Gypsy jazz still swings in Hulaville
• Photo gallery: Vintage guitar finds Sonny Silva
BY Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
Of all the sounds his guitar could make, the last one Sonny Silva wanted to hear was the crack of splintering wood. Everyone within earshot knew what had just happened. They couldn't bear to look.
It was late, 2:30 on a Sunday morning in January at Atherton Studio. Silva's gypsy jazz quartet — Hot Club of Hulaville — was packing up after a gig, and Silva didn't realize he had forgotten to zip shut his canvas gig bag when he slung it over his shoulder.
The guitar flew from the case and landed hard.
"It shattered the face of it," Silva said. "It broke my heart."
But the fates smiled on Silva, a 57-year-old Honolulu musician. What happened next was a blend of serendipity and social networking. It's a tale of respect, admiration and a pair of vintage guitars.
Within days, Silva was holding an instrument he could not have fathomed ever playing, let alone owning: The beloved guitar of Dorado Schmitt, a French gypsy long considered to be one of the greatest living gypsy jazz performers in the world.
"It doesn't look like much," Silva said. "It has been around a lot of campfires. It has probably been in a few fights. It has gouges and repairs. It looks like hell, but the business end of it plays perfect."
When Silva's fingers slide across its steel strings, the guitar, a 1953 Castelluccia, produces music far different than the type of jazz he has played most of his life.
"It has enough of the bark, the classic gypsy sound," he said. "It is not the warm, mellow sound we try to get with classical guitars; it has a meaner sound. Yet when you play it, it is capable of having all kinds of color."
Gypsy jazz, which is also called manouche jazz because its origins are in France, is a variety of swing music that first became popular in the 1930s and '40s. It's been said that manouche jazz has the elegance of classical music, the fire of gypsy music, elements of jazz swing and the energy of rock 'n' roll.
Its most recognizable master is Django Reinhardt, a Belgian who grew up in gypsy camps outside Paris. Although Reinhardt died in 1953, he remains a celebrated icon whose legacy is marked by music festivals around the world, so good that even American jazz greats wanted to duplicate his sound.
"He had singlehandedly redefined where guitar was going," Silva said. "He was a rock star of his era."
Django played a gypsy guitar with peculiar features, all of which can be found on Schmitt's old guitar. The bodies of these guitars were shaped like modern electric guitars, which allowed performers more room at the bottom of the neck so they could hit high notes.
The guitars were loud, too, largely due to the fact that the gypsies in that era played in noisy dance halls and needed instruments that could be heard. That required a fierce playing style, Silva said, "a heavy attack."
"You had to play the hell out of it," he said. "You had to be physically strong and have a lot of endurance."
And because they were not concert guitars — because in less skilled hands, they could only produce a quick, hard note — they were relatively cheap.
Such was the guitar that Schmitt owned.
"It was his old standby, the one he played most of his concerts with," Silva said. "He had this guitar in his possession for 30 years, and I can't believe he wanted to part with it."
FINDING A 'SOULMATE'
Duane Padilla, who plays a 200-year-old violin in Silva's Hot Club of Hulaville, likens his instruments to children. The 35-year-old violin teacher said he hasn't found a violin that would make him part with any in his collection — and so Schmitt's decision to part with his guitar astounds him.
"It's a big deal," Padilla said. "But when a really special instrument comes along, the one that really speaks to you — your soulmate — certain sacrifices have to be made."
On the other side of the country, at a music store in New York City, the 52-year-old Schmitt experienced such a moment, just three days after Silva broke his guitar.
Schmitt was in New York on a concert tour marking the centennial of Reinhardt's birth when he walked into Rudy's Music, which features one of the largest collection of vintage guitars in the world. With him was Ted Gottsegen, a 38-year-old musician whom Schmitt considers a son.
Inside Rudy's, Schmitt saw a 1969 Gibson Super 400, and it was love at first sight, Gottsegen said.
"His eyes popped out of his head," Gottsegen said. "He looked at me and said, 'That's my dream guitar.' " Schmitt gave it a try, and everyone in the music store stopped what they were doing to listen.
The Gibson cost $10,000. To pay for it, Schmitt arranged to give the store a pair of electric guitars he brought for his tour and whatever he could raise by selling his old acoustic, the 1953 Castelluccia.
It was measure of how hard Schmitt had fallen. The Castelluccia was famous among those who love gypsy jazz, Gottsegen said. It is to manouche what B.B. King's "Lucille" is to the blues and Willie Nelson's "Trigger" is to country.
"Gypsies tend to not really get attached to guitars that much, unless it is a family heirloom, or it was bequeathed from another musician," he said. "This was a guitar that was very close to him. I have played it many times. The sound is incredible."
Gottsegen posted an ad on his Facebook page that same day, and word got to Silva through a mutual friend — once again, via Facebook and e-mail. The guitar could be his for $2,500. Silva said yes.
But Schmitt was still several thousand short, and the deal fell through at Rudy's. Schmitt went to the tour's final show, sad and disappointed, Gottsegen said.
That wasn't the end of the story, though. One of Rudy's employees, impressed by Schmitt's immediate mastery of the big, heavy Gibson, convinced store owner Rudy Pensa to watch the gypsy's final show.
Pensa often deals with collectors who think nothing of spending $10,000 for an instrument they can't even play, Gottsegen said. In Schmitt, Pensa saw the real thing.
"Rudy, first and foremost, is a guitar lover," Gottsegen said. "He was moved. He said, 'You have to have that guitar.' "
Gottsegen delivered the Gibson to Schmitt the next day, and the gypsy wept.
"He was almost afraid to touch it," Gottsegen said. "He just sat there and stared at it. Then tears came to his eyes. That's how much it meant."
And the Castelluccia now belonged to Silva.
The gypsy's old guitar arrived in Honolulu with a note from Schmitt. The guitar had brought Schmitt luck for 30 years, and now he hoped it would do the same for Silva, who has been playing guitar since he was a boy in Waikīkī.
At first, the guitar made Silva nervous, so he sent a note to Schmitt.
"I said I may not be worthy of this," Silva said. "If you want it back, let me know."
But Silva's friends say the old guitar is changing the way Silva plays.
After decades with Schmitt, the guitar's wooden skin is accustomed to vibrating in certain ways, and now it seems to be guiding Silva's hands.
The more he plays it, the better he plays, Silva said. He calls the change "profound."
"I have to play it every day," he said. "It is very alluring. It is a very easy guitar to play. It has all kinds of gypsy ju-ju."