Tcha Limberger


INTERVIEW – Pursuing a passion for Gypsy violin – Fiddler Magazine

01.06.2015 – Interview with Peter Anick

Tcha Limberger – Pursuing a passion for Gypsy violin

‘Born into a family of Belgian Manouche Gypsy musicians, Tcha Limberger was playing guitar and clarinet in the family orchestra by the time he was a teenager. But after mastering the swing guitar style pioneered by Django Reinhardt, he found himself beguiled by another strain of Manouche music, the Gypsy melodies of Eastern Europe. At nineteen, he took up the violin and set out to master the difficult virtuosic musical style of Hungary’s Magyar nóta. Now in his thirties, Tcha’s success is evident. He serves as primas for the Budapest Gypsy Orchestra and
tours with a Transylvanian folk music ensemble, the Kalotaszeg Trio. Nor has he abandoned jazz, as he leads an acoustic swing ensemble of young string players, known as “Les Violons de Bruxelles” and explores free improvisation in a guitar duo with fellow Belgian Herman Schamp. Fortunately for Americans eager to follow in his musical footsteps, Tcha also speaks fluent English and in 2013 Andrew Lawrence invited him to join the staff of Django in June, the annual Gypsy jazz music camp held in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was there that I had the pleasure of observing the blind virtuoso in the dual roles of teacher and performer, both of which he carries out with great panache. Tcha graciously gave up his lunch break in the midst of a busy day of instruction to talk about his passion for the Gypsy violin.

Tcha Limberger: I was born in Belgium – Bruges, a very beautiful medieval town. My mother is Flemish, so she is non-Gypsy. And my father is Manouche, which meant that I have grown up being the product of two cultures. One thing I’ve tried is to take the best sides of both. I’d been listening to a lot of flamenco when I was a child and I only got interested in jazz when I was about twelve. By then I was playing guitar and I was singing flamenco and I was playing in a New Orleans band on banjo. I got interested in the clarinet and started playing the clarinet when I was twelve and I changed my guitar for a “Gypsy” guitar – a jazz guitar. I had the fortune to have this Tascam tape recorder that had four tracks and I could record myself making a whole band or a choir. I didn’t play violin then and I never thought I would until I was nineteen or twenty, really. I started trying the instrument when I was seventeen, just because I thought it was too sad that our family was like a usine (factory) of guitarists, starting off with Stochelo (Rosen- berg), Paulus (Schafer), Jimmy (Rosenberg)… All the Dutch guys are cousins or somehow related. My grandfather, Piotto, was a violin player and had a band which was with a brother and their two eldest sons – “De Piottos.” He lived in Belgium mostly, but his brother Latcheben moved to Holland and his son Waso Grünholz was the most important guitar player of the last fifty years in Holland and Belgium.

What sort of music would they have been playing?

Some French chanson. Some, as I call it, Eastern European “souvenirs” [memories], because they are not really played the way they are played over there. So it’s a kind of memory, a changed copy. I have some recordings in the beginning of the seventies where they were playing some Django stuff… But I was very sad that there was no violin in the family any more. Everybody was playing guitar and faster and faster and faster. Where’s the violin? Where’s the melody? I was quite busy trying to find out more about my grandfather as well, because he must have been a very charismatic person. For every time when we went to play somewhere in Flanders, people would come to us and say, “You must be grandsons of Piotto. I saw him in nineteen-forty – whatever.” I always would think, “How the bloody hell could it be that somebody remembers that?” So he must have been a very special person….

