Story by Derek Ferrar
Photo by Charles E. Freeman
In the dusky confines of a side-alley wine bar, glasses of grenache tinkle and a handful of couples gyrate in suggestive embrace as a guitar and violin trade lightning riffs over swing rhythms. 1930s Paris? Try Honolulu’s Chinatown, 2010.
Welcome to le monde of the Hot Club of Hulaville, a quintet of top-flight Honolulu jazz pros who draw their inspiration from the steamy prewar mélange of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, fronted by the iconic two-fingered Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelly.
As it turns out, Django’s world and that of Pan-Am Clipper-era Hawai‘i were not so distant as their antipodal geography might suggest. Sonny Silva, Hot Club of Hulaville’s dapper leader, points out that one of Reinhardt’s sidemen, Marcel Bianchi, was enamored of Hawaiian steel guitar and became Europe’s foremost authority on Hawaiian music after a visit to the Islands. At the same time, Silva says, Island tours by Duke Ellington and other jazz masters led Hawaiian musicians toward a kinetic brand of swing that had more than a little Gypsy DNA of its own. “Almost overnight,” Silva says, “the music in all the Waikiki showrooms went from a mellow, pastoral style to hot Hawaiian swing.”
The Hot Club of Hulaville—featuring Silva, lead guitarist Emmett Mahoney, Honolulu chanteuse Ginai, violinist Duane Padilla and bassist David Chiorini—is part of a revival movement that in recent years has given rise to dozens of Django festivals worldwide. The band stays true to the finger-snapping rhythms and blistering solos that define the Gypsy swing style, while mixing in a blend of Island classics and wink-and-nod quotes, like a snatch of “Smoke on the Water” popping up in the middle of Ellington’s exotic classic “Caravan.”
Violinist Padilla, who along with Chiorini plays in the Honolulu Symphony, thinks the resurgence of Gypsy jazz partly reflects the current economic climate. “It’s Depression-era music, and it really speaks to people in times like these,” he says. “It’s optimistic and light. It always puts a smile on your face.”