Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


Are You Musicians, and Free Tomorrow Night?

"We understood very quickly that if we wanted to make a career of our music, we had to get out of the ghetto of Saintes-Maries. In Saint-Tropez, our horizon broadened. We formed a group, The Reyes. We played six months of the year on the coast and a bit in our region, then stopped for six months. Generally, we were three or four, sometimes five or six. In these conditions, passing the hat around brought in little money for each of us. It was better than nothing, though; I didn’t really want to work."

Chico did his apprenticeship as the group’s spokesman in Saint-Tropez. His innate sense of diplomacy, his prudence, his keen sense of observation allowed the gypsies to survive without problems in a milieu of which they’d previously not even suspected the existence.

During several years, they were satisfied with one-night gigs. They had no place to sleep. Many times they tried to sleep all give together in the car, with their guitars, but their posture the next day gave them the appearance of young Indians after a rodeo. Bartering beds at the Mediterranean Club for a few hours of music, possibly renting a room for six (which ate up all they’d made by performing), they tried to prolong their stay. It was only in 1980 that Robert, with a Swiss friend, the Genevan lawyer Didier Tornare, acquired a piece of a pine forest behind Moréa beach.. With the consent of his associate (who quickly became a friend and protector of the Reyes), Robert gave them free access to this land for their camper. Until 1987, They passed the summer there, with their wives and children, for two or three months of each year.

Other musicians before them had tried to establish themselves in Saint-Tropez. They had disappeared, one after the other, or they drowned.

We never gave in to what was easy. We never allowed ourselves to be dragged into a whirlwind where we’d become lost. At the beginning, it was simple, as we’d return home after twenty-four or forty-eight hours. Starting in 1978, it became more delicate, more dangerous: we attended private parties, we associated with very rich people, we became friendly with some of them. Our strength was our ability to perform our music and then return home. To Arles before 1980, to the campground in back of Moréa beach after that. We never got dragged down by a lifestyle that wasn’t really ours."

At the "university" of Saint-Tropez, they gypsies confirmed quickly what they already really knew: the value of slaps on the back, of promises, of reputations, of notoriety. One gives more than one takes when one sees, for example, that wealth and fame cloak indiscriminately the best, the mediocre, and the worst. They have nothing to offer but their drenched shirts after their performance day after day -- no cassettes, no records, , because they don’t attract the interest of the big tribe called French show business that collects each summer in cities, on beaches, and in discothèques. This misunderstanding would last as long as the success of Manitas, and afterwards. In France, the people in the trade considered the tradition of gypsy music of the Camargue to be exhausted. But these gypsies in Saint-Tropez held on to their dreams, against all reason. But it’s crazy to be wise when one is a musician. And a gypsy! Besides, at that period of time, in their first years at Saint-Tropez, their only ambition was to earn a little money and to play the guitar on the streets and on the beaches.

Museums consecrated to the idols of rock music are filled with sumptuous sports cars. The museum that would one day be founded on the success of the Gypsy Kings (such an initiative would have left them open-mouthed) would have to contain the dozens of moving wrecks that permitted them to keep on going. That is, if it were possible to find these: Buying cars that were on their way to becoming scrap metal, the Gypsy Kings returned them after having squeezed the last breath out of them.

We are now at the end of the Spring of 1974, and their last car, a Simca, had just wound up as scrap iron. From the proceeds, the Reyes managed to pay for some glasses of lemon soda in the Café de la Roquette, near the campground. In the bubbles rising to the surface of the glasses, they saw the hope of a return to Saint-Tropez evaporating.

Invited with José to share the stage at the Theater of the Champs-Elysées in Paris, for the tenth anniversary of Manitas’ career, they look to Chico to find a car. He, in turn, goes to his father. After all, what could be simpler than to ask his father for the keys of his Simca? Mohammed tells his son "no." So, for the last time, Chico justifies his bad reputation. He smashes the front left side of the vehicle, opens the car, and starts the engine with the wires, just like all car thieves in the world. Incredulous, his father sees him the next day on television, and wonders where he is. His mother understood everything, but she tells a white lie to cover up the misdeed of her son Jahloul. "Those announcers on TV are wrong. That’s not happening in Paris, that’s an old program that were recorded in this region.," she explains. Mohammed pretends to believe this. What is certain, and Chico knows it, is that he has borrowed his father’s car for the first and last time. When he returns to the region, Chico will wait more than a week before presenting himself at his parents’ house. Enough time for his father to have cooled down! But he doesn’t regret his audacity. In Paris, he played on the stage with José and "Los Reyes" at the side of a group formed by the close relatives of Manitas, "Los Bailardos" and then "Le Blond."

Involuntarily inactive, they are frustrated and kill time. In the basement of a photography shop run by Monsieur Martin, they record themselves for the first time. The studio is rudimentary: a big cassette player on a table, only one microphone. They’re at the point where they can order only one lemon soda for three at the café de la Bourse, on the Boulevard des Lices, where Pierrot, who will become the proprietor of Le Tambourin, their future headquarters on the Place du Forum, agrees to serve them. A woman enters. A real lady, blond, stylish, who appears to be looking for someone. Her gaze lands on Chico and Canut, who are absorbed in the contemplation of the young girls passing by on the street. She points at them triumphantly, and says, "You, you are gypsies."

Chico and Canut look at each other. She asks, "May I sit with you?" She seems to be Swiss , and wealthy. The two buddies smile at her. Jacqueline de Goldschmidt-Rothschild is looking for gypsy musicians to perform at a small party at the home of her friend, Luc Hoffmann (of the Laboratories Hoffmann-Laroche), on his property in the Camargue. "Are you musicians, and are you free tomorrow night?" They tell her about their group, the deal is made. The baroness is delighted with her discovery, as the party will be the next day. Soon, the gypsies will be calling her just "Baroness" or "Jacotte."

She becomes their friend and opens the doors for them to private parties that will be their livelihood for years. Today, she reminisces that they had the appearance and the scrawniness of young wolves, or wild cats. In Switzerland, she finds some jobs for them in restaurants - "Chez Alain," the "Why Not," and "La Javanaise" - which perfects their education.

The first time she telephones them after the evening at Luc Hoffmann’s, she is a Bâle, at her home, and suggests that they come live in her large house. She gives her address to Canut: Wenkenaldenveg 5, 4125 Riehen. Canut wasn’t able to write the address down since he doesn’t know how to write, and the strange sound of the place makes it impossible for him to remember it. He replies "It’s what, five?"

When they arrive, she suggests that they act like gentlemen. Her banker-husband, Alexis, is not as bohemian as she is, and she’s afraid that Canut and the rest of the family will shock him a bit. She installs her "wild men" in individual rooms, and notices that evening that they have regrouped their mattresses on the ground all in one room. Not feeling entirely secure, they sleep with the light on. The next day, she presents them to Alexis. Canut appears at the top of the stairs, dressed in a dress belonging to Valentine, the daughter of Jacqueline, with socks stuffed in the bra, and balancing on high-heeled shoes. In