Interview with Tcha Limberger, Manouche multi-instrumentalist and vocalist

by Siv B. Lie

Paul Nicholas | Photo of Tcha Limberger | photograph | United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland | mus_00130 Rights held by: Paul Nicholas | Licensed by: Paul Nicholas | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Paul Nicholas – Private Archive

TL: Well the recording I’m about to send is one of the last concerts of a band that was called Romani. [The album] was reissued last year [in 2015]. It’s the old one plus some extras, which are not actually [from the band] Romani, but vaguely related, because it’s just Koen [De Cauter] playing.

SL: So it’s Koen with totally different musicians?

TL: Yeah. [There are also] a couple of [tracks on the album] with my father singing. One of the last concerts of that band was recorded in Antwerpen, just outside my door [laughs], so you have the tram passing by because it was one of those days where they try to keep the cars out of the city by telling people not to use them, as a vague memory of the seventies when there was a crisis and every Sunday was without cars. You were not allowed to use your car because there was a so-called petrol crisis. And so on that day, the owner of the place called Patin, William, said, ‘Will you come and play? That would be nice.’ So we came with Romani, which is Koen De Cauter and his son Dajo De Cauter on double bass, and my father, Vivi Limberger, and myself on violin and some vocals every now and then. I was just trying a new violin that day. And my father is in totally top form. I still remember the concert as one of the best times I’ve played with him. So he’s accompanying and singing, Koen is on guitar on that track, and I am on violin and singing a little bit. Yeah, that’s it. It’s a drinking song, Me Hum Mato.

SL: Do you know anything about the origins of Me Hum Mato?

TL: No. I think it came to us via Schnuckenack [Reinhardt].

SL: Was it one of those Daumenickel Triska songs?

TL: I kind of think so. Although it sounds less like that. I mean [Triska songs such as] Tchavo and Tu Djaial and Man Hi Tschi have a certain... Me Hum Mato seems a bit different. But I don’t exactly know. [...]

SL: What you call the ‘new manouche’ style, does it mostly come down to using thin picks and playing lots of notes, or are there other techniques that are different?

TL: Yeah, well, there are different schools. And then these are also rough generalisations. But it seems to me that the French school, like Biréli, started to use these thin picks, and using the side that is not normally used for playing to get a thicker sound with it. Within that French school you have the very new guys like Adrien Moignard who really start using many modal ideas as well, what they call ‘modern phrasing’. There’s a young student who came to my place and said, ‘I heard this thing’ — I think it was Sébastien Giniaux playing a melody, I forget now, and he said, ‘Actually, it would have been so nice without the rhythm section’, because he was moving so far away from the harmony that the rhythm players were doing ... that it kind of felt so disconnected in a way. And also, on its own, it might stand much more [on] his ground. I see what he means.

SL: Well yeah, Sébastien Giniaux, he’s one of the musicians, I think, who is most well known for playing ‘Gypsy’ jazz or jazz manouche or whatever you want to call it, but of course he has all this experience playing Balkan styles, so it has all that influence and tries to branch out a lot. So I guess maybe when he tries to bring his other artistic ideas in, it doesn’t always fit as well as people expect it to.

TL: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I like to speak with him. I had the idea that he knew quite well what I meant when we were speaking. I haven’t heard much about the things that he’s been doing lately. I know that he’s a cellist, and he says that cello is not adaptable [to ‘Gypsy’ jazz], which I find really a pity. I think it is. I’m sure it is. I mean, if I knew how to play the cello, then I would definitely use it, I’m sure. I think of the younger generation, the one I really like a lot, though I don’t really know what he does, is this Antoine Boyer. Very fluid. But then what I heard was his guitar solo, like, not accompanied by anyone, a solo piece which is very nice.

SL: Kind of in the style of Django’s improvisations, the same kind of spirit as his solo improvisations?

TL: Much further away from the tonal – it already has a modal feel to it. Django’s improvisations are very kind of romantic, straightforward harmony things. You can always feel, this is the (I), this is the (V) chord. Antoine’s pieces are more elaborate. [...]

