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Not knowing what comes next

THEO PANAYIDES meets two gypsy jazz brothers who play each concert like it is the first and last time they will be on stage


It was all going fine till the ambulance turned up. I meet Boulou and Elios Ferré at Kasteliotissa Hall in old Nicosia, where they’re due to give a concert that same night. It’s still mid-morning, bathed in spring sunshine, and we decide to sit and talk in the coffee shop across the street – a traditional place with a few tables outside, where old men sit playing backgammon.

The customers appear to be regulars. The ambience is lively, and a little eccentric. Two of the elderly gents get in a kind of slow-motion shouting match, but no-one around us protests or tries to intervene. It’s presumably a ritual, the OAP equivalent of young men scuffling in a bar. The Ferré brothers and I – plus M. Dubart of the French Institute – sit talking in French (theirs idiomatic, mine sadly inadequate) about Gypsy jazz, or “jazz manouche”. It’s all very pleasant – but suddenly an ambulance pulls up outside the coffee shop, barely able to negotiate the narrow street, and two paramedics emerge with a stretcher. We all move our legs and shift in our chairs to let them squeeze past. They go inside, then come out moments later with a thin, pale old man sprawled on the stretcher. The old boy doesn’t look to be in pain, but he’s sighing and moaning softly. No-one in the place seems especially bothered; this too, presumably, is a kind of ritual. The ambulance departs as quickly and unobtrusively as it arrived. In no time at all, the air around us sings once again with the shuffle of dice and clink of backgammon pieces.

To their credit, Boulou and Elios don’t bat an eyelid. Maybe it’s because they’ve just arrived in Cyprus – one always tends to take things as they come in a new place, being unsure of the customs – but mostly, I suspect, it’s because they’ve seen it all before. They’ve been “around the world three times” in their career, says Boulou, and have surely witnessed much more violent interruptions. Above all, they’re jazzmen, steeped in a musical craft that lives and breathes by improvisation. Not knowing what comes next – and remaining unruffled when it does – is their bread and butter.

Playing jazz is all they’ve ever done. They’re musical royalty, and indeed Gypsy royalty; Elios makes a gesture of elegant distaste when I mention Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies, with its vision of scruffy, scurrying fringe-dwellers. The politically-correct now say ‘Roma’, of course, but the brothers call themselves ‘gitans’ – though they’re actually ‘tziganes’, since the family hails from Russia (it’s all a bit complicated). They were born in Paris and their dad was Matelo Ferret, not just a great guitarist but the sideman, collaborator and intimate friend of the legendary Django Reinhardt; “the biggest families at the time were the Reinhardts and the Ferrets,” as Elios puts it.

Boulou too was a musical prodigy. If you go on YouTube you can watch him performing ‘Mack the Knife’ on the guitar as a chubby, smiling boy of around 10. He enrolled in the Paris Conservatory at 11, and played with John Coltrane at 14. He’s the older brother (Boulou is 63; Elios will be 58 in December) and the bigger name. Onstage they look similar, two middle-aged men with owlish faces and engrossed expressions, picking at acoustic guitars in the trilling, swinging style that seems to be the sound of manouche – yet, in interview mode, they couldn’t be more different, as if consciously differentiating themselves from each other to balance a lifetime of playing together.

Elios is nattily attired in a pink shirt; Boulou wears white, his eyes obscured behind dark glasses. Elios has blue eyes and slicked-back hair; his style is charming, his smooth lines – “Music is like love, it requires no passport!” – often punctuated by a short guffaw. He could pass for a French businessman on vacation. Boulou, on the other hand, has a seer-like, philosophical air, leaning back in his chair to deliver considered responses. Both brothers have a tendency to quote famous people (Flaubert, Rilke and Prosper Mérimée are among those cited) and use questions as a springboard instead of answering them directly – whether because they’ve answered so many times or because they have jazzmen’s habits, riffing on a melody instead of simply playing it. The other thing they do, quite consciously, is answer in turn; I talk to one brother for a few minutes, then I’m directed to the other. It feels exactly like being onstage, with Elios playing a solo then passing the baton to Boulou, with myself as the piece being played.

Elios admits as much when I ask about their improvisation. We take a theme, he replies – Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’, for instance – treat it as “a subject of conversation” and start talking about it. Playing music is like doing an interview, building on each other’s words. “I make music as a conversation,” he asserts, “not like a circus pony”.

But what about the nights when he doesn’t want to talk?

profile2-the brothers have spent their life in music
the brothers have spent their life in music

“It can happen that I don’t have much to say,” he admits, with a trademark guffaw. But then he can simply let the conversation develop around him, he explains, let others talk then supply “a small intervention” that’ll be constructive and build on what’s happening; it’s about building, not just “faire du blah-blah” as the French say. Above all, he and Boulou always come in ready to ‘talk’, even though they’ve ‘talked’ so many times. “We play like it’s the first time and the last time. It’s a matter of life and death.”

