Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


A Historic Cock-A-Doodle-Do

Gypsy miracle in New York! between Manhattan and Staten Island, the Gipsy Kings play and sing "Niña Morena" on the deck of the ferry linking the two sides of the Hudson.

The icy wind stiffens their sixty fingers on the strings of their guitars and seems to dishevel the hair on the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

Nicolas Reyes, the singer of the group, fancies that the Statue doesn't remain bronze at the sound of his voice ... the green virgin seems to undulate. Lacking a lens sufficiently receptive to flamenco, the cameraman Betacam, who has come to film the Gipsy Kings for a French television station, can not capture this mirage. Nicolas swears that he has seen this "paya" [paya: a woman who is not gypsy; the masculine is "payo."] move her hips and that she'll do it again: the magic of the shore of Camargue infiltrates the sacrosanct American pragmatism. How could the first groupie of the United States resist when, from New York to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, all the nieces of Uncle Sam have gone wild. However, on the return trip to Manhattan, Miss Bartholdi does not deign to nod.

"You have a wig," Nicolas shouts at her, his fists on his hips. "By Saint Sarah, if you come to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, we'll give you a hard time."

Laughing like crazy, his five comrades approve with a loud "olé" carried off by the wind.

The day before, Thursday, March 2, the old Beacon Theater on 75 West St. had been sold out. Repeated refrain for 18 concerts moving like a cyclone from the East Coast to the West Coast without losing any strength in the middle of the country, in February and March, 1989.

Standing on the 2800 red velvet chairs, recognizing each number from the first chord, the audience at the Beacon dances ecstatically. Like the audience at Toronto's Concert Hall, the Chestnut in Philadelphia, and later the Berkeley Performance Center in Boston, the Warner Theater in Washington, Center Stage in Atlanta, the James L. Knight Center in Miami, the Arcadia Theater in Dallas, Park West in Chicago, the Palladium in Los Angeles and the Warfield Theater in San Francisco.

Before beginning the performance, Chico Bouchikhi, the group's leader, had, in a very soft voice, said to André and Nicolas Reyes, his brothers- in-laws, and to Diego, Paco, and Tonino Baliardo, their cousins: "Compadres, let's set them on fire!"

And, once more, arises, in this American night, the centuries-old flame of flamenco, sparked by the tempos of jazz and rock, fanned by breezes from South America and a secret perfume from Italy, and a sandstorm from the Orient, whipping up the hearts of those who travel.

Like every evening, there is a glow in the eyes of fans as they leave the theater. For a long time after the concert, the memories and the madness of wild emotions aroused by the Kings of Arles and of Montpellier all along their concert route, the "fiesta gitana" sparkles, and fades later, spark by spark, very slowly.

Huge black Cadillacs drive them back after dinner to the Empire Hotel. And Friday morning, cowboy boots shined, jeans impeccably ironed, embroidered shirts under leather jackets, at Rockefeller Center for the recording of the "Today Show" on NBC.

"Hey, gypsies, where are you going?" a receptionist at the hotel desk nervously asks, seeing the group pass, their long hair waving in the wind. Chico sings, "Hey man, we're on our way towards the country where one never arrives, do you think we're in a rush?"

Yesterday, in Simica, rotting fruit bought cheaply, with the cops more often at their heels than at their side, today in limousines with chauffeurs and preceded by motorcycle cops, they travel. Fortified by a truth received, doubtlessly, at birth from their mother's milk, and never forgotten, they say that happiness is not the goal of their voyage, the goal can be only the voyage itself.

That day, at the end of the New York traffic jams, there is Jane Paulie, the hostess of the "Today Show." Pink and blond, hair perfectly styled, she arrives on stage, and shakes Nicolas's hand. "I am Jane." And Nicolas, in catalan and with a voice from the depths of the jungle: "And I am Johnny Weissmuller!"

Hysterical laughter, tears of laughter, from the technicians, who've understood.. And right after, their eyes still wet, a "Bamboleo" rings out, making the entire studio toss and reel, the cameramen behind their equipment, and the very sophisticated Jane on her little feet.

