Creation Story: Thomas Wakefield
Guitarist, Gypsy music performer and educator
How he became interested in the Gypsy swing style: Wakefield discovered a recording by Bireli Lagrene, a French guitar player doing American jazz standards in the style of legendary Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. "I was just flabbergasted, just amazed by recordings of him at 13 years old," Wakefield says. He began to research Gypsy culture, and last year formed Gypsy Roots with guitarist Jeff Powell and violinist Larry Lyles to perpetuate the acoustic swing style. The group also features Maria Reyes Garcia on vocals and John Cannon, Curtis Fye or Ryan Hughitt on bass. "The music is very uplifting, very passionate, there's an intellectual component to it, an intriguing mystique and a certain romantic part as well," Wakefield says.
How his background in anthropology fits into his life as a musician: Wakefield worked for VCU and the state as an archeologist and did ethnographic research of Scottish cultures. "As an anthropologist, I was always interested in syncretism, when different cultures have similar elements," Wakefield says. "Ever since I heard Afro-Cuban music, before it was referred to as salsa, I was extremely intrigued and studied percussion in that vein, not for performance but because syncretism ties it to religion. Sacred music becomes secularized, such as when the amen in a hymn becomes a chord progression that becomes the seed of the blues. It's sort of like Creole cooking these elements mix together, and the result is something pretty delicious."
On writing Gypsy music: Wakefield, who has been known to practice the same guitar riff for seven hours at a time, is writing music as a practice, attempting to create his own Gypsy folk songs. He listens to traditional tunes and writes in a similar style, then anticipates how a jazz musician would interpret the piece. "I'm not a Gypsy, I'm not living in eastern Europe or France, but I'm trying to, with the band, figure out a way to interpret songs in a jazz, particularly swing, context," Wakefield says.
What listeners should know about the influence of Django Reinhardt: "He's definitely one of the earliest pioneers of the guitar and jazz, and the premier European to pick it up and explore it," Wakefield says. Reinhardt performed melodies on guitar at a time when the instrument was used mostly for chords and rhythm. His predilections were well-known, too, from his unconventional stage attire to his extravagances. He was famous for taking a week's earnings and blowing them all on a feast with his fellow Gypsies, who were often shunned by society. "He is seen as a deity among his people, the be-all and the end-all," Wakefield says.
On the Gypsy life then and now: Though their simplified lifestyles seem romantic to some, many of these people were nomadic because they were run out of village after village. They traveled in caravans similar to covered wagons, often with lace curtains covering the small windows and cast-iron stoves bolted to the floorboards. "Today they use RVs," Wakefield says. "They don't own a lot, but they take great pride in their culture, their folklore, their songs, their dance, the intangible stuff they pass along. That is inherited." Deveron Timberlake