I also got some very nice recordings of some Hungarian violin player called Toki Horvath, which is still my ever favorite for music of Budapest. Not the traditional Hungarian music, but a kind of art music. It’s like “fado” in Portugal. Fado is not traditional in Portugal’s folklore. It was music that was made in the beginning of the nineteenth century that would suit restaurants, coffee places and tea houses, but would be really Portuguese. Same thing for Hungary. They made up a new style of music which would suit the upper class, so it would not be as “primitive” as the peasant music, folklore, but would be suitable for upper class events, let’s say. That music became very popular and it also became very popular with Gypsies in Holland and Belgium. Tata Mirando, for example, who is a Manouche who came from Switzerland, came to Holland and started to play what he called Hungarian music. I don’t know how much he spoke Hungarian. Magyar nóta, that style of music – you can’t play it if you don’t speak Hungarian. There’s no possible way to get it right. That’s because there are a lot of tunes that don’t have tempo or meter, so you need the lyrics to understand how to play the melody. It’s like these Irish ballads. If you have the lyrics, you know which notes should be long and which should be short and where you can speed up the thing and where you have to slow down, where’s the gaps between phrases precisely. I can clearly hear when someone plays Magyar nóta whether he speaks Hungarian or not. It’s not even the meaning of the lyrics. It’s the rhythm of the language that you need. It’s like if someone would speak without commas and without punctuation, it would suddenly become quite un-understandable because you wouldn’t know the beginning of the phrase or the end, splitting up the words in the wrong place and therefore sounding really strange, like they were ripping it apart in strange places.

So finally, when I was nineteen, I had to make a decision. Am I really going to play the violin, which I never thought I would because I’d always heard from Hungarian musicians, “Oh my son is already twelve. No he shouldn’t start the violin. It’s too late. He will never be a good player any more so let him play the bass.” And also when I tried it, it was so difficult I never thought I’d be able to play it properly. And by the way, I still do feel that the violin is a new instrument for me! I can pick up the guitar after not having played it for three months and not have any problem. But if I would do that with violin, I might not ever start again. I need to practice every day to try to be on top and I still have the distinct feeling that I have not reached what I would like to reach, just as knowledge of the instrument. The bow and tuning – it’s so difficult. But when I made the choice I am going to play the violin, then I started to think – what will be my tool to learn this instrument? Because I knew that I would never play classical mu- sic. On the other hand, I knew that classical music would be the best way of learning the instrument because they have the most precise approach. They are the most deeply involved with sound, precision, articulation. Fortunately, I knew that I don’t have the mentality of a classical musician. I was very much intrigued by Romanian music and I had the feeling that they were not treating the violin as a classical instrument. Everybody plays in his way, which is perfectly fine, but – how will you learn it? That was my question. Because I was already nineteen, I didn’t want to waste much more time.

And then I got back to this Hungarian music. The Manouche love it, and I loved it as well. When I was in Budapest, I was so impressed by some of the concerts I saw there. “This is what I am going to learn!” Which meant that I have to learn Hungarian. Which I did. I went to Budapest for one year and a half and studied with Horvath Bela. Now he is a classical player, mostly, but his grandfather was a good primas, a Gypsy violinist. So he knew the repertoire and he definitely knew what to teach me. I had two lessons a week and I practiced six hours a day for one year and a half… Scales, arpeggios, double stops. I discovered something in that period which was the interference when you do double stops. If you do them with the natural tuning, they make your violin sound so much better. If you do that every day, one month and your instrument is totally open. And if you do it wrong, play double stops not in the natural tuning, you can close it up.

Really, it affects the resonance of the instrument itself?

I’m sure of it.

And when you say “natural tuning,” what do you mean?

Well, there’s tempered tuning and there’s natural tuning, which has more to do with the harmonics. That was one of the things that I discovered during practice. There was this Dutch guy who told me, “If you’re going to practice this, you don’t need to practice anything else. Because tuning will be good, your bowing will be good.” In order to get these sounds out of the violin, your bow has to be straight and the right pressure and the right speed. For him, that was the ultimate violin practice – thirds and sixths. When I play A and F#, for example, I get to hear a D underneath it. If I play D and F, I’ll hear a Bb.

So is this what you still practice?

Yes, scales, arpeggios and then these double stops. And always long bows. Before a concert, the best thing is long bows.

Were you learning tunes at that point as well?

Yes, absolutely. In Budapest, I was learning tunes, I was learning technical stuff. And then I discovered that this particular music, the Magyar nóta, was not popular any more at all! Young Hungarians don’t like it because they say it’s ar-tificial: “Oh, they play that for tourists. They play that for old people. Oh, it’s in old movies. It’s not the real Hungarian mu- sic because it’s been made up.” Well, “made up” but it’s beautiful! But okay, so they don’t like it. They told me, “You have to go to Transylvania to find out about Transylvanian music.”

