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Lulo Reinhardt - in the name of the father, the cousin and the great uncle

Lulo Reinhardt understands the appeal of the style of jazz known as gypsy swing.

“It’s like blues,” says the guitarist with the famous surname. “It’s simple and direct and you can tell how the musicians are feeling, if they’re happy or sad, and that’s why you hear it everywhere. Once you had only the Hot Club de France. Now you have the Hot Club of New York, Sydney, you name it – and that’s great because I love that music. But I like to find other great music too.”
Reinhardt grew up with gypsy swing. Even before he was given his first guitar at the age of five, he heard his family playing all the time. When his father, Bawo, started showing him the chords he needed to play along on those family sessions, Lulo became so besotted with the instrument that he could hardly put it down.

Playing guitar, he was discovering, was what Reinhardts did and the most famous example of this was his late great uncle, Django, the first European to be recognised in the home of jazz as a true master and innovator of the form, whose partnership with violinist Stephane Grappelli founded the Hot Club style.

“My dad wasn’t a great guitarist, he was more of a singer – a very good singer – and bass player,” says Reinhardt, “and when he’d taught me all he knew, I went next door to my cousin Mike. He was the Django disciple and we’d play for hours. He taught me all the tunes that Django played and any time there was a cause for celebration – and often when there was no cause for celebration – we’d play for rest of the family.”

This made Lulo’s baptism of fire – his first onstage performance, which took place in front of four thousand people – that bit less nerve-wracking.

“Another cousin, who was Mike’s rhythm guitarist, broke his hand in an accident and couldn’t play that concert,” he says, acknowledging that hand injuries, like gypsy swing – Django Reinhardt famously lost the use of two fingers on his fretting hand after a fire but didn’t let that hamper his virtuosity – seem to run in the family. “My dad just said, Okay, it’s your turn now and pushed me onto the stage. I was nervous, of course, but years of playing at weddings and parties made me feel comfortable in front of an audience, and I think in the end I enjoyed that first gig.”

He went on to play semi-professionally, following his father’s example as a bass player then playing rhythm guitar, while holding down a variety of jobs, including painter and decorator, barman – eventually bar owner, with three bars in his home town, Koblenz in Germany – UPS driver and guitar teacher, before he was able to go fully professional in his late thirties eight years ago.

“I’m happy now,” he says. “I only ever wanted to play music but you have to eat. Now I get to travel the world and that really opens you up to new kinds of music. I know these days you can find all sorts of things on the internet but I’m not sure you get the same feeling sitting at a computer as you do, say, experiencing Gnawan music for the first time in Morocco. I did that two years ago and it was amazing, so soulful.”

His new CD, Bawo, named for his father, who died earlier this year, reflects the influences that Reinhardt has picked up on his travels and fitted in entirely naturally alongside the gypsy swing style. As well as Gnawan flavours, which he achieves with the help of a new foot pedal that allows him to get close to the sound of the Gnawan gimbri, or bass lute, he and his Latin Swing Project incorporate Brazilian, flamenco and Celtic styles.

“People expect a Reinhardt to always play gypsy swing,” he says, “and I still do some of that. But I go back and listen to Django a lot and, you know, he never stood still. Latterly he was playing electric guitar like a bebop musician. He was always looking for new ways to find excitement in music, and for me, he’s the best example that you can stay true to your roots without staying in the same place forever.”

From The Herald, May 30, 2013.

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