SL: Do you often hear [people say], if there is a jazz manouche festival, that if you do a certain kind of music that it’s not ‘jazz manouche’ enough?

TL: Yeah, I suppose that’s when people turn to me, that’s anyway already the thing they want, something that is not quote-unquote ‘jazz manouche’, because they know that I’m not really doing that. And on the other hand, I am associated with old-style playing as well, so it’s a bit weird. But most of the time I’m asked because of the songs, what Americans would call ‘the real thing’ [laughs].

SL: Huh. They consider songs to be the ‘real thing’, more than instrumental music?

TL: Well, definitely if it’s sung in Romanes, it’s still more directly related to Manouche than if you said I’ll make a detour. [Dutch Romani guitarist] Fapy [Lafertin], just like me, really likes to be very specific about the repertoire he’s playing. I think you’d be hard put to find Fapy or me playing, let’s say, [Django compositions such as] Minor Swing or Djangology in a concert. Although Fapy has, but that’s because he really wants to be very much related to Django and ‘Gypsy’ jazz. I would definitely not choose those tunes. But Fapy’s very good at finding very nice old melodies and things that nobody plays. So he was in one of the jams among the Manouche in Holland. He would come up with a tune – maybe it was Lentement Mademoiselle, or just a Django tune that nobody plays, basically – and [guitarist] Paulus [Schäfer] says, ‘You always come with these weird tunes! Why don’t you play?’ — Basher mo tchomôni Romanes, is what he said literally. Like, play something of our culture, our Manouche style. And then Fapy said, ‘Ok, start, go ahead, propose something!’ And then the other guys started playing [American jazz standard]. ‘All of Me.’ Deh-deh-deh [snaps]. I mean, it made Fapy laugh, because it’s an American tune! ‘What do you want!’, he said, ‘You want something Romanes, and then you start playing an American tune!’ So I think that’s why Americans would say, if you come up with some songs, like the ‘real thing’, it’s much more related to Manouche culture than any jazz standard you can think of, even if Django has played it tons and tons of times and everybody plays it.

SL: It’s funny, the ideas people have, depending on where they’re from, about what constitutes the authentic thing, and then recognising that music always comes from somewhere, it travels, it’s borrowed, it’s transformed.

TL: Yeah, exactly. That’s how it should be anyway.


One of the only guys whose songs I really liked is Bamboula [Ferret]. He found a way of putting the words together, even in Romanes, that made it sound a little bit more . . .it suited the language and you could feel a wise old man putting the words together and not always saying the same things. Well, at least saying the same things, but in such a humorous and sophisticated way. Not using too many German words. I think he was kind of vaguely aware that you could try and avoid them.

SL: Because that would be kind of a crutch if you wanted to say something that you couldn’t find the words for in Romanes?

TL: Yeah, normally you just use whatever German word you need, if there’s not one in Romanes. And he would just find another way of phrasing it so that you would at least exclude one of the two German words. He would not exclude all of them because it’s just not possible, I think. And then suddenly he would. At a certain point he said ‘vielleicht’ [maybe]. We have a word for ‘vielleicht’ but it’s three syllables, and at that point what he needed was one syllable. So then he would kind of use the German word and crush it into one syllable instead of two [laughs]. But his songs are definitely more inventive than many others for the lyrics. I really like Man Hi Tschi as a song because it’s such a nice melody. Even the lyrics are... well there’s only two strophes and they kind of make three out of them by combining [them.]

SL: And that was a Daumenickel Triska song?

TL: I’m quite sure [it was]. And I think it was him who was singing it [on the original recording], as well. I’m not very sure of that, but that’s my vague suspicion, because it says so on the album, and I don’t know exactly which one it is because I don’t know if my mom made the translation to braille precisely, either. I think it says Häns’che Weiss, or it says Schnuckenack [Reinhardt], and if it’s not Schnuckenack, it’s Titi Winterstein playing violin, I’m sure about that. It’s an LP. The guy who’s singing it is definitely not Schnuckenack, I’m sure of it, and it’s not Häns’che either, nor Titi. So I think, for some reason, it’s the guy himself, because it’s an elderly man, I’m quite sure, if you listen to the voice and the calm way he sings. [...]

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