That Gypsy Jazz Swing

Anyone contemplating starting a small musical group to perform on a cruise ship would be well-advised to contact Lache Cercel.

The Romanian-born fiddler, who now lives in B.C., teaches a course in how to develop a successful repertoire for just such a venture.

“This is something I know myself, because from when I was 18 years old, I played in high-class hotels and I had to be prepared,” he says.

“In a way, it’s a very good place to perform, because you have your own freedom. You don’t have a conductor, where you have to play Vivaldi with an orchestra. You make your own sound of Vivaldi and people will be happy just to recognize it.”

Teaching advanced students is just one string to Cercel’s bow. He is also recognized for his virtuosic fiddle playing and his advocacy of a Middle Eastern and European fusion of folk, klezmer and gypsy jazz he calls Roma Swing.

Both of Cercel’s parents were musicians, and his father was conductor of a folk ensemble with a symphony orchestra in Moldavia. His maternal grandfather brought a strong knowledge of classical musicology when he emigrated from France before the Second World War.

“When the communists took over, they didn’t have well-prepared people to replace, and they found him and he became a teacher at the music academy,” Cercel says. “He was the one who put the violin in my hand when I was six years old.”

Cercel graduated from the Academy of Arts in Bucharest before becoming the first soloist with the Radio and Television and one of the country’s premier musicians. In 1986, the Romanian government designated him “Artist of the People.”

From his classical roots, Cercel moved on to classical café concerts, which offered “more freedom, and had elements of folk” along with classical influences. It’s a form that goes back to 1877, when the Ottoman Empire’s retreat from Europe left “lots of bags of coffee” in its wake.

“People in high society were thinking about what kind of music they wanted to listen to with their drink, because classical is too formal and folk is too lively,” Cercel explains. “This classical café concert music is very popular in Europe. Here, people call it salon music.”

From there, Cercel became inspired by the music of French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, which he heard over shortwave radio because the recordings weren’t available in Romania.

“And I said, ‘Oh, this is great. Somebody can do the music that I’m thinking, and there exists another kind of music beside folk and classical and café concert. And that was jazz – gypsy jazz.”

Cercel explains at length that Romanians don’t call it gypsy jazz, or Roma jazz, because the music varies widely from country to country, whereas the Romani people were indigenous to South Asia, specifically.

“You travel to the Balkans, it’s a different style. You travel to Spain, it’s flamenco. You go up north to France and Belgium, you find gypsy jazz. It’s just a more western sound, you know, using the jazz chord progression.”

Cercel decided to leave Romania in 1987 to pursue his interest in “trying to make things better, trying to bring different ideas. But I was limited, because I didn’t have access to different genres of music.”

As a performer in Black Sea resorts, he had met people from Europe and North America, triggering a desire for change. He says it was his “destiny” to come to Canada, where he pursued further music studies at Vancouver Community College.

“I left Romania in a communist regime and it wasn’t so easy for me, being there. As an artist, I was thinking I should be able to travel, which was kind of difficult, but I got an invitation. I came here, and based on my music and references, I was able to stay.”

Cercel travelled back to Romania in 1994 and 1996 to work on his first CD, a recording of his composition “Rhapsody of Romania,” which reflects music from all the major Romanian provinces.

He has lived in Vancouver since 1996.

“When I came here, I couldn’t find musicians in my genre of music. I was very patient; I met musicians and very slowly we built a unique sound, the Roma Swing Ensemble, which is a blend.”

Last year, they toured Romania and Turkey with a concert called We Are All One Nation.

“Music is a tool that can change people’s minds, bring people together and help our society and the universe,” he says.

Cercel would like to follow up with a bigger tour next year, to “make people understand we are all one nation… because you know what’s happening in the world these days.”

Three members of his Roma Swing Ensemble will perform at the Old Fire Hall on Friday, May 13 at 7:30 p.m. Besides Cercel, the trio includes Don Ogilvie on guitar and Sam Schoichet on bass. The three have played together since 1999.

The concert is sponsored by Jazz Yukon.

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