Romani runs through it: Flamenco Gypsy jazz ensemble Barrio Manouche in Berkeley

Flamenco Gypsy jazz ensemble Barrio Mancouche performs Sunday at Freight & Salvage, celebrating La Peña Cultural Center’s 43rd anniversary. Photo: Frederic Aube

The Bay Area has been a Gypsy jazz hotbed for more than two decades, but there’s never been an ensemble like Barrio Manouche.

Founded four years ago by Spanish guitarist Javi Jiménez, the group is honing a singular body of music that combines the instrumentation and signature rhythms of modern jazz, flamenco and Gypsy swing, the enduringly popular propulsive string-band style created in 1930s Paris by Sinti guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stephan Grappelli. Barrio Manouche’s sound has clearly struck a chord, as the seven-piece band celebrated the release of its debut album Aires de Cambio with a sold-out show at The Chapel in San Francisco last month.

About half of the band resides in Berkeley, and Barrio Manouche brings the CD celebration to the East Bay on Sunday with a Freight & Salvage concert marking La Peña Cultural Center’s 43rd anniversary. Jiménez says the stylistically encompassing sound has evolved through a trial and error process guided intuitively by the kindred Romani roots of flamenco and Reinhardt’s Quintette du Hot Club de France.

“It actually does work, and I don’t know how,” Jiménez says. “In both traditions there’s a big influence of Gypsy culture. Django was the ultimate Gypsy guitarist. The most traditional and pure flamenco started with singing and a beat, with cante, then palmas and then the guitar. It all comes from the same place, the need of human beings to express their hard moments and happiness, to tell a story.”


The story that Barrio Manouche tells vividly illustrates the way that disparate artists can come together to combine musical traditions they love and create a new sound. Originally a Hot Club-style trio featuring Jimenez and his former student, Berkeley visual artist Alex Zelnick on rhythm guitar, the band started on its present trajectory when Javi’s younger brother, percussionist Luis Jiménez, arrived in town in 2013. Adding the box-like cajon, a flamenco staple, into the mix expanded the band’s rhythmic palette.

Veteran Berkeley bassist Gary Johnson brought his command of jazz, R&B and hip hop into the ensemble, while Bahian-raised percussionist Marcos Rodrigues, who teaches Brazilian drumming at Berkeley’s BrasArte, introduced an array of Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. The Francophone world contributed Québécois violinist Magali Sanscartier and French saxophonist Cyril Guiraud. A long-running bimonthly residency at San Francisco’s Club Deluxe provided an ideal space to integrate all the different elements, and the band returns to its second-and-third-Saturday run in July. Recent collaborations with Carola Zertuche and dancers from her Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco add a whole new element into the already fervid mix.

“The violin and upright bass and two guitars comes from Gypsy jazz,” Jiménez says. “We used to play a lot of tunes like that. Magali likes to play a lot of Romani tunes, but she also has this punk element, and likes to sing rock tunes from French bands. Marcos is from Bahia and his grandfather is from Africa. He’s putting that in the band too and it works. Remember, flamenco has a lot of influence from North Africa.”

Born in Madrid and raised with Andalusian culture from Córdoba, guitarist/composer Javi Jiménez has created a new sound with Barrio Manouche. Photo: Frederic Aube

A Berkeley resident for the past decade, Guiraud was working in Paris as a jazz musician when he and his wife, a native San Franciscan, relocated to the Bay Area. He’d been playing Gypsy jazz with Oakland guitarist Ross Howe when he heard that Jimenez was looking for a saxophonist. A rehearsal with Barrio Manouche quickly convinced him that the group was the challenge he’d been looking for.

“I heard the music and saw that Javi is an amazing guitar player, and his music is crazy good,” Guiraud says. “I’ve played with many bands in my career, and this one is fascinating because we’re creating a sound that doesn’t exist: flamenco with Gyspy jazz with the Afro-Latin percussion. As a saxophonist I’m bringing the jazz colors. It’s a melting pot of influences, we’re building the sound and discovering it as we do it through Javi’s compositions and arrangements.”

Also an entrepreneur, Guiraud has launched several companies, and his latest venture, the music label doubleOone, invites audiences to recording sessions to immerse people in the process of creating and documenting music. Barrio Manouche’s Aires de Cambio is a Double0One production, though it’s being distributed by the visionary San Francisco world music label Six Degrees Music.

The Jiménez brothers have come a long way from the working-class Madrid neighborhood where they grew up. They absorbed Andalusian culture from their mother’s side of the family, which hailed from Córdoba. From their father Javi inherited a love of Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and the Beatles, and from their mother he absorbed the songs of the Valencian protest singer Paco Ibáñez, who set the poems of Lorca, Cernuda, Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernández to music. He spent years studying jazz and performing around Barcelona, where he met North Bay guitarist Adam Roach. Relocating to the Bay Area, they co-founded Beso Negro, a group mixing Gypsy jazz, rock and Americana influences.


With Barrio Manouche, he’s built a band player by player, with each distinct personality adding a vivid new hue. “You have a canvas that’s empty and mix the colors you like,” he says. “The important thing is the result. It’s been a learning experience for them too. Not that I choose the players for what they can play or not. I love these people. This is what it is all about, love, having a great time and building together.”

Recommended gig: Edgar Pantoja at the Freight tonight!

The inventive Cuban pianist/composer/arranger Edgar Pantoja hails from Santiago and now lives in New York City, where he’s become a creative locus connecting leading players in jazz and Latin music. In recent years he’s worked with masters such as Rubén Blades, John Benítez, David Murray, Angelique Kidjo, Descemer Bueno, and Pedrito Martinez, while establishing his own identity as a bandleader. He presents the Bay Area version of his Afro-Cuban Tribe tonight at Freight & Salvage with the Cuban rhythm section tandem of bassist Ernesto Mazar Kindelán and percussionist Carlitos Medrano, guitarist David Lechuga-Espadas and drummer Colin Douglas.