Monday, August 4, 2003

Django Haskins

When Django Haskins first came to the National Guitar Worshop at age 14, he found his niche.

“I had this weird name growing up and people were always getting it wrong, or spelling it wrong or making fun of it,” said Haskins, whose parents named him after legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. “I come here and everyone here knows how to pronounce my name and thinks it’s the greatest thing ever. It kind of was like the ugly duckling finds his crowd.”

Growing up on a farm in Gainesville, Fla., his parents were musicians, exposing him to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Cole Porter and Elvis Costello. Haskins started playing classical violin at age 6, but he found his calling when he discovered his father’s electrical guitar seven year later. The following year, 1988, Haskins enrolled at the National Guitar Workshop, located on the Canterbury School campus, as a student. He has come back every summer since, and has been a faculty member for the past decade.

Established in 1984, the workshop has six weekly sessions each summer, attracting a wide variety of musicians from around the United States and even overseas. Haskins says it is one of the top two or three summer programs of its kind that he has seen. Students range in age from 13 to 79 and from beginners to recorded musicians, who come to learn guitar, bass, keyboard, drums or vocals.

Like many faculty members, Haskins only teaches for three weeks because the schedule is so intense. He teaches seven hours a day for six days a week. His day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. with a break from 4 to 6 p.m.

“There’s always been really great teachers here,” he said. “One reason I really like coming back is my friends from all around the country teach here. And we all see each other every summer.”

Another thrill he gets is watching his students progress.

“Well, this is my first time here, but so far I’ve probably learned more than I have in the past year, just in a couple of days, with Django especially,” said Danielle Schwob, a 16-year-old guitar player from London taking Haskins’s voice class. “I’ve never had a voice class. I can already tell there’s going to be improvement in the way I sing.”

Still young himself, Haskins, 29, recalls his not-so-glamorous journey to becoming a professional musician.

At age 15, after playing in a band for a couple years, he began to seriously think about a career as a guitar player. His parents weren’t too keen on the idea and had a family friend, who was a saxophone player with Ike and Tina Turner, give him the lowdown on his new found love.

“He sat me down and said, ‘Look, you got to really like to eat peanut butter and jelly for the rest of your life if you want to be a musician’,” Haskins said.

So Haskins continued to write songs at home with a four-track recorder during high school, and then studied literature at Yale University to see if he liked anything more than music.

“I found a lot of things I was really interested in, but nothing that felt as right and personal to me as (music),” he said.

One of his interests was learning Chinese. He decided he wanted to grasp the language better so he felt the easiest way would be to live there, which he did, playing at local pubs and teaching English at a university.

“It was a really good learning experience for me as a writer because it just took one element away,” said Haskins about the songs he performed in English. “The lyrics are no longer going to help the song get over with an audience. It really helped me to develop showmanship, basically entertaining people.”

After his stay in China, Haskins moved to New York City in 1996, where he recorded an album and performed solo gigs. A few years later he assembled a band called “Django & the Regulars,” which he made a few albums with.

“When you’re in a band with someone it’s like having three girlfriends,” Haskins said. “It just has to be a close relationship because you’re working so closely together and you’re traveling and you’re sleeping on floors together.”

Much of his touring is done alone, solo acoustic. He now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., half of the year. The other half he spends traveling, often to New York City. His latest album, “overeasysmokemachine,” has catchy sounds and demonstrates his ability to play with a band and as a solo artist. But he mostly wants to be remembered as a songwriter since his music doesn’t fall into a particular genre.

Haskins has taught a song-writing class for the past few years at the National Guitar Workshop. Everyone in the class, including Haskins, is required to write a song a day, which they perform the following day and then write their next song. For Haskins, it something he enjoys because he never has time as a traveling musician to write at least 15 songs in a short time period – just another reason to come back.

And it’s always nice when people know your name.

This story first appeared in the Danbury News-Times and New Milford Spectrum in August 2003.