…[In] Transylvania, I went to the Kalotaszeg tabor. Tabor is the Hungarian word for “camp.” Kalotaszegi dans tabor – dance camp, at which there was also music teaching. Neti [Sándor] was teaching. Some other guys from Budapest were teaching. There were two purists who didn’t want to play any Romanian stuff: “Oh, it’s no good, it’s Romanian…” But that’s just the beauty of the Transylvanian music – it’s all mixed. The Gypsies anyway have to play both repertoires, so you have to know it. If you want to make money, you have to play weddings for Hungarians and Romanians and for Jews, Saxons, Swabians. [Tcha demonstrates the differences between Hungarian and Romanian treatments of Transylvanian tunes. The Hungarian ornamentation uses fast elaborate trills and a two-fingered vibrato, while the Romanian ornaments consist of quick combinations of grace notes around a central note.]

Why do you think the violin became the central instrument of that whole region?

I clearly remember an ethnologist when we were listening to a concert of Slovakian folklore, which has some of the same structure, rhythms, some of the same ornamentation but simpler. She would say that this music has only been played on the violin for two hundred fifty, three hundred years maximum. Before that, it was all bagpipes. And I think that’s the same for Transylvania, Romania, Bulgaria. In Bulgaria, they had the gaida. In Romania, they had the cimpoi. In Hungary, you had duda. These are all names of bagpipes. And at a certain point, string quartets became kind of popular in rich environments and village people just tended to take this setup over. In Poland, instead of bass, you have cellos playing the bass notes. It’s just a string quartet but a rural version, playing their music with their knowledge of the instrument.

So they adopted the instrument and played the bagpipe music on it – and that’s why we get these particular ornaments

Voila! Right.

Are there still bagpipers around or did it go out of fashion?

In Transylvania, it definitely went out of fashion. Bulgaria has a beautiful bagpipe tradition still. Macedonia as well.

But there must have been bowed string instruments in Hungary prior to the violin.

There has been everywhere. Why not? The bratch, for example, is a straight descendent from a certain Renaissance instrument that was played in this way [holding the violin against the chest with the supporting arm against the body]. “Braccio” in Italian means “arm,” since it was resting on the arm. It’s just a normal viola played in this way.

Did the Magyar nóta incorporate any of these bagpipe ornament types?

No, it’s more classical violin playing. It ornaments more with notes rather than ornamentation. In the gaps between the melody, they’d add some notes going from one place to another. [Tcha demonstrates the use of such ornamentation in “Vége, Vége, Vége Mar,” a tune he plays as primas with the Budapest Gypsy Orchestra.]

Very nice!

It’s very beautiful and, unfortunately, I can’t play it often enough. The Budapest Gypsy Orchestra, most of them are living in Hungary and it’s a big band, including a cimbalom, double bass, cello. Seven people. So to travel around is hard. What I hope for with that band is to get into playing classical festivals. It’s not classical but the instruments are treated in a classical way. The chords, the way progressions are is very classical-like, very Bach.

…This Magyar nóta repertoire is huge! And if you are the only soloist and you have to play blocks of music of ten minutes includ- ing one quick piece, a very slow one, a half slow one, a quicker one again, you can’t stop and think, “How was the middle part of that?” You have to have it all ready in the fingers and in the head. And then with all the variations and possible stops…

How much improvisation is done within that style?

There’s variation, there’s no improvisation.

So the freedom you have is to throw in the variations you want.

Yes, but the variations have definitely to be within the codes of the language and the music. But I love it. I love Bulgarian music, I love Greek music. And I try to use all of that in the jazz I am playing. Jazz should be improvised, so why would you have a whole bag full of material that you know and not use it? So when I play [Cole Porter’s] “What is this Thing Called Love?”, you can use all that! [He demonstrates improvising using Magyar nóta stylistic conventions and then Transylvanian ornamentation.]

So you are creating your own jazz style out of all of these.

Yes, that’s what I try. Except, when I play traditional Kalotaszeg music, I’ll play it as traditionally as I can, because I feel I am hon- ored to be accepted by those people and I don’t want to change their music. If they want to change it, they will. But why would I? Jazz is definitely different. That’s what people expect of you – to create your own style, your own music, your own songs, compose, improvise.


[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America”, teaches fiddle and mandolin and performs with the Massachusetts bluegrass group Wide Open Spaces (]

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