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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 like that.
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 chord progressions.
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.