Midnight Madness – A Report on the Riff Rustle

It is midnight, and the beginning of the last day of Jodhpur Riff. The audience has spread out, through the courtyards of the Mehrangarh Fort, in search of refreshment and chatter. The performance that got over just a few minutes ago—by the Gypsy Allstars—is the talk of the night. The Gypsy Allstars, comprising members of the famous Gipsy Kings as well as those descended from the family that had formed the band, played old favourites from their repertoire—‘Volare’, ‘Bomboleo’—followed by music that is the product of a new collaboration at the festival, called ‘Return to Rajasthan’, with singer Bhanwari Devi as well as other Rajasthani folk musicians. Glasses clink and conversations ensue around how the group may well be on its way to finding a new ‘world sound’ with this collaboration. A sound in sync with the raison d’être of the gypsy, the eternal world wanderer.

The leader of the Gypsy Allstars, Cedric Leonardi, is missing from the party. He finally announces his presence, as well as the beginning of the last and most awaited Jodhpur Riff mainstage concert, with a drumroll. The concert will be a jam between practically every musician who has performed at the venue over the last three days— an event that has come to be known and looked forward to every year as the ‘Riff Rustle’. The conversationalists hasten back. Because the only thing that goes better with wine than conversation, is music.

Leonardi is this year’s ‘rustler’, or the musician who will conduct the jam. He has attended several of the performances at the festival but hasn’t really had a chance to jam with most of the musicians before now. This suits the scheme of things. The rustle, as its name suggests, is supposed to be impromptu: an exchange of thoughts, an orgy of ideas, a no-holds-barred musical conversation.

Earlier in the day, while speaking to us, Leonardi had expressed his regret at the fact that some of the musicians, who had played on the first two days of the festival, were no longer around. “I heard Spiro on the first day but they left, Manu Chao left, lots of people left,” he said. “Last night I saw the collaboration between the oud, the sarangi, and the robab. Only the oud will be here (he means Joseph Tawadros, the ARIA winning oud player), so I invited him to come.”

Leonardi had some sort of a vague plan in place on how to begin: “Maybe I start to play a beat and we’ll take it from there, depending on who is on stage. If it’s only Rajasthani musicians then we start off, maybe, softer, a little percussion, maybe a DJ would be nice… ”

And now he is in it. The audience has gathered around the mainstage, at the fort’s old zenana courtyard. Leonardi’s drumming is followed by the guitar solos of cousins Georges and Mario Reyes, inheritors of a rich musical legacy (the Reyes and Baliardos families from the South of France are the ones behind the famous ‘Gipsy Kings rumba’). They are joined by Tawadros on the oud. In the beginning the Reyes’ guitars, coupled with singing and folk percussion, seems to swallow the sound of the oud. Tawadros had been experiencing some trouble with the pickup from his oud during his sound-check. This seems to be happening again. He takes a while to settle in, looking a bit confused at first and then casting more than a few angry glances towards the sound console. In the meanwhile, Leonardi introduces new instruments and new musicians.  Norwegian folk singer Linda Gytri’s band mate Vidar Berge joins in on the guitar. Berge strums along with the others while Gytri plays some notes on the accordion, on loop. DJ and producer Maga Bo stands behind this ensemble with his console. He creates a siren-like sound effect. After some time Tawadros’ oud and Mario’s guitar finally seem to have found common ground, in a short strings solo part, as both instruments begin to riff off each other before transitioning to more strumming.

This segues into a Rajasthani instrumental set with dholaks and a harmonium. Bhanwari Devi, who’s been sitting quietly at centre-stage all this while, joins in with an overwhelming rendition of a Rajasthani folk song. She quietly exits the stage once her solo is over. After she leaves the act seems to flounder for a few moments. The musicians seem to be searching for a coherent beat or rhythm to follow. This makes the music sound discordant, almost cacophonic for a short while. But the jam picks up soon, with some percussion by Scottish drummer James Mackintosh and the Rajasthani artists. Also, there’s a dhol solo which, though impressive, feels a bit excessive because the bass instrument is loud and overpowering. Still, the jam has livened up considerably, though there is a need for a unified sense of direction. Various musicians pop in and out for solos or duets. Finally, the guitar strumming appears to link the disparate musical elements together.

A guitar duet with Mario and Berge follows, which leads on to an oud solo by Tawadros. The tempo quickens, before breaking into vocals by Georges, followed by some more Rajasthani songs sung by Meru Khan Manganiyar. Both these vocal segments are accompanied by percussion, this time by LAZAbeam (of Jus Now) and Ewan Macpherson. The duo was seen jamming together in a sitting room, near the mainstage, before the evening’s performances. On stage they seem to have struck up a strong camaraderie. LAZAbeam brings in Trini carnival vibes to the mix. This new turn, apparently, has gone down well with the audience who though participative so far hadn’t been half as enthusiastic as they seem now. The ground in front of the stage is crowded with people dancing, head-banging, bouncing. One of the audience members—a black man in a loose t-shirt and a pair of shorts—runs on to stage, grabs the mike that was so far committed to Leonardi’s drums and proceeds to sing a song that sounds Nigerian. He is terrible. The crowds boos him and Leonardi, after the first few minutes that it probably took him to recover from the shock, shoos him off stage.

Gytri plays a jaunty polka which goes well, surprisingly, with the Trini beats. She does a short duet with LAZAbeam. The Reyes cousins begin another rendition of Bomboleo which takes the tempo a notch higher. Besides the crowd in front of the stage, there were also several people seated on the seats or along the fort ramparts, who are now on their feet dancing.

Unfortunately Maga Bo, who is well known for his use of organic samples and live music in his sets, has not really been utilized in this jam. His contribution has been reduced to dropping in the occasional sound effect.

Also, Gytri’s accordion has very little space amid the constant back and forth between the guitar strumming and the percussion. She does have a short solo towards the end of the jam, however, which features snatches of her compositions which she had played during her own set.

But jams are never perfect. That is part of their charm. At the end, the audience calls for it to continue, a request the rustler and the other musicians have to decline politely because it is already too late. They smile instead, and bow repeatedly. The last night at Jodhpur Riff comes to a close, after many rehearsed performances, with a raw, unpredictable, wild set that could have gone anywhere, and did— taking the audience with it.


(Image: The Riff Rustle. Kavi Bhansali/JodhpurRiff).