Wandering Voices – Jamming with the Gypsy Allstars

Georges and Mario Reyes are late for their rehearsal. Far from being put out, their drummer, Cedric Leonardi, throws his hands up in greeting: “Bienvenue! Nous avons un petit theatre personnel! (Welcome! We have our own little personal theatre!)”

The Gypsy Allstars are about to rehearse with a trio of Rajasthani artists. The artists—Bhanwari Devi (vocals), her son, Krishan Bhopa (on the harmonium) and Pappa Khan (on the dholak)—are seated in the front row of seats at the Ali Akbar Theatre in the Umaid Bhawan Palace— the house of the Maharaja of Jodhpur and the hotel where the Gypsy Allstars are staying. Hedda, the band’s manager and Leonardi’s wife, is seated right next to Bhanwari Devi. They’re listening to the band’s tracks on Leonardi’s MacBook to decide on what to play for their performance at Jodhpur Riff. Hedda wonders whether they should have Bhanwari Devi sing the Gayatri Mantra. Bhanwari Devi seems focused, yet reticent. Right now they’re listening to the Gypsy Allstars song ‘Toca’.

The band has spent the mornings of the past two days listening to various folk artists at the Marwar Rajput Sabha Bhavan, where the folk artists are putting up, to figure who they might be able to collaborate with. Apart from Bhanwari Devi, Bhopa and Khan, they have yet another group of artists whom they will be rehearsing with soon.

They’ve kept the number of instruments to a minimum. There are two guitars, a harmonium and a dholak. On stage, Mario and Khan begin. Mario starts to strum while tapping the body of his guitar to set up a rhythm which Khan quickly matches with his dholak. Meanwhile, Georges sits in one of the audience seats, strumming quietly on his guitar. Once the beat is set, he gets on stage as well. Now Mario joins Georges in an enthusiastic flamenco riff.

Bhanwari Devi and Bhopa come in at the end. They are singing a folk song. They hope to find some common ground with the notes of ‘Toca’ and the raag it is based on, the Raag Kirwani. As she sits on the stage floor, Bhanwari Devi draws up her veil to sing. She is wearing a yellow ghagra-choli (skirt and blouse). She is still unsure of her aalap and is finding it difficult to sing in the same key in which the Gypsy Allstars are playing at the moment. After several false starts, Mario finally demonstrates three different keys to her as options. She can pick the one she is most comfortable in. There is a quick exchange as the volunteer attempts to translate Mario’s French to Hindi and Bhopa’s Hindi back to the band.

Bhopa, compared to Bhanwari Devi, is more outgoing. He discusses the changes in key with Mario and Leonardi, via the translator. Occasionally, he helps Bhanwari Devi with her aalap, or simply reassures her. He smiles most of the time and nods his head confidently when Leonardi suggests changes or improvisations.

An hour and a half later, they seem to be in sync. Now the Reyes brothers begin the song anew with some energetic strumming and peppy vocals. They are joined by Khan’s dholak and by Leonardi, thumping a beat on the hard shell of a guitar case. Bhopa’s restrained harmonium enters the mix here and Leonardi gestures at  Bhanwari Devi. A voice rises through the auditorium, plaintive yet powerful. Leonardi lifts his hands joyfully in the air;  Bhopa, Khan and the Reyes brothers smile broadly. Hedda clasps Bhanwari Devi’s hand.


(Image: Cedric Leonardi jams with Rajasthani musicians, by Shantenu Tilwankar/ Jodhpur Riff/ Oijo)

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