Music is more to the Gipsy Kings than fame and fortune – it’s rooted in their family traditions. Interview by Nigel Williamson
Over the last 25 years the Gipsy Kings have sold an estimated 20 million records to become world music’s biggest-selling act, outscoring the success of Buena Vista Social Club, Youssou N’Dour, Fela Kuti or any other world music artist. Yet although we’ve reviewed their records regularly, this is the first time Songlines has devoted a major feature to the Gipsy Kings.
It’s a surprising oversight, for in many ways the Gipsy Kings represent all the best aspects of world music. Their sound is deeply rooted with a profound sense of place, community and cultural tradition. It’s a music that has brought them pop success all over the world and yet the group remains inextricably rooted in the tight-knit social world of the Gypsies. Despite modernising elements introduced by the different producers they have worked with over the years, the essence of their music has departed little from its authentic origins around the Gypsy campfires of Catalonia, from where their families fled the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and in the Mediterranean regions of southern France where they have lived in exile.
Nîmes, and its nearby sister Arles, are the gateways to the domain where the Gypsies roam and the Gipsy Kings hold sway. To the south of these twin Roman cities with their noble, 2,000-year-old amphitheatres and antiquities, lies the Camargue, one of the last remaining wildernesses in western Europe. It’s the land where the sky meets the water as if in a mirage, a primeval landscape of swampy étangs (saline lakes) turned pink by the massed flocks of flamingos. The land is sparsely populated, except by les gardiens (cowboys) and les caraques (Gypsies). It’s a place that plays not only a seminal part in Gypsy legend but in the history of the Gipsy Kings.
Every May the local Gypsy community is joined by their counterparts from all over the Mediterranean for the most important Gypsy festival in Europe: the annual pilgrimage to the Camargue’s most romantic spot, the coastal fishing town of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the Mecca of the Gypsies.
According to tradition, sometime around 40-45 AD, Mary Jacobe (the sister of the mother of Jesus) and Mary Salome (mother of the apostles John and James), together with the resurrected Lazarus, his sister Martha and the sinner Mary Magdalene, landed on the shore of what is now Les Saintes-Maries. Exiled from the Holy Land, they were allegedly accompanied by Sara, a black Egyptian maid-servant, known in Gypsy mythology as Sara-la-Kâli. Gypsy folklore claims that the party was welcomed by the ancestors of the Gypsies who recognised Saint Sara as the ‘mother of the tribe.’
On May 24 each year the statue of their saint is taken from the crypt in the local church, and carried on sturdy Gypsy shoulders by procession down to the shore and into the sea. It’s a ceremony the Gipsy Kings have attended annually since childhood. Before they found fame, they played in the restaurants and bars of Les Saintes-Maries for loose change. Even after their international success, the group’s manager has been instructed that they are unavailable for engagements in late May, whoever is asking and however much money is on offer. Although the band now live in houses in Arles and Montpellier and have exchanged their horses and trailers for limousines and jet planes, they still make the annual pilgrimage to celebrate the feast of la Sainte Sara la Noire by caravan. It’s an inextricable part of the tradition and the Gipsy Kings have become synonymous with the culture and heritage of the region, their music as vivid a part of the wild beauty of the Camargue as its flamingos, manades (herds of wild horses and cattle) and corridas (bull fighting).
Sit down at an outdoor table in a café or restaurant in summer in Les Saintes-Maries or nearby Aigues-Mortes or Le Grau du Roi, and the likelihood is that within ten minutes or so you will be serenaded by a Gipsy Kings tribute band playing ‘Bamboleo’ or ‘Djobi Djoba’. The group has fought hard to protect its copyright against impostors and there are reportedly fake versions of the Gipsy Kings in Germany, Italy and Sweden, whom they have attempted to stop using their name. But the local musicians playing the Gipsy Kings’ repertoire around the tourist resorts of the Camargue and in the squares of Arles and Nîmes are different. That’s family. “If we find a group of young Gypsies performing our songs in a restaurant, of course we love that,” says lead guitarist Tonino Baliardo. “That’s Gypsies trying to make a living. We embrace that. It’s how we started.”
Lead singer Nicolas Reyes continues: “We have exported Gypsy music to the rest of the world and that has been important in people understanding Gypsy life. You say we are ambassadors for Gypsy culture and that’s true. The success of the Gipsy Kings has helped Gypsies be more accepted by society.”