Music is their life; it always has been. Rooting around the internet I find a quote from their father, Matelo Ferret. “Ma guitare, c’est ma femme,” he said once; ‘My guitar is my wife’. I put that sentiment to the two brothers. Elios agrees enthusiastically – “Yes, absolutely. Our wife, our mistress, our friend!” – Boulou isn’t so sure, thinking perhaps of their childhood and Dad’s constant wandering. Their father didn’t want Elios to be a musician (Boulou was different, his precocious talent undeniable), warning his younger son that the life takes its toll: you miss family time, Christmases, children’s birthdays. Music has a tragic side, intones Boulou solemnly. “It has, to quote Rainer Maria Rilke, a terrible beauty”.

The father travelled constantly, always by train (he had a fear of flying); his sons, too, have been “around the world three times”. Then again, isn’t that what Gypsies always do? “We’re a bit like the Indians of Europe,” says Elios (meaning, I assume, the North American variety), “because people move around. But it’s not specifically us – it’s the whole bohemian world. If you look at Modigliani, Van Gogh, Mozart, Moliere, they were also people who moved around a lot – because that’s the life of Artists, true Artists, with a capital ‘A’. When you’re looking for knowledge, you have to move around”. Boulou picks up the thread: “Being a gitan, for me, being manouche, takes me back to the phrase of Mérimée in his book Carmen: ‘I’m a child of bohemia’ (un enfant de bohème). But I mean in my head, not in my life.”

So what does it actually mean, being a Gypsy – gitan, manouche, whatever?

“It means nothing,” he replies grandly. “It’s simply a way of being, of feeling.” Generally speaking, muses Boulou, Gypsies are “not fundamentalists” – meaning they’re not tied down to any set of rules or reductive ideology. Has he ever faced discrimination? “I will answer your question,” he replies (then doesn’t). “I don’t live my life according to any principle. My only principle is my family, my loved ones”.

And there’s something else, too. Gitans “are not intellectuals”. It’s an oral culture, passing down traditions from one generation to the next – and gitans “are animals, they have an animal sensibility. And when I say ‘animal’, it’s not a pejorative. It’s like someone who lives in his own skin – a wild beast.” Being gitan is like Don Quixote, he says, starting to ramble a little. “Being gitan is a bit like a painting by Frida Kahlo”. It’s a question of forgetting oneself, stepping outside the prison of the mind. Boulou (inevitably) ends with a quote, in this case by Oscar Wilde: “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell”.

Clearly, the concept is elusive; then again, so is music. “It’s difficult to talk about music, because we create a complex world,” he explains, his eyes lost behind his dark glasses. “It’s about composition and improvisation, and capturing the moment. The most important word, for me – the most useful word – is ‘the moment’.”

I sit and listen as this 63-year-old man – who’s been playing music all his life – tries to express what exactly he does, his words growing grander, more bombastic, more enraptured. “It’s not about ready-to-wear [prêt-à-porter] but ready-to-think [prêt-à-penser],” he expostulates. “An artist isn’t a man with a guitar, he’s a man with a thought.” Listen to Beethoven, says Boulou, “pa-pa-pa-pa!” – and he pounds on the table, drawing a curious glance from the backgammon players – “that’s Destiny knocking at my door. So I must begin a resistance, to save my life, to save a world that’s becoming disfigured. An artist is like that, he’s a warmonger [un va-t-en-guerre], he creates his own revolution. And when we play music,” he concludes, pointing at himself and his brother, “we create a fusion, a chemistry. We don’t just play guitar – there are so many other guitarists, they don’t need us. We’re thinkers, we tell stories. We speak of how life is, we speak of the tragedy of life.”

Do they? Can the tragedy of life be encapsulated in a few stray notes of a guitar, however expertly strummed? Maybe, maybe not – but the point is the “fusion”, the Ferré chemistry that’s been going strong for decades now. “My brother and I are diametrically opposite,” admits Boulou. “We are very different. Very, very, very different. But what’s great is that we are complementary, in life as in music.”

Elios has a partner, and a 27-year-old son who’s forsaken the family tradition for the world of business. (And Boulou? “I live alone,” he replies simply.) Elios likes art galleries, walking in the woods, and excursions to Brittany to see the sea (“It’s important to see the sea”); Boulou, I suspect, is more sedentary when not travelling for work – you can tell by the way he sits leaning back in the coffee shop, while his brother is chatting and guffawing – and probably more laid-back when the brothers go on tour. “I’m a dreamer,” he admits softly. “I am, to paraphrase Marguerite Yourcenar, a floating man [une homme flottante]. I’m a contemplative person. I like calm, tranquility. I don’t like stress. When we go onstage, I need to be very relaxed and keep telling myself that all will go well.”

And then? What happens then? Then the magic takes over – the fusion, the chemistry, the ongoing “conversation” that began in Paris 50 years ago. Boulou and Elios Ferré may be very different, but they’ve lived parallel lives – and they often echo each other’s words, Boulou inadvertently repeating the same phrase as his brother when he speaks of the jazz manouche they create together: “The music goes beyond the madness of the ordinary world,” he enthuses. “The music is a matter of life and death”.

Which is exactly when the ambulance turns up, and the two paramedics cart the thin, pale old man out on a stretcher.

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