By Leland Smith
When a friend recently asked me if I had heard of Samarabalouf, I envisioned that it must be some kind of techno-designer cheese whiz or perhaps a mystery pate found in the pimento loaf section in the market.
As my awareness embraced the day, I was elated to learn that it was an acoustic French performance ensemble. As a rabid fan of bands with unpronounceable names, I leaped at the chance to hear this charming trio that celebrates the genius of Django Reinhardt’s music via the compositions of Samarabalouf’s founder Francois Petit.
Immersed in Django’s art and Gypsy lore, Petit hand-built his steel string guitar 15 years ago as a direct copy of Reihhardt’s favored Selmer-style instrument. The guitar features an oblong sound hole that delivers a fast-out-of-the-box tone for clarity and definition at high speed unlike standard guitars. Joined by formidable talents of double bassist-Pierre Margerin and Luc Ambry on the Rythym Classical (Nylon) guitar, the trio spun a myriad of musical webs that expressed the fire and romantic beauty of Petit’s original interpretations of Reinhardt’s legacy of works.
Wasting no time, the trio slayed the crowd with their exuberant energy, talent and intense charm by laughing off the communication barrier and allowing the music to speak for them. Margerin’s delicate and precise rhythm work is the foundation that allows Petit and Ambry the improvised freedom required to bring this adventure full circle. Ambry’s bass work varies at times from walking bass lines to the high pitched sounds of a mad gypsy violinist.
Opening with “Jaja” and “Les 3 vies” the music varied wildly between lightening fast dance rhythms and the quiet pin-drop passages of Margerin’s bowed bass lines. Leaving no device behind — playing strings behind the bridge-tapping and slapping their instruments to produce drum sounds and accents — Petit even imitated the sound of grating carrots on his fretboard during the piece “Couscous frites mescal.” These guys have no trouble entertaining a crowd and repeatedly invited their new-found friends to dance, sing-long and hand-clap to the beat. Often they moved into the Spanish territory of players like Paco De Lucia.
The troupe made it clear on “Erotic Night” and “Rhumba de L’amour,” that they were well-accustomed to receiving kisses and attention from French girls at home. In a bar setting, these guys would tear down the house; the “balouf” section of the band name means “crazy ballroom” and, as best as the members could explain, Samara, apparently has to do with the “La Somme” district of France.
Though there was no reference made to Reinhardt during the show, he was an artist decades ahead of his time, and these musicians played an apt tribute. This ensemble is bright and powerful and I see Atwood Concert Hall in their future.
Local musician Tom Begich opened the show with heartfelt vocal and instrumental performances that set the mood for the evening. Tom mentioned that his younger brother Mark (our mayor) also plays piano, a fact which few people know.
Those in the sold-out hall of this Out North presentation were clearly moved by the talent and vitality of all the evening’s performances.
Leland Smith is a performer and music educator.