And that growing acceptance, understanding and tolerance of a people who had for centuries been treated as outsiders may just have been the Gipsy Kings’ greatest success of all. When the group’s grandparents arrived in southern France before World War II, they were marginalised and forced into the segregated poverty of trailer communities. Excluded from the French schooling system, their children and grandchildren grew up illiterate. But there was always music – and eventually it would become their passport to acceptance by mainstream society.
Today the Gipsy Kings are the biggest-selling group in French musical history. The release of Savor Flamenco marked the 25th anniversary of their elevation to stardom, but the story of the Gipsy Kings long predates the release of ‘Bamboleo’. In the sense that they are inheritors of an ancient tradition, it starts perhaps centuries ago; but for our purposes it begins with Ricardo Baliardo and his cousin José Reyes, who arrived as children in France from Catalonia in 1936 with their Gypsy families. Baliardo, who would become better known as the virtuoso guitarist Manitas de Plata (Hands of Silver) and rumba flamenca singer Reyes began recording as a duo in the 60s and performed on many of the world’s most prestigious concert stages, from the Carnegie Hall in New York to London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Between the two of them, they fathered all eight members of the Gipsy Kings – the Reyes brothers Nicolas, Pablo, Canut, Patchai and Andre and the Baliardo siblings Tonino, Paco and Diego. Like Gypsy griots, José and Manitas handed down their musical skills as part of an ancient oral tradition and when the duo stopped performing together in the mid-70s, José Reyes formed Los Reyes with his sons and Jahloul ‘Chico’ Bouchikhi, a Moroccan immigrant who was courting their sister Marthe.
In summer Los Reyes performed in the streets and cafés of Les Saintes-Maries, sleeping in their cars with their guitars. But in winter when the tourists had left, Les Saintes-Maries dwindled to a population of 2,000 and there was no work for Gypsy musicians. Some of the family dealt in horses, others traded scrap metal, while others were involved in such traditional Gypsy occupations as selling baskets, re-caning old chairs and sharpening knives. “Times were harsh,” Nicolas recalls. “We had nowhere to sleep but we never thought of giving up. We had faith in the music and we always believed that we would get somewhere.” Tonino laughs at the seriousness of his cousin’s answer. “Yes, it was hard and we had no money,” he agrees. “But the main thing was that we were young and having fun.”
“They still slept in their cars and trailers but earned bookings at glittering celebrity parties attended by the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Charlie Chaplin”
On the death of José Reyes in 1979, the Baliardo brothers joined their cousins in the line-up and Los Reyes became the Gipsy Kings. Looking to expand their horizons and feed their own growing families with their income, they decided to try their luck in the more upscale summer resorts of Cannes and St Tropez, where they spent several summers in the early 80s. They still slept in their cars and trailers but earned bookings at glittering celebrity parties attended by the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Charlie Chaplin. That solved the winter employment problem, too, as their rich patrons booked them to play at private parties at exclusive ski resorts in Switzerland.
So what attracted this chic, jet-set audience to Gypsy music? “I don’t know why but they seemed to like it instantly,” Tonino says. “Perhaps it was the way we sang with passion and could play music to make people dance. Perhaps it was because we were something different. There were thousands of rock bands doing the same thing and so we sounded new and untamed.” The Gipsy Kings made their first self-produced, rough-and-raw recordings in 1982 and sold them on cassette in cafés and bars. But a major label contract did not come until 1987, when producer Claudio Martinez invited the group to Paris to propose recording them. With typical Gypsy insouciance, the Kings told him that if he wanted to talk, he would have to come to them. Undeterred he pitched up in Arles and went on to secure them a recording deal with Columbia, eventually corralling the group to make the journey to Paris to record their breakthrough album.
A non-Gypsy producer and the demands of a major label’s A&R department inevitably meant changes. “Without taking away from their spontaneity, feeling and creativity, I thought it was necessary to change certain structures in certain pieces in order to turn them into mainstream music,” says Martinez. Today the Kings are philosophical about the process of making them fit for mass consumption. “When we hired outside producers we went along with them because we also wanted to explore new sounds,” Tonino explains. “So if they put synthesizers or accordions on the record, we said ‘OK.’ But to be honest we weren’t always too happy with it.”
Dominique Perrier, an arranger Martinez engaged to work on ‘Bamboleo’, explains the difficulties that the more freewheeling Gypsy approach presented in the studio: “The first time they played the melodies that I’d heard on tape, it was completely different. Nothing the same – not the rhythm, or the number of beats in a bar – nothing. They began again: once more, it was a completely different version. We wanted to record, but it was impossible. Nothing was ever fixed. It was their Gypsy feeling.”
