An Interview with Cedric Leonardi on performing in India, collaborating with the Manganiyar gypsy tribe, engaging music audiences, and connecting the sacred and the mundane through his global music project, The Gypsy Allstars.
December 16, 2013
The Gipsy Kings, the wildly successful band from Southern France, is the band most noted for bringing Latin fusion and pop-oriented flamenco to a world-wide audience, with hits such as “Bamboleo” and “Djobi Djoba.” The Gypsy Allstars is an all-star group made up of some of the members of the Gipsy Kings family. However, this group brings in new fusion elements with a medley of additional musicians and singers from around the world. As Gypsy Allstars founder Cedric Leonardi stated in his last interview with the Examiner, “The idea for the Allstars was that it would be a fusion of all gypsies from all over the world and to bring it back to India where all gypsies originate from.” The band is called “Allstars” because the musicians are all masters in their art, allowing them to improvise and create new music and a new experience each time they collaborate.
The core members of the Gypsy Allstars who are from the Gipsy Kings lineage include: George Reyes (guitar, vocals), Cedric Leonardi (drums), and Mario Reyes. The Gypsy Allstars features Indian performers and performers from the Carmague as well as Cuban, Guatamalan, Afghani and Spanish gypsies for a spectacular mélange of world music.
Other notable performers currently collaborating with The Gypsy Allstars include Spanish flamenco dancer/singer Antonio Carmona and Nicole Russo, Brit-pop vocalist of The Brand New Heavies.
SFAE: We focused a lot on background the last time you did this interview for your Jazz Alley performance. So let’s focus more on what you’ve been up to since last April when you played here in Seattle. I saw some press coverage for performances in Delhi, India.
Cedric Leonardi: Before anything, I want to express how grateful I am to Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley. It is such a great venue—one of the best jazz venues in the United States. We are very thankful to be back for another performance.
What have we been up to? Well, we have been touring in the States mostly. San Francisco, L.A., Portland. We are just focusing on getting our band members together to practice. Some bands have members that all live in the same city, but many of us are from different countries. It’s important for us to create strong relationships so that we can transpose that energy onto the stage.
Last month we were in India to start a collaboration with the musicians there. In Dehli, the artistic director of the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, Divya Bhatia introduced us to different musicians from the gypsy community in Rajasthan. The specific gypsy community we are collaborating with is the Manganiyar tribe, who auditioned for us. One by one they played, and we were actually embarrassed, because they were so good. We had to then make a selection from musicians of that group.
A major reason we became involved with the Rajasthan International Folk Festival is because the festival is partnered with the Jaipur Virasat Foundation. This foundation is committed to preserving the traditional folk music of these gypsy tribes because it is the original gypsy music. We plan to donate money from our band's performance royalties to the Jaipur Virasat Foundation for this cause.
SFAE: Have you mostly been focusing on developing the Indian sound?
CL: Yes, that is the main idea. As I said last time, all gypsies come from India originally. So we have started to work with these gypsies from India and we will be going back to India in January to focus on getting more into the fusion sound [between the Spanish music played by the Reyes brothers and the Indian music]. I am the French gypsy, so I am trying to be the bridge between the band members. I am trying to push the different members together to become more comfortable with the new sound they are creating.
I like the Indian musicians because they have a quality of music. It is…[pauses] What is the opposite of cooked…? Raw. They have a very raw sound with their voices and instruments, it is almost like Indian rock and roll.
SFAE: It sounds like you’ve gained some new band members in India. Do you prefer to keep the members changing or constant?
CL: This is going to be a long-time collaboration project with the musicians we have in India, though they are not with us on this trip. The idea is to eventually take them on the road with us, yes. We are learning from them and using their sounds. So even if some of the musicians do not stay, we can keep that sound and adapt it.
What do I prefer? Well, I have to go with the flow of the moment. Music is like life—it changes and you have to adapt. I like having a team of band members, but I also like having new members because it means new ideas and fresh vision. But we can’t resist when we gain or lose members—that is the challenge, to just keep moving forward and to not resist change.
SFAE: How were you received by the people in India? Has opinion varied a lot in different countries?
CL: It was such a surprise! We went there and used very traditional Indian music. It’s like if an Indian band came to the States and did song covers of songs that every American knows. But the fusion style worked very well. There was a very positive reaction from the crowd. So we are thinking that it works—this fusion style. It is working not only in the West, but in the East too! I think we are on a good track.
SFAE: How do you determine success, or a positive reaction from the audience?
CL: Well, we always have a good response. It is joyful music from the heart. Even in a small venue like Jazz Alley, we can see the people looking and start to vocalize. We give the audience permission to be themselves. To start to clap or dance on the table. We have played in very sophisticated, V.I.P.-type jazz lounges, and even there, by the end they all get crazy. It’s a very transcendental experience.
SFAE: In a video of your Delhi performance, I noticed the audience dancing to your music at an outdoor venue. How do you feel when you play at smaller indoors venues like Jazz Alley that do not have a dance floor?
CL: I like small venues because you cannot fake it. You cannot hide behind big lights. In a smaller venue, the energy goes straight to the audience, and the audience’s energy comes straight back with no filter. Large and small venues are different experiences, but I like both. Neither one is better or worse than the other.
SFAE: Have you been focusing more on creating new songs or playing with old ones?
CL: We are writing and creating new songs and original music. We have many new songs that we are bringing back from our collaborations in India. We’ve done covers of very traditional Indian music—songs from the public domain. We (the band members) are all staying in the same house right now so we are playing together almost every night. Maybe we’ll even have time to write a new song before we perform. I want to add some surprise. This is how we stay alive.
SFAE: What languages are the songs in? The Gipsy Kings sang primarily in Portuguese, correct?
CL: No. [laughs]. A lot of people ask that, but the Reyes brothers sing in a kind of Spanish called Catalan. It is mostly spoken in Barcelona. It is a kind of “Gypsy Spanish.” The Indian singers sing in Hindi. We have also added some English lyrics.
SFAE: When your Indian singers sing in Hindi, do you know what they are saying? Have you or your band members learned any Indian dialects?
CL: No. [laughs]. I would like to learn some words. I usually don’t understand exactly what they are singing. But we have chosen to do a lot of Sufi music from India, so it is a lot of singing to God.
So there are two different levels to the music, and this reflects one of the major themes of our ensemble: the connection between the sacred and the mundane. We have the newer gypsy music, which is joyful and is about the joy of dance. Then we have the original Indian gypsy music, which is focused on praising God, and a spiritual experience. We’ve discovered that there is this lineage of the gypsy music; it has evolved over time from singing about God, to singing about the joy in the simple things in life. That is a major idea of this project. A big part of this music is about blending those two elements of the sacred and the mundane.
I simply keep two words in mind. Joyful and soulful. I want the music to be joyful. The newer gypsy music brings this element in. And I want the music to be soulful. This is brought in by the older, traditional Indian music. Also, colorful and wild. That is what the music should be.
The Gypsy Allstars will be playing Dimitriou's Jazz Alley December 19th-22nd.
Get your tickets here!
See photos from their India performances on their Facebook page.