An Interview with Cedric Leonardi, founder of the Gypsy Allstars
By Arielle Gervasi
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. The Gypsy Allstars is an all-star group made up of some of the members of the Gipsy Kings family, including the son of Nicolas Reyes, the founder of the Kings.
However, this group brings in new fusion elements with a medley of additional musicians and singers from around the world. The 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 project was created and conceived by Cedric in 2012 and had its debut at the Colombo Music festival in August 2012. 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. Last weekend they gave their US debut at Yoshi’s to a sold out audience…
SFAE: How did the Gypsy Allstars begin? What were the inspirations?
Cedric Leonardi: It started in L.A. about two years ago after I toured with the Gipsy Kings and I was ready to open a new window in my life. I believe it still pushes the dynamic created by the Gipsy Kings and it is a group of very close people that we can trust and go on the road as family. The Gipsy Kings, on the other hand, started a long time ago in southern France—Montpellier—in a gypsy neighborhood.
I just think it is important to do something that is a part of you. My influences have been from all over: Mozart, Bach, AC/DC, samba, salsa. 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.
SFAE: How did you meet your band mates? Have there ever been any creative conflicts? If so, how do they get resolved?
CL: I knew the Gipsy Kings from Montpellier. We all grew up in the same gypsy barrio in France. All the others played guitar and I played drums. Recently I’ve met more musicians, the members of the Gypsy Allstars, in L.A. Here I met the bass, guitar, and tabla players. I actually met the piano player on Facebook!
As for conflicts, as of yet there have been no conflicts. It has been great. We are still experimenting. I feel as if there is a huge field in front of me that is wide open. We have so many things to explore, we have hardly even scratched the surface and everything is open. It is such an experimental sound; the energy is amazing and everybody just wants to give. However, the music is not just experimental; we want to incorporate traditional elements.
SFAE: Has the music evolved over time? How would you describe the music?
CL: That is difficult to answer. It may be too soon to ask that. [laughs] We are still giving birth to the music now. It is fusion, but it is also more than that. I want to bring in the Indian. We actually have a new Indian singer who is amazing!
SFAE: When did you start playing your instrument? What made you choose that particular instrument?
CL: You know I really don’t know why I started playing the drums. I always get asked this in interviews and I really just can’t remember! I was 12 years old and I picked up playing the drums in the barrio. I think I asked my mom for them and since that day I never stopped. It’s a way to escape into my own world. I need to do them every day; it is a meditational thing for me and it really helps to relieve tension.
SFAE: Who are some artists that have contributed significantly to your understanding of music? Who are your influences?
CL: Wow, that’s a huge one. Mozart is a big part of my life. Every winter he always comes back to me.
SFAE: What do you mean by that?
CL: You know, in the summer it’s more about fun and there’s salsa music and sun. The winter is more introspective and you go inside yourself.
Also, I went to Cuba many times and I studied all those beats; they are so crazy. Then in Brazil it’s another world. Then there’s the Indian sound. Right now I’m listening to Irish music. It’s actually quite close to Indian music in the instruments and sounds, and they are also travelers like gypsies! I’d like to incorporate some Irish sounds next. Then of course there’s Africa which is a huge part since this is where everything is coming from.
SFAE: Which countries did you study music in?
CL: I’ve been to Cuba many times. They are the drum masters. Music is so big there, you know. The situation in Cuba since the embargo is terrible, but they manage to deal with it through focusing on education, schools, sports, and music. These are the ways to get out of the country and so this is why music is so big there. They have the best musicians and everybody plays music.
I’ve been to India many times as well. They have great, weird rhythms and odd meters. The style is called Ragga. Where we have 4 or 6 beats, they have 5, 7, 9, 11 beats per measure.
Also I studied in North Africa. There is so much music though. It would take three lives to learn it all!
SFAE: What do you think the music industry will look like in the future, and how will that affect you?
CL: Well, after it collapsed about 10 years ago [with the advent of downloading/free music], things have been changing. It was a big record company monopoly. Artists couldn’t share music without big labels supporting them. This is good, because now we have freedom. So there are two sides of the coin; everything is changing and we have to be able to adapt.
SFAE: So what does that mean for your project?
CL: We can share it with more people. We can do what we want and no one will tell us how to sell or where and when to play.
SFAE: What is the best piece of advice you can give aspiring musicians?
CL: To practice. To practice the instrument. To practice more. Keep the faith and don’t give up. Believe in yourself and everything will come. Also, that it is about keeping a good balance. You don’t have to be the best musician and you don’t have to be technically perfect to make it happen, and to make a good sound.
SFAE: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CL: Yes. If I could add one word: unity. That would be my mantra. That’s the reason why I do music—this kind of music. I would like to help people get out of their own community and the comfort there is in that familiarity. I want to bring a new taste, a new color, a new sound to everybody. So that maybe they come to our concert and then afterwards think, “Hm, maybe I will try an Indian meal…with a French bottle of wine!”
For more info on their upcoming performance: http://www.jazzalley.com/artist.asp?artistid=1265