The extent to which the pandemic has reshaped the musical landscape is becoming more evident with the gradual return of in-person performances. Driven by the need for work, family support, and more affordable digs, artists are quietly on the move. Over the past 20 months the Bay Area has seen numerous significant departures and arrivals.
It was only when checking in with guitarist/vocalist Javi Jiménez about upcoming Barrio Manouche gigs that it became apparent he had given up San Francisco for Montpellier, a culturally rich city in southwestern France. Before the advent of COVID-19 the Bay Area combo that Jiménez founded in 2014 had earned an avid following by combining two distinct but kindred Roma musical traditions, Gypsy jazz and flamenco.
“Everything changed with the pandemic,” said the Madrid-born Jiménez, who’s back in California for Barrio Manouche gigs Oct. 28 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center and Nov. 5 at Freight & Salvage.
“We just got video from the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2019, and we had so much energy. I was in tears. We played Club Deluxe twice a month and musicians would come jam with us. Our music was trying to tell this story about what was happening in the Bay Area with artists coming from all over the world.”
Despite his relocation, Jiménez is ready to start a new chapter with Barrio Manouche (“manouche” is a French word for Sinti Roma people, also known as Gypsies). Aside from a lightly attended New Parish gig over the summer as the Delta variant was ramping up, the coming performances mark the band’s return to a music scene that’s still very much in recovery mode.
It’s easy to see why the pre-pandemic environment that nurtured the band looks a lot like a golden age these days. Barrio Manouche became known for its raucous performances, which often included flamenco and samba-inspired dancers joining them on stage. The coming performances feature renowned Madrid-trained, French-born flamenco dancer Fanny Ara, who also contributes on palmas (a percussive handclapping style), castanets and vocals.
Barrio Manouche started gaining notice outside the region with its 2018 debut album “Aires de Cambio,” which was distributed by the pioneering San Francisco world music label Six Degrees Records. Jiménez’s complex instrumental compositions, which often segued gracefully from Hot Club-style two-guitar passages to percussion-driven flamenco rumba crescendos, defined the group’s improvisation-laced sound.
With the second album, “Despierta,” Jiménez expanded the band’s emotional palette by adding his lyrics and vocals to the repertoire. Several pieces also featured musical settings for poems by his brother, Barrio Mancouche percussionist Luis Jiménez, and the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.
The band’s core personnel has held fast, with French-born Cyril Guiraud on saxophones and caxixi, Québécois violinist/vocalist Magali Sanscartier, Colombian percussionist/vocalist Ivan Rondon, and founding bassist Chris Bastian, who recently returned to the fold. The newest member is Ross Howe, a commanding Hot Club-style guitarist.
In some ways Barrio Manouche is picking up where the band left off when the album release celebration for “Despierta” was cut short. But the group is also eager to continue documenting their volatile sound.
“I saw the evolution between the first and the second records, but I think we need three albums to really make the thing happen,” said Cyril Guiraud, whose label doubleOone released the second album. “Our new guitar player Ross Howe is a killing Gypsy jazz guitarist. He and Javi play together all the time and all the harmonic subtleties are coming to life.”
From the beginning Jiménez saw the band as a reflection of the international community of musicians he was encountering in the Bay Area. He’s looking to expand Barrio Manouche’s presence in Europe, but as France has opened up he’s also thinking about finding musical comrades close to his new home.
“When I arrived last year everything was closed and people were locked in their homes, a real lockdown,” he said. “It’s picking up now. There are a lot of musicians here, and I’ve been playing with some Argentinians and trying to find musicians who can play my music here.”
Though it will mean logging a lot of trans-Atlantic miles, he’s also determined to keep Barrio Manouche moving forward in the Bay Area, where the band was born out of “a magical time,” Jiménez said. “The whole community of musicians was creating something very powerful, but still quite fragile.”
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When & where: 7 p.m. Oct. 28 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz; $31.50; 831-427-2227, www.kuumbwajazz.org; 8 p.m. Nov. 5 at Freight & Salvage, Berkeley, $22, 510-644-2020, www.thefreight.org
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Author: Andrew Gilbert