At Langley’s annual DjangoFest Northwest, celebrate the granddaddy of Manouche jazz

Djoin a djam on a street corner or catch a performance in honor of Belgian jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt during the four-day festival.


Special to The Record

Sizzling, hypnotizing, insanely fast.

There’s really only one way to describe Django Reinhardt’s music — listen to it.

Known by many names — Romani jazz, le jazz hot, Manouche swing— its fast, fluid, rapid-fire acoustic guitar rhythm will again reverberate through Langley from Sept. 20-24 during Djangofest Northwest.

Produced by Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, the festival honors and celebrates the Romani jazz giant who created a new genre of music almost a century ago. Considered the granddaddy of Manouche jazz festivals in the United States, DjangoFest Northwest brings a lineup of top-tier musicians from across the globe to perform, teach and rejoice in the musical genre known for its spontaneity and joy.

For those unfamiliar with the man and his music, Whidbey Island bass player and multi-talented artist Kristi O’Donnell offers this abbreviated tutorial.

“Born in 1910, he came back from a debilitating accident and changed the fabric of the world of music mixing traditional (Romani) music with swing music,” she said. “Reinhardt’s style is creative music and a blending of music. There’s this synergy in the music that pulls us all together.”

The festival has the friendly, intimate feel of a family reunion. Lugging accordions, cellos, guitars, violins and bass instruments through Langley’s tiny downtown, musicians spontaneously gather at patios, parks, cafes and restaurants to “djam” day and night.

In 2001, Whidbey Island Center for the Arts became the first North American organization to produce an event devoted to Reinhardt’s music. Similar festivals have popped up across the nation, but Langley’s small town-with-a-big-vision version remains a favorite, attracting some 3,000 Djangophiles every September and contributing an estimated $180,000 to the local economy.

“Our festival combines an amazing musical program of eight concerts over five days with many, creative, fun and artistic activities like jazz workshops, ‘djam’ sessions and even craft cocktails at the local restaurants,” said Deana Duncan, WICA executive artistic director.

In 2020, WICA pulled off a three-day virtual Djangofest during the height of the pandemic. In the past two years, not as many international musicians could attend, but this year it’s more of a global mix and the event is back to its full schedule, Duncan said.

Scheduled to play concerts and lead workshops are premiere, professional musicians traveling from France, Brazil, United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and various American cities.

After returning every year to cultivate long-lasting friendships and experiences, guitarist Luca Pino and his band, Pino Noir, is among the 11 groups chosen for concert performances.

“I first went to Djangofest about 10 years ago with my ragtag band of friends from Long Beach, California,” Pino said. “This fall will be my debut with my own band and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Feels like a long time coming.”

A few players don’t have far to travel. Whidbey’s own Django jazz ensemble, Hot Club of Troy, performs Saturday afternoon.

O’Donnell’s all-women band, Cafe Impromptu, plays at the festival’s kick-off party, Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. It takes place on WICA’s patio at 565 Camano Ave., and is free and open to the public.

“We wanted to showcase local musicians, local talent,” said Simon Planting, festival artistic director.

Planting, a bass player born in the Netherlands and now living near San Francisco, stepped up to the position when Nick Lehr, the festival’s founder, died in 2018.

Born in 1953, the same year Reinhardt died, Planting remembers the first time he heard the distinct Django beat.

“I was six or seven years old listening to a wind-up gramophone. The energy that came from that guitar and violin was amazing.

“I can best describe it as happy music. But that doesn’t mean all the music he wrote was happy.”

Born Jean Baptiste Reinhardt on Jan. 24, 1910, in a Romani encampment at Liberchies, Belgium, Reinhardt played violin at age 8, an old banjo and guitar by age 12. When his clan moved outside the gates of old Paris, the boy, nicknamed Django — a Romani word meaning “I awake” — soon became a familiar face around the city’s cafes and dance halls.

An accident almost ended his life at age 18. He and his wife narrowly escaped a fire that engulfed their caravan that left his hand and leg severely burned. The two smallest fingers on his left hand – crucial to a guitarist for articulating notes on the fretboard – were paralyzed.

During an 18-month convalescence, Reinhardt created a new fingering technique to overcome the limited use of his left hand. His good fingers rapidly moved up and down the guitar neck, producing unique chords that became his signature sound.

Guitarists normally play chords vertically, but Reinhardt’s handicap forced him to play horizontal chords. His two-finger play emulated the beat of big brass bands that he loved.

“In the late 1920s and 1930s, American jazz was Dixieland kind of music — horns, trombones and tuba,” explained Troy Chapman, who leads Hot Club of Troy. “Django Reinhardt’s music became so compelling because it was played strictly with guitar, bass and violin. It gave jazz a whole different flavor.”

In 1934, Reinhardt formed the Paris-based Quintette du Hot Club de France with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, taking dance clubs by storm with an infectious fusion of American jazz, Romani rhythms and influences of Spanish flamenco, French musette, American swing and bebop.

The style is extremely guitar-oriented with rhythm guitar providing “le pompe” — the percussion component that signifies Manouche jazz. It shares some characteristics with other styles of jazz but retains its own distinctive sound, repertoire, instrumentation and subculture.

It’s a sound many Whidbey residents like Fred Lundahl look forward to hearing every fall. After 30 years traveling in Eastern Europe working with the State Department, Lundahl and his wife, Sharon, settled in Langley.

They opened their store, Music for the Eyes, with wares from their world travels — stacks of wool carpets, jewelry, beads, hats, gloves and strange old string instruments. Although the store is popular during Django days, the couple makes a point to get outside and follow the tunes.

“I come upon these djam sessions and the musicians are playing together seamlessly in a way that is totally incredible to me,” he said. “It makes us feel like we had never left central Europe.”

The annual celebration of Django Reinhardt’s music takes place Sept. 20 – 24 in Langley, Whidbey Island. For tickets and the full schedule of concerts, workshops and other information, visit

The event is produced by WICA. Ticketed performances take place at Michael Nutt Mainstage, 565 Camano Ave., Langley. Musicians also gather and play informally downtown around numerous venues throughout the five-day festival. Some restaurants and pubs book bands.

WICA’s Festival Lounge is a place to meet and mingle with musicians, purchase festival merchandise and enjoy beer, wine or cocktails. Hours are Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, noon to midnight.

The outside patio tent also features a daily Happy Hour from 5 to 7 p.m.

Free parking is available at WICA, two public parking lots and along downtown streets.