Professionals in spite of themselves, they prove, without premeditation, in a country where one fools around with neither the show nor with business, that being natural on the stage can be the equivalent of "work." Work? You're joking. No stress, no crises, display their smiling talent, their pleasure, their generosity, like a label: " made by Gypsies." They didn't like school, so they don't give lessons. But the Reyes and the Baliardos carry around, in the cases of their guitars, the thousands of years of experience they found in their mother's womb. Chico: "We were rich before becoming rich, so everything can stop tomorrow, we'd continue the music, just like before."

They say, in Camargue, that when a gypsy guitarist is about to die, he plays near a pregnant woman. Those who have a simple heart know that more is involved than images of Epinal, Arles, Montpellier, and Tarascon. They have only one certitude: to do that which they were born to do, without trying to understand, without knowing how to read or write a note of music. In a bistro in the south of France, in a billionaire's villa, on a prestigious stage, on the "Today Show," on the "Tonight Show," "Saturday Night Live," or the "Johnny Carson Show." "We are nothing but our music," they often say. And the tidal wave of such perfect sincerity can take you anywhere.

Bob Hurwitz, the senior vice-president of Elektra - the company that has distributed the Gipsy Kings in the United States since the autumn of 1988 - still remembers that Friday in August, 1988 : "It was 11:00 A.M., I was driving in Arkansas on vacation with my family. After many other tapes, I put a Gipsy Kings tape in my tape player. I knew only that this tape included two numbers, "Bamboleo," and "Djobi Djoba," that had made the French Top 50 and had swept first place in a half-dozen other European countries at the end of 1987 and the Spring of 1988. My enthusiasm and my excitement were such that I almost had a car accident. I got to Santa Fe while listening and re-listening to "A mi manera," "Inspiration," "Bem Bem Maria, and all the other pieces. I stopped the car at the first telephone booth and, there, I called Bob Krasnow, the president of Elektra, to tell him he must sign these guys up immediately. Bob Krasnow had heard the tape and was of the same opinion. We didn't know if it would be a big success in the U.S., but that didn't give us cold feet. At Elektra, what's important is quality, while other companies tend to focus on pre-existing markets with an adapted product. Our approach had already served us well, with Anita Baker, the Cure, the Mystery of Bulgarian Voices ... I went to see the Gipsy Kings in Toronto and their live performance decided me.

Barely eight months after Hurwitz's automobile epiphany, Bob Krasnow announced victoriously at the Beacon Theater:

"The Gipsy Kings represent to me everything that Elektra wants to stand for. Their music has a universal power. There's nothing to dissect, to analyze. Beyond the meaning of the words, which often remains mysterious, it's the atmosphere they create, the thrill one feels."

Behind his eyeglasses, the satisfaction of "Big Bob" is obvious. The Gipsy Kings' album with "Bamboleo," entering the charts in the U.S. in 159th place in December 1988, went up and up. A writer for the "Hollywood Reporter" wrote that, although they weren't in a position to rival Perrier, the Gipsy Kings were "one of the best products exported by France in recent years."

In January, the magazine "Billboard" stated that "Bamboleo" had been adapted by fourteen groups, notably in a "salsa" version by Célia Cruz, and a "merengu‚" version by the Dominican singer Sergio Vargas. Not to mention the versions of Julio Iglesias or of Willy Cohen. At the moment when Bob Krasnow, during the Gypsies' spring tour of the States, was promoting the group, the album was selling 10,000 copies a day and was in 59th place. It wound up in first place for "world music," 4th place for Latin music, 3rd place for jazz. The month of December 1989 confirmed the predictions of Danny Cohn of Elektra, who had earlier said he'd be very surprised and disconcerted if the album's sales didn't surpass half a million copies. In the end, Elektra made the Gipsy Kings its Number One priority, and reached its goal in November 1989, when a new album, "Mosaïque," sold half a million copies. The first Golden Record obtained by a French group!

The historic "Cock-a-doodle-do" of our chicken-stealers had entered into history. At the same time, "Mosaïque" was already a Golden Record in Great Britain, and they were signed up for a concert tour in Australia in December. The Gipsy Kings made the kangaroos jump! "Bamboleo" rose to number one in a continent where, for the first time, an album recorded in a language other than English (in fact, a mixture of Catalan, Spanish, a Provençal dialect, and the Gypsy language) reached first place.

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