“He brought his own background to the music,” Pelli said. “Classical music, french waltzes. Django was from a traveling family generically known as Gypsies. So he grew up traveling in a horse-drawn carriage as a youngster just all throughout Western Europe. Eventually his family settled just outside Paris in this slum-marsh region. He spent his youth there and then walking into Paris and playing music. He was already a professional musician by age 12.”
Pelli plays violin and is a member of the Onyx Club Boys. Pelli learned about the gypsy jazz style after being recruited by a friend, whose band was missing a violinist.
“Every year I try to expand it and have new components," Gabriel Pelli said. "This year it’s three days, a lot of workshops, some jam sessions and two featured concerts."
The Onyx Club Boys will be playing with Tony Williamson at the festival. Williamson, who received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 2018, is a UNC alumnus and started playing mandolin at a young age.
“When I was 4, my dad brought home a mandolin for my older brother for his birthday and he told me not to touch it," Williamson said. "I learned that little sucker in no time. I was playing out at conventions and family picnics and jam sessions by the time I was 6, 7, 8 years old."
Williamson grew up listening to bluegrass music. It wasn’t until he met Kenny Baker, a fiddler, that he was introduced to gypsy jazz.
“I met him for the first time in 1969 at a festival and he was backstage playing guitar and it just blew my mind because it was unlike anything I’d heard before, and he told me I needed to listen to Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli,” Williamson said.
Williamson lives on his farm in Chatham County and travels the world playing mandolin.
“I was in Paris riding on the metro and there was a group of Gypsies traveling around with their change bucket and getting people to throw coins in," Williamson said. "They were playing guitar and accordion. Of course I had my mandolin and so I joined in with them. And we started playing all this gypsy music and went from one end of the metro to the other."
The festival also includes several workshops, including those on mandolin led by Williamson, violin led by Pelli, and swing dance lessons led by Richard Badu and Susan Jean.
Badu teaches swing dancing and tai chi full time and attended the Berklee College of Music.
“People said 'You’re always swing dancing with your girlfriend, so why don’t you teach a swing dance workshop?'” Badu said.
After several successful dance workshops, Badu became a full time dance teacher and started the swing scene in North Carolina. Badu teaches at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro as well as private lessons in swing dance and tai chi at his home in Hillsborough.
“I was fortunate when I lived in Boston I was studying with Chinese masters," Babu said. "With this one guy four hours a day, six days a week. Until he died."
In the '90s, Badu went to an international dance camp in Sweden.
“You can Lindy Hop (swing dance) anywhere in the world," Badu said. "And go swing dancing and dance with people you might not even be able to talk to. I remember dancing with this one woman from Hungary. We didn’t have one word in common except for 'Lindy Hop' and dance. So you can dance, just like you can play music with people you can’t speak with.”
Babu said he believes dance and music are forms of communication that can transcend language.
“You float along, you travel freely and you reach into the air, and grasp whatever you can, and you don’t think about the ownership of the note; you just think 'it's here, it's mine now and I’ll share it with you,'” Tony Williamson said.