Ced Leonardi doesn’t claim to have gypsy blood, but he has a pretty good idea of what it means to be a gypsy. He grew up in southern France, in Montpellier, in the thick of the city’s large gypsy population.
“I grew up right in it,” Leonardi said. “The school I was going to as a kid was in a gypsy neighborhood; even the gypsies went to school there. I can call myself a gypsy. It’s more than a blood thing. It’s an attitude, a way of life. It’s being a traveler in every sense, not attached. It’s thinking about being a free spirit.”
Leonardi had no complaints about being among that culture.
“It was such a lively neighborhood, everyone in the street, grandmothers talking, the guitars ringing, the fire. Full of characters,” he said.
One of the things Leonardi gravitated to most was the music — he became a professional drummer — and even the way he thinks about music he links to the gypsy characteristics of curiosity and a tendency to wander. (In Montpellier, gypsies also are known as gens du voyage, or travelers.)
“I’ve been a musician all my life, curious, listening to all the different musics — Brazilian, jazz, rock,” he said.
Leonardi cemented his status as a quasi-gypsy in 2008, when he joined the Gipsy Kings, an internationally touring group that combined elements of the music of southern France, Spanish flamenco, Latin American salsa and the gypsies.
The gypsies are commonly associated with Europe; they also are known as the Roma people, a term that dates back to the population’s presence in Romania in the first century B.C. But a few years ago, Leonardi began learning something new about the gypsies — that they originated in India, a fact that recently has been confirmed by blood testing. Leonardi’s discovery of the Indian roots of the gypsies coincided with a desire to stop traveling quite so much, musically, and examine the music he had grown up with.
“I was not really paying attention to the music in front of my nose, my own culture,” he said. “I went around studying all this other music. Then lately I said, ‘Let’s make a stop, see what’s in me.’”
The logical result of his inquiry is a band called the Gypsy Allstars and their show Return to Rajasthan, a reference to a region in northwestern India. The band, which combines elements of gypsy music (especially the Spanish-influenced guitars) and Indian sounds (a percussion instrument called the tabla and an Indian vocalist), was formed a year ago in Los Angeles and has played jazz festivals in the U.S. and at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur, India. The eight-piece group, which features several former members of the Gipsy Kings, will make its local debut with a three-night stand today through Monday at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ JAS Cafe, in a downstairs room at the Little Nell hotel. There will be two shows each night.
Looking at the migration of the gypsies through the music, Leonardi isn’t surprised by the Indian origins.
“The Indian voices are so similar to the gypsy voices, the way they have to sing. Lots of similarities,” he said. “Through the music, the sounds, the rhythms from around the world, you can see the migrations through the centuries, all the conversations, the links. Even if you go to Ireland, I see similarities. For me, Irish are also gypsies. I can hear the flutes, the same flutes as the Indians.”
Though Leonardi hears the Indian roots in gypsy music, incorporating the Indian elements into the Gypsy Allstars is not always effortless. Leonardi has been learning Indian rhythmic breaks from the band’s table player, Salar Nader (who was a disciple of the table master Zakir Hussein).
“Sometimes it fits together right away. Sometimes we have to take time to make it work,” Leonardi said. “The two cultures are different. For me, as band leader and orchestrator, I’m putting a bridge between these two cultures.”
Leonardi is trying not only to find the old links between those two cultures, but to make something new with Indo-gypsy music as the foundation.
“It’s not to me to say if it’s a new genre of music,” he said from Seattle, where the band had a four-night stand at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, a top club with a 34-year history. “Last night we played, and tonight the music will be different. And tomorrow will be different. And we go back to India next month, and we’ll find new sounds. It’s bubbling. It’s so rich. It will take a lifetime to learn.”