Both Nicolas Reyes and Tonino Baliardo, take that as a compliment. “That’s because of the Gypsy passion. I never perform a song exactly the same every time,” Nicolas says with pride. “Of course not. That would be mechanical, which is not the Gypsy way. It’s a feeling – that’s how we understand music.” Tonino adds: “Remember that we are Gypsies and we are performing from the heart.”
Afyer the 1988 album that included ‘Bamboleo’, a succession of other outside producers helmed eight subsequent big-selling albums, including Nick Patrick, Chris Kimsey (Rolling Stones), Craig Street (Norah Jones and kd lang) and Philippe Eidel. The accommodation between Gypsy spontaneity and the production demands of the modern recording studio was essential to the Gipsy Kings’ commercial success. But it failed to please everyone and contributed to the departure from the group in 1990 of Chico, who was unhappy about what he saw as excessive outside interference. Now, after more than 25 years of record company imposed supervision, Savor Flamenco finds them producing and arranging themselves, with Nicolas and Tonino sharing the task.
“After years of employing outside producers to tell us how we should sound, we wanted to go back to our roots and recreate the pure sound of the Gipsy Kings,” Tonino explains. “On this record we have liberated ourselves from outside interference.”
But not from outside influences. It has always been a magpie characteristic of Gypsy music to borrow from other styles and genres and, driven by the familiar armada of flamenco guitars, the record is a mélange of rumba with additional flavours of tango, samba, salsa and son. “Gypsies are true music lovers,” Nicolas says. “We listen to music all the time and look for new things. It might be Cuban or Brazilian or whatever; but it can all fit into the Gipsy Kings sound.” Tonino agrees: “That’s Gypsy culture. We are travellers and everywhere we go, we pick up on what we hear. We can’t help it.” Paradoxically, the one influence that appears to be off limits is that of other Gypsies. What do they think of the Balkan Gypsy groups? “We are Catalonian Gypsies. If you ask us about Romanian Gypsies we don’t feel much affinity with that,” says Nicolas with a tone of finality that suggests it’s not worth pursuing the question any further.
Although the history of the Gypsies is full of suffering, the Kings’ music tends to be upbeat with a laissez les bon temps rouler vibe. “Music for Gypsy people is a therapy,” Nicolas explains. “Our people have suffered a lot and Gypsies would gather round the campfire and sing and play guitars and express the sadness, but in a way that transmits joy. So our songs can be very sad in what they are expressing but we use joyful melodies to make people feel good.”
Gypsy life has changed dramatically in recent decades, as Tonino notes. “People live less and less in trailers and tents. We moved to houses in Arles and Montpellier. There is less discrimination. We didn’t go to school but our children go to school and college. That is possible now because we are more sedentary and we have become more integrated.”
But only up to a point, according to Nicolas, who insists that they remain Gypsies first and world music stars second: “Being Gypsies comes above our professional obligations. We tour the world but we don’t stay too long away because we miss our families and we don’t want to be separated from our community. We never wanted to be superstars. It’s not that we don’t care about it. But family and Gypsy culture is our first priority, and our job as the Gipsy Kings comes after that.”
After more than 25 years at the top, what does the future hold for the Gipsy Kings? “It is our life making this music, but some day we will hang up our guitars and our sons will take over,” Tonino says. “We learned music from our fathers and we pass it on to our sons. It has always been like that. It’s the Gypsy way.”
Knitting Factory Records (42 mins) ★★★★
In the late 80s, the Gipsy Kings brought pop-flamenco to the world, becoming a household name and world music’s biggest act. This year they celebrate 25 years since their debut with the release of their ninth studio album, Savor Flamenco. It’s been seven years since their last release, Pasajero, but it has been worth the wait – the Gipsy Kings have returned in full force. There’s nothing unexpected here; the album is full of the same distinctive summery joy of their early songs, such as the standout tracks ‘Caramelo’ and ‘Habla Contingo’. But Savor Flamenco does feature a few tracks that experiment with hints of Brazilian music, like ‘Tiempo Del Sol’ or ‘Samba Samba’. Their strengths clearly lie in their virtuosic, upbeat tracks, and the album loses the listener a bit on their slower numbers like ‘Sueno’.
Unlike Roots, which saw them strip back their sound and rediscover their Catalan heritage, Savor Flamenco sees the group return with their characteristic pop-flamenco throughout, though they have left behind the fancy producers for a self-produced effort. After 25 years a more adventurous sense of experimentation might have been welcome. But then again, as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Alexandra Petropoulos
This article and review originally appeared in Songlines #96 (Nov/Dec 2013). Subscribe to Songlines.