Tcha Limberger: the power of knowledge, skill and a big heart
Text: Mischa Andriessen
Photos: Eric van Nieuwland
A long sustained note on the violin, gradually accompanied by the soft polyphonous vocals of tenor, mezzo-soprano and soprano. Then the harmony is abruptly and irrevocably broken by the unusually intense shriek of a man. His cry lasts no longer than ten seconds, but the mental echo, the reverberation of this shout from the depths of the heart, stays with the listener for quite some time, maybe even a lifetime.
The first minute of Sfogava Con Le Stelle, the piece that opens the breathtaking project I Silenti, is one of the most moving in music. That’s down to the class of composer Fabrizio Cassol, who created the masterpiece based on the madigrals of Claudio Monteverdi. And to the virtuosity of the Bruges-born multi-instrumentalist and singer Tcha Limberger, who in the few seconds described above tells a sweeping story that, in those brief moments, opens a window onto the history of the Manouche and Sinti, a window through which the light falls so sharply and clearly that it’s impossible not to see what lies beyond. I Silenti breaks the silence, I Silenti shows the history of persecution of the Manouche and Sinti people in an unforgettable manner, a drama all too often forgotten, all too often ignored.
Those ten seconds reveal much about Tcha Limberger. About his amazing talent and his remarkable approach. In that ten-second-long cry, at least three important qualities come together: astonishing musical technique, an extensive knowledge of the subject (you sense that Limberger knows what he’s singing, knows what it’s about) and, not in the least, his complete dedication to and engagement with the music.
In an interview he asserts that he’s no affinity whatsoever with music that doesn’t touch him emotionally, but in the same interview Limberger repeatedly reveals that he wants to know all the ins and outs of the music that does move him. It is telling, for example, that when, as a teenager, he became fascinated by the music that people all too easily dismiss as Hungarian gypsy music, he not only began to study that music in all its subtlety but also mastered Hungarian to such a degree that he says he can now immediately hear from the accents in a musician’s playing whether or not they have a firm grasp of language.
Again and again, Limberger exhibits an awareness of how complex every culture, every style of music, every history is. An illustration of his precision is that, when asked about the essence of his music, he answers by going all the way back to his earliest youth, back to the very start.
Limberger was born in 1977. His mother is Flemish, his father Manouche (the more common name in Belgium for a West-European gypsy tribe usually referred to in the Netherlands as Sinti). Music was important and never far away right from the start. Tcha is a grandchild of the legendary violinist Piotto Limberger, the founder of the family orchestra in which Tcha would later play, initially as a guitarist. That the young Tcha picked up a guitar is hardly surprising given that his father Vivi also plays guitar, and the family numbers numerous guitarists, among them Stochelo Rosenberg. Despite that, Tcha’s attraction to the guitar in his early years had another source. As a child he was fascinated by the Flamenco, or at least by the style loosely based on it by the guitarist Manitas de Plata, which was very popular back then, certainly in France. Limberger: ‘I had some success quite early. People enjoyed seeing a toddler diligently giving it all, but I soon disliked the fact that I actually knew so little about the music.’
That explains a thread that runs through Limberger’s career: he’s never satisfied with a superficial knowledge of the music he’s into and playing. But he doesn’t judge others either. He’s no problem with the fact that Manitas de Plata gave fantastic performances at Carnegie Hall in New York as a so-called Flamenco guitarist, even though the Frenchman ultimately knew hardly anything about Flamenco. But Limberger wants to go deeper, and he does. That starts with the music he played with his family in his younger years. Music that’s often labelled Gypsy Jazz, but which Limberger himself prefers to call Django Reinhardt style. That impulse to acquire essential knowledge became even more important when Limberger fell under the spell of Magyar Nota (literally, the ‘Hungarian song’), a style of music that arose in the early nineteenth century and that amounted to a refinement or ‘embourgeoisement’ of the much more raucous music played in the Hungarian countryside.
To be able to fathom that music, Limberger mastered the Hungarian language and headed for Budapest, where he discovered that the music he loved so much was much less popular in its place of origin. There he learned to discern countless nuances and local differences and incorporate them into his interpretation of the music. He founded Tcha Limberger’s Budapest Gypsy Orchestra, as well as Tcha Limberger’s Kalotaszeg Trio, in which he focused specifically on music from Transylvania (a region that was once part of Hungary, but now belongs to Romania). From there, he explored the music of Romania, Turkey and Greece with various groups of musicians. This intensive introduction to various traditions taught Limberger so much about the possibility, or rather the impossibility, of the notion of authenticity. Did church music exist first and then gradually permeate folk music? Or was it the other way around, and did composers of church music use melodies already familiar to ordinary people to convey an edifying message more easily? The chorale harmonizations of Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, are laced with folk melodies. So who knows?
It is interesting to note that Limberger often speaks about innovation in a conscientious and modest way, in the sense that he often notes that he hasn’t managed to innovate within any style. That only demonstrates once again his devotion to and knowledge of the music he plays, which he simply knows too well to be satisfied with just a superficial modification, never mind seeing it as innovation.
What hasn’t yet been mentioned in this account of Limberger’s exciting career is the fact that, besides the guitar, he also learned to play the clarinet and the violin. He chose the latter partly because, with the passing of Tcha’s beloved grandfather Piotto, the family orchestra boasted lots of guitarists, but no longer any violinists. The more Limberger immersed himself in Hungarian music, the more he became convinced that he had to choose, and that he would have to drop either the clarinet or the violin. Limberger: ‘That was a very difficult choice. I’d reached a point with the clarinet that I could play whatever I wanted in any way I wanted. It wasn’t the same with the violin. I started quite late with the instrument, and in that sense it was a gamble: would I attain the required level?’
Limberger plays the violin as intensely as he sings. He possesses the emotive sound, using the bow intensely on the strings, the penetrating yet still pleasant tone, not shrill, that the maestros in Hungarian music manage to achieve. He possesses that inconceivably flowing phrasing. He has the hunger, the self-knowledge, and he not easily satisfied. He’s a connoisseur and amateur in one. He knows very precisely what he’s doing and why. He knows that every musician is forever learning. He tells with genuine pleasure how he was able to study a lot during the Corona crisis, how he achieves a different, more refined sound with other strings (intestines), and how much he has learned from his wife, a great classical violinist.
And he was fantastic to start with. That record I Silenti — what a superb album it is. His amazing trio Tatavla, dedicated to Greek music, which will perform in the Netherlands this autumn, so relevant and so emotional at the same time. Or the Mediterranean Quartet, which has such wonderful melodies and, Limberger in front, playing them so empathically, skilfully and wonderfully. With Limberger, the same qualities always converge: knowing, wanting, mastering and feeling.
Back to that shriek, those ten seconds where so much comes together. Who else has such a heartfelt cry within his power? Who knows what he’s dealing with as well as this, and is technically capable of conveying what he feels, and who feels that so intensely? Someone who knows that music takes the most bizarre journeys, but always departs from the same place: the heart. There’s saying about wearing your heart on your sleeve that should be Limberger’s personal motto. For if anybody wears their heart on their sleeve, it’s him. There are countless examples, but those ten seconds of I Silenti suffice.