David Langlois shows up late to his gig at Fada. No one seems to mind. David is a slight man with Rastafarian dreadlocks, a Parisian goatee and a disarming smile. When I offer him my hand to shake, he kisses both my cheeks, then starts rummaging through his bags, looking worried. “I lost my thimbles,” he explains, which under normal circumstances would be grounds for correcting his English (“You mean you lost your marbles?”) or smiling wanly and backing away. But David is talking about real thimbles, the Grandmother kind; they are part of his musical instrument.
What David calls his washboard is actually an assortment of household tools bolted together. In a row, attached to the edge of the washboard, are: a fondue pot, inverted (“my grandmother’s” David remembers fondly); a sieve, which sounds like a cymbal when struck; and a pie tin, also turned upside down. “The pie tin sounds better the more you use it,” David explains as he shows me the smooth dents it has developed under the striking of his thimble-tipped fingers. The deeper the dents, he says, the broader the range of notes. Under these rests a wood block, which says “clock” when David strikes it. On one side of the washboard is a flattened trowel, which previously belonged to David’s grandfather. On the other side is a little shelf handy for holding David’s cell phone, his Marlboro lights, and the rest of the instrument: eight thimbles, which David has finally located. He and the rest of the band prepare to play.
David sits down with the instrument on his lap and closes his eyes, as if about to lead a séance. His silver-tipped fingers flutter against the pie tin, then start to tap dance over the fondue pot and wooden block, throwing ratatats, ping pangs and knocks into the air. During solos he arches his back like a cat and scratches at the board with fanatic energy. Members of the audience look up from their dinners. A girl in a black cardigan sits rapt as if in church, while a middle-aged Polish couple begin to giggle and dance. The old woman sitting next to me at the bar, amazingly, has begun to cry. On stage, David has a faint smile as he plays.
He grew up in Paris, where he discovered Bob Marley at the age of ten. Though he couldn’t understand the words Marley was singing, the music affected him so strongly he decided to be a musician. His eyes still light up when he talks about Marley. (‘Get Up, Stand Up’ is only one chord,” he reminds me, excited. “It’s so different from what we play because it’s so simple. But it’s so good.”) Still, he doesn’t call Bob Marley his hero; David doesn’t have any heroes. And don’t make any assumptions about the dreadlocks either.
“I’m not a hippy,” he insists between sets, throwing a piece of bloody steak between his teeth. He does believe music should have a positive message, though, and he did leave Paris for the Alps while still a teenager, where he was first approached by a washboard player. “I felt insulted,” David tells me, offering me a bite of steak and signaling for another espresso. “I said, ‘Dishes? I am a drummer, why should I play dishes?’” But after seeing the man perform with a full band, David changed his mind about the dishes and decided to give them a try. He found a washboard in an Alpine shop for $10, chose a fondue pot from his grandmother’s kitchen, located the most musical trowel in his grandfather’s tool shed, and was soon performing with his new instrument all over France and Switzerland. “When you are a musician in France, you are respected,” David tells me. “You get paid when you are not working, and you get to take vacation.” David used his vacation time to travel to Senegal every summer where he and local families “adopted one another” and bonded over a shared love of Bob Marley. “I was the only person with a guitar in the village. But they all knew music so well. The children there can master the most complicated rhythms,” David says. “It’s incredible.” Someday, he hopes to return.
But for now, he’s calling New York City home. After a friend talked up the Brooklyn music scene, David decided to leave France and head to America. Though getting a visa proved very challenging (“you have to get letters of recommendation saying you’re the best at whatever it is you do”), David moved across the Atlantic. Looking for a job without knowing English was problematic but David found an East Village restaurant and live music venue willing to hire him. Peering at David’s resume, the owner asked, “Do you like rock and roll?” “Sure,” said David. “So you like to go fast with dishes?” the owner pressed. “Sure.” “You can be a busboy,” declared the owner. “Cool,” said David, smiling. He had no idea what “busboy” meant.
“Going fast with dishes” had nothing to do with music as far as the owner of the café was concerned. David turned in his apron after one week, but during that week he met Stephane Wremble, a formidable gypsy jazz guitarist in the style of Django Reinhardt, who played Sunday brunches at the restaurant. Soon, David became part of Stephane’s Hot Club of New York. Now that David plays seven nights a week, he has had to quit his other gigs, including the drum circles in the park. “I would play so hard in the park all afternoon that my fingers would grow blisters and I wouldn’t even notice,” he said. “At night I couldn’t fit my thimbles on. But that’s New York. There’s no time to rest.”