music a little bit.
What was it that most interested
you in those types of music?
To me, music is only one
thing—it’s just music.
Different countries approach
the language from different
directions, but they all melt
together at the end. Indian
music is very good for studying
the architecture of rhythm;
you understand rhythm way
better with Indian music. And
their ways of practicing are
amazing. With African music,
they have an amazing rhythm
and the way they use certain
colors of percussion, I can
do on guitar. The jazz music
is very important because it
makes you a more confident
improviser over complicated
When did you make a choice to
focus more on acoustic music?
I don’t really focus on acoustic
music, it has just been added
to my playing. It was only
really when I discovered Django
that I learned to play acoustic
instruments. If you give me an
electric guitar, I can play like a
real electric guitar player, you
know? It’s just been added to
my arsenal of techniques. I find
more power in the acoustic
instrument than the electric
instrument. It’s also because
that is what’s happening [with
me] now. I also use electric
sometimes, although I haven’t
recorded with it yet but I have
projects for that.
Bob Holo on Stephanie Wrembel's Nouveau Guitar
When Luthier Bob Holo first met Stephane Wrembel,
the idea of creating a guitar for the picker hadn’t
crossed his mind. But then the two spent a night
talking about tone and inspiration. “That guitar
wouldn’t exist without guys like Stephane. I met
Stephane, Adrien Moignard, Mathieu Chatelain, and
Gonzalo Bergara at a festival in Boston in the mid-
2000s and it really seemed as if they were starting a
rebirth of this music in a ‘new school,’ so to speak,”
remembers holo. due to this original approach,
holo decided to create the “nouveau” model, while
also taking some of Wrembel’s advice to heart.
He was moving more and more toward the
acoustic side and we had a long talk one night,” Holo explains. “he told me, ‘Bob,
don’t live in the shadow of Django, live in the light of Django. He would want it that
way.’ It’s easy to forget that with the familiarity of his music these days and the postbop/
acid/atonal jazz that has come since, but back when Django was playing his
music, it was way out there.” The idea stuck with Holo, who was deep into studying
the guitars of some of the early master builders.
After analyzing some of the builders who moved from Italy to France in the 1930s—
such as Busato, Dimauro, and Bucolo—Holo learned that they had taken inspiration
from romantic guitar builders from the previous century. “They cut their teeth in Italy
building budget guitars for various companies and then they came to France to build
their names, inspired by political freedom and the birth of jazz,” says Holo.
Holo was not only looking at the established masters of the craft for guidance, he
also talked with many young artists to see what they seek in a Gypsy-style guitar. “as
I talked with these incredible guitarists, they’d always say something like, ‘oh Bob, I
played this [vintage maker] and it was so beautiful. It had this [element of tone] and it
had that [characteristic of attack or decay] and I was in love, but it was just so hard to
play and in the end I’m not sure that the tone would fully translate to modern work.’
Throughout all of this I kept hearing Stephane’s voice: ‘Light of Django ... innovate.’”
The finished version of Wrembel’s nouveau sports a western red cedar top with
the back and sides containing a layered mixture of honduran rosewood, walnut, and
mahogany. Holo went with a 670 mm scale length and stuck with the honduran rosewood
for the fretboard. The guitar was set up with Argentine Savarez .010 strings, but
just like Django, he switches out the first string for a .011.
With a background in sound and design, Holo began the journey to understand
why these old guitars sounded like they did. He also wanted to incorporate the ideas
that modern players were asking for. “I kept building and taking them to festivals and
getting feedback,” says Holo. “One year I asked Mathieu Chatelain for his feedback
and he said, ‘here’s my feedback: how much do you want for it?’ My jaw must have
dropped because he started laughing and said, ‘You should have seen the look on
your face just then, but I’m totally serious. How much?’”
Holo opened shop in the Pacific Northwest soon after, and new-school Gypsy
players began knocking down his door. “It has been a real-life epiphany working with
them to give them the kind of tool they want. It’s incredibly gratifying work.” For more
information on Holo’s guitars, visit hologuitar.com.