Cedric Leonardi, 44, is the drummer and front-man of the Gypsy Allstars, a musical project that “invites the multi-talented pedigree of gypsies to share their passion for music and life”. Leonardi grew up with the legendary Gipsy Kings families (the Reyes and the Baliardo families) in the gypsy barrio (neighbourhood) La Cite Gely in Montpellier (in the South of France), performing with them as their drummer. Singers and guitarists Mario and Georges Reyes, also a part of the project, are from the Gipsy Kings’ family (Georges, 38 is the son of Gipsy Kings founder Nicolas Reyes; Mario, 39, is his cousin) and wish to carry on its legacy.
Recently it was discovered that all gypsies around the world may actually be descendants of the Doms—an Indo- Aryan ethnic group from northwest India who had migrated to Europe approximately 1400 years ago—and trace their roots to Rajasthan. So the Gypsy Allstars embarked on a documentary project called Return to Rajasthan, which wants to chart the journey of gypsies from all over the globe back to their ancestral home in Rajasthan. This project kicked off this October at Jodhpur Riff with a collaboration between the Gypsy Allstars and some of the finest Rajasthani folk musicians.
As the sun sets over the horizon, Leonardi settles down at the poolside of Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan palace where the Gypsy Allstars are staying. He speaks to us about music and philosophy and tries to pin down that elusive idea of what a gypsy is and what he and his group, in turn, stand for.
The Gypsy Allstars has members from different countries and cultures. What does being a gypsy mean to you in the contemporary world? It’s an age-old tradition but how would you define it today?
You’re talking about the gypsy values. First of all it’s a way of life. Of course it’s something genetic, in the blood, but you don’t have to be a gypsy in blood to be a gypsy in the larger sense of the word. It’s an attitude, a way of approaching the world around you. What does that mean? That means being, first of all, a ‘traveller’. I believe this word is very important, going through life as a traveller and approaching life as a journey. And, in that sense of the word, being always on the move and not staying attached to anything…I was going to say ‘material’ but it’s above material, it’s above anything. Not being afraid of letting things go, jumping into the unknown, without knowing what’s going to come. Being a free spirit. And sharing. That’s a gypsy saying also— everything we don’t share is lost. Sharing the moment, the emotions, the material, the non material.
What is gypsy music, according to you? The Gipsy Kings’ music was a lot about Latin fusion and pop-oriented flamenco. Have you taken from that lineage? Would you say the essence of your music lies in a style or styles? Or simply in the spirit of it, so to speak?
Well, gypsy music from where I come from, the South of France—everybody thinks the Gipsy Kings are from Spain but they’re not, they’re from France—is all about joy. It’s music full of rhythm and full of joy which maybe the music of other gypsy lands, such as that in Russia or Romania, does not emphasize. Their music is often more melancholy. I’ve travelled the whole world and listened to lots of different gypsy music—such as music from Ireland, the Celtic music and music from India. But then you start seeing some similarities in the various sounds. Like in the Celtic strings and the kamaycha here.
Tell us a little bit about your line up? How did the Gypsy Allstars come about? How often does it change? How do you choose who’s supposed to be a part of the group?
We have people from all over, from different musical traditions. We have been working with an Indian singer in Los Angeles and a fabulous tabla player who has been Zakir Hussain’s student for most of his life. But we didn’t bring them with us (to Jodhpur Riff) this time as we wanted to honour our Rajasthani brothers and sisters and allow them to bring their own magic to the music. This was the point of us coming here to collaborate. We didn’t want the folk musicians to be dominated by a sound which was part of our U.S. experimentation. We will be coming to India again, sometime in January next year, to continue our work.
The Gypsy Allstars is about paying homage to the Gipsy Kings as well as, simultaneously, experimenting and creating new sounds. How do you balance these two aspects of the band’s work when making music? One would imagine paying homage to another group, especially an older one, may go against the grain of experimentation…
We try to keep a balance between what the audience is familiar with and what we are doing, which is new, and which they also happen to really love. We have found that people love the combination of sounds and are going crazy for the fusion. We are not going to disappoint them if they want to hear ‘Bamboleo’ or ‘Volare’— which are in fact covers that the Gipsy Kings popularized, a sound which comes out of the South of France. The gypsy rumba is the sound of the Camargue (a region in the South of France) so it’s homage not just to the group but to the region the three of us Gipsy Kings alums come from.
Your band features musicians from different musical traditions and styles. Is there a process or any pointers you follow, currently, in trying to meld these styles together? What challenges have you faced? How have you overcome them? Could you give us an example of one composition, especially one of your better known ones, and take us through how it evolved?
It’s interesting. When we started this we felt that the musical traditions and styles were far apart— only because we were unfamiliar with ‘working’ them together. However now that we are in the midst of this grand experiment we see so many similarities. Hand movements, voices, rhythms. The sounds just work together. The biggest challenge is actually that both gypsy tribes, if you will, from France and India, are so embedded in their traditions. What they do is in their blood, in their DNA. They are so used to doing what they do that to explore something new is challenging. It requires curiosity and contemplation and in a way re-wiring the brain.
Actually overcoming these fixed ways of doing things requires time and intimacy. Trust takes a while to build. Listening to each others musical styles, enjoying what each of us brings to the music is a big part of finding the way through to a fusion. With ‘Katte’, which Bhanwari Devi has been singing all her life, we just kept listening to it over and over and over again until we found chords and patterns that worked. There is no formula. No prescription. At some point it just feels as if God is leading the way.
Indian music has 5, 7, 9 or 11 beats per measure as against the western 4 or 6. Has this been a challenge for you— when it came to fusing it with Western styles? How did you overcome it?
So far it’s been about the Rajasthani musicians accommodating the rumba beat which is all of 4 (beats per measure). It’s actually been quite a smooth experience for us gypsies— I imagine because we are not trying to work the other way round yet. That should be a question for the Rajasthani musicians.
You had once said in an interview with the Examiner that you’ve been trying to incorporate traditional elements, and not just be experimental. Could you elaborate on that idea a bit? How do you incorporate these elements? Do you choose specific instruments or rhythms? If so, on what basis?
You can experiment so much as a musician and yet totally alienate an audience. By ‘tradtional’ I mean familiar. We are not trying to create complicated jazz. We are looking to create sounds that people can enjoy, relate to and be elevated by. The tabla is very specific to Indian culture so it’s a natural choice for us. So is the voice which is the ultimate ‘instrument’. The guitar is the instrument of the gypsy culture of the Camargue, so again these are natural choices. We do not try to force anything or anyone. It’s a privilege to be a musician and coming from this space of gratitude and joy leads the way.
You spoke about wanting to incorporate Irish sounds into your music? Have you been able to achieve that? How? What other sounds are you interested in?
I am interested in everything. The more you delve into fusion the more you find the similarities between all cultures, as if there was one original sound which everything emanates from. I love Irish music and it will find its way into our project in its own time. At the moment we are just at the tip of the iceberg of exploration and creation with our Rajasthani family of musicians. And we have our hands, very happily, full.
(Image: Cedric Leonardi. By Kavi Bhansali/Jodhpur RIFF)