You can find my “professional” bio in the press section of my website. The following bio is in my own words, and describes my musical history and philosophy.
Welcome to my site! My name is Denis Chang, and I was born and raised in beautiful Montreal, Quebec. For most of the year, Montreal is still my home base, although I do travel a lot and spend most of my winters in my parents’ home country of Taiwan. I grew up speaking Taiwanese, French and English. Although it took many years for me to realize it, languages played an important role in my development as a musician and human being.
For those who don’t know, Montreal is officially French, but until college, I was sent to school under the French (from France) system, so I grew up hearing two variations of the same language; this was extremely important in my development as a musician as it allowed me to develop my ears to hear subtleties in music. I learned English by watching TV and movies. In high school, I had to study German for a number of years. This too proved to be extremely important for my musical development, given that the genre, that I specialize in, has strong Germanic roots.
I am essentially a Gypsy Jazz guitar player specializing in the music of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Django Reinhardt was a French Gypsy. Gypsies (also spelled Gipsy) or Romani (also spelled Romany) are an itinerant ethnic group that originally came from India over a thousand years ago. As the centuries went by, they migrated westward and adopted the various cultural traits of their host countries into their own culture. Today, they are found all over the world, with a strong concentration in Europe. There are many tribes of Romani, each with their distinct culture. Django was a Sinto (Sinti, plural). In France, the Sinti often refer to themselves as Manusch (also spelled Manouche) which means “man” in their language (Romani or Romanes, as they call it).
The Sinti are heavily concentrated in Germany and have been settled in that region for centuries. They can be found in neighboring countries as well; many of them live in Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, etc. Though Django was essentially French, his immediate ancestors were Gatschkene Sinti (German Gypsies). Not only do a large number of Sinti today speak German, but many words in their dialect are borrowed from German, whether they are French, Dutch, or Italian Sinti.
I had always been aware of Django Reinhardt, but in those days, the internet was not what it is today, and there was no Youtube. Given Django’s enormous discography, there was no way to know where to start without guidance, which I didn’t have. It wasn’t until the year 2000 or so, that a friend recommended that I listen to Raphael Faÿs and Stochelo Rosenberg, two Sinti guitarists from France and Holland. The two albums I got were Raphael Faÿs – Jazz Hot: The Gipsy Way, and The Rosenberg Trio: Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival. These two albums changed my life, and from there, I was able to find recordings of Django that were similar.
Soon, I discovered the terms Gypsy Swing, Gypsy Jazz, Hot Club music, Hot Jazz, Django music, etc. These were all terms used to describe a specific period of Django Reinhardt’s career. I found out that there was a small but passionate international community of musicians who lived and breathed Django Reinhardt. Through Django, I learned more about Gypsy culture, and I found out that, even today, the Sinti were still playing Django’s music.
Not only were they still playing music in the Hot Club style, they played it with the same sound. They used a similar vibrato, similar ornaments, similar right hand attack, similar rhythm tones. As far as sound is concerned, the non-Gypsies playing this style were playing it differently. This is not a criticism, but an observation. In fact, today I would tell you, that in the end, the musicianship is far more important; nonetheless, the sound does contribute to the music. It’s like an accent, if Django were Scottish, it was like me observing that the Scottish spoke English with a Scottish accent just like Django did, and others were speaking English with a different accent. Of course, just because one speaks with a Scottish accent does not make one a great poet or writer! This is the exact same thing.
However, I became obsessed with this accent, and I absolutely wanted to know why practically every Sinto had it in his guitar playing, and practically no Gadjo (non-Gypsy) had it. I was even more determined when someone told me “You know, Denis, we will never be able to play like the Gypsies, we don’t have their sound”. That was a shocking statement but it was now my mission to understand how they achieved that sound. This was extremely hard because there was no info available. The instructional books and videos written by Gadje did not address these issues, or if they did, to my ears, there was still a difference in sound between Gypsies and Gadje.
One of the first major players I met in the style was the French guitarist Stéphane Wrembel who had just emigrated to the United States. He grew up with a few Gypsy players from his native France, so he had a bit of information to share. I already had my suspicions regarding certain technical aspects of the style, and he was able to confirm. At the same time, I met another young French guitar player named Lou Boustani who had studied with a few Gypsy players, he showed me what he knew. Eventually, I started going to Europe to seek out the master players. The Belgian/Dutch Sinto Fapy Lafertin was one of the first to help me. Eventually, I befriended other Gypsy guitarists such as the French Sinti cousins, Ritary and Hervé Gaguenetti; the Dutch Sinto, Paulus Schäfer; and the rest is history. Speaking French and having a basic knowledge of German allowed me to immerse myself in their culture. I ended up learning some basic words and expressions in their language, and that allowed me to make friends with more and more people, which in turn, allowed me to pick up even more words and expressions!
Many would say that the secret to the Gypsy sound is the right hand; I would say that it’s an incomplete answer. The Gypsy sound is far more complex. Nowadays, there are books that talk about the Gypsy guitar right hand technique and many Gadje guitarists have adopted this technique. However, I still hear a clear difference. This is worthy of an entire chapter of its own but I will just say that it has to do with the Gypsy culture itself. Of course, everyone is unique, and not all Gypsies are the same. That would be like saying that all Americans are the same. While everyone is their own person, there is, nonetheless, a certain common thread.
For the most part, Gypsies learn music within the family and/or on their own. Rarely do they receive any formal training. If they do, it’s likely to come from a source outside the community. It is not because the older musicians are against it; it is simply because they wouldn’t even know how to give any kind of formal lessons, because they never had any themselves, and might not even be able to afford it. It’s also because music has been part of their culture for so many generations, that they don’t view music the way most Gadje do; in other words, it’s really a natural part of their lives. This is a generalization of course, because nowadays, many young Gypsies are becoming more and more assimilated to Gadje culture, and their traditional culture is, unfortunately, considered out of fashion.
A typical musical upbringing for a Gypsy child is to watch the older musicians play. If he/she shows interest, he/she will try to pick up an instrument. Someone will typically show a few basic chord shapes to start with, so that the child can start to quietly participate in jam sessions. From there, the child must rely on his/her sense of observation to pick up other chords or details. If the child shows potential, maybe the adults will show him/her a few other shapes. Maybe, the child will then start to try to play a few melodies. The adults will then give general advice such as “play louder”, “don’t play too loud”, “don’t slow down”, “don’t speed up”, “change this note”, etc. The process goes on like this until the student is self-reliant.
This kind of musical education shocked me. I grew up taking lessons, and reading music books and guitar magazines that talked about how music should be learned. It was all heavily theory oriented. I even have a degree in classical music theory! This made me reevaluate my whole musical life. The Gypsy way of learning music is not necessarily the best way. There are certainly many advantages, but also many disadvantages. To start on the positive side, it makes one develop one’s memory, reflex skills, sense of intuition, and ears. These are skills that any serious musician should have.
It really amazed me to see Gypsy musicians improvising on complex music, using advanced concepts, but not actually knowing what they were doing. They all just did it by ear. I remember a Gypsy musician playing a jazz blues as if he grew up in New York, but he did not know the pentatonic scale shapes that just about every other guitar player first learns when learning about the blues! He was just playing blues lines without actually knowing that many of them came from the pentatonic scale.
On the other hand, this is a very “last man standing” kind of education. Those who survive this kind of training end up becoming the famous musicians that we all know about. However, many are left behind. Some people need a bit more guidance to develop these essential skills, and unfortunately, they’re not likely to get it. I have befriended many people in the Sinti community. Not all of them are professional musicians. Some would even say that they didn’t play guitar, but if handed a one, they could actually play rhythm with the elusive Gypsy accent! That would be the extent of their musical knowledge. Such people could have progressed much further if they had the proper guidance.
Coming back to the topic of culture, I’ve always had believed that one’s musical style reflected one’s personality, Gypsy or not. In the Gypsy language, they have a word, chochono, (the ch is pronounced like ch in Bach) which literally means “liar”; however, it has a stronger meaning that describes someone who is trying to too hard to be someone he/she is not. A fake person so to speak. We may have all been there at some point, as we try to find our identities and place in this world. Musically, I’ve found all Gypsy musicians to be very honest. This is very hard to describe and definitely subjective but I sincerely believe it to be true. They may not actually be the best musicians, in fact, I might not even want to listen to some of them for extended periods of time, but I’ve always found them to be sincere in their playing. This is definitely a trait that I respect, whether I like the music or not.
Gypsies are very tight within their community. There is tremendous respect for the elders, and they are extremely generous when it comes to hospitality; I cannot count the number of times that I’ve been taken care of by my Sinti friends. Just like any culture, it’s not all positive, but that would be beyond the scope of what I want to talk about. They like things that stand out: fancy cars, showmanship, fancy clothing, flashy entertainment (Elvis, Frank Sinatra, George Benson, disco music, etc.). Somehow, I feel all this when I listen to them play music. They are certainly not shy, and they have a strong flair for showmanship. Of course, everyone is unique, and some of them are not like that at all, and I definitely also hear that in their music.
With regards to myself, it was an obsession for me to understand the elusive Gypsy sound. Some of the best compliments that I’ve ever received were from various people from the Sinti community who told me that I played like a Gypsy. Of course, now that I’m older and very familiar with their culture, I would say that, musically, I don’t want to sound like a Gypsy. For one thing, I am obviously not a Gypsy and I have my own unique background.
I grew up in Quebec, officially a province of Canada, but where the language and culture is undeniably different from the rest of Canada. I was born to francophile Taiwanese parents who fled au authoritarian regime. I was sent to school under France’s education system. I grew up with people of various faiths and cultures. I went to music school to get a degree in classical music theory. I befriended Gypsies. I immersed myself in their culture and learned their language. For whatever it’s worth, that is who I am.
This experience with Gypsies made me start to look at music and life from an even deeper perspective. I’m not trying to be some deep philosopher, but I really believe that music is something very special. Something beyond rhythm, harmony, scales, or whatever technical musical jargon you can think of. In fact, not just music, but the arts in general are what defines us as human beings and create culture. Without the arts, we would be mindless zombies.
This site is a bit different from most artist sites; you’ll find that I have written a lot of articles in the blog section. Despite going to music school, learning music and learning about the music industry was extremely difficult for me because of lack of accurate information. Most of my real education came through both personal experience, and trial and error. The internet is very vast, and a great tool, but a lot it is also full of conventional wisdom that has often proven to be false. Going to music school was fun, but it simply did not compare to the education that I received from real life experiences. I conceived this site for a past version of myself; if I could give advice to a young Denis Chang, it would be the information that you find on this site. You may notice that I write a lot; indeed, true knowldege can not be summarized in a single paragraph. I hope some of the information on this site can be of use to you.
Barkrau man und bud bacht! (“Thank you and good luck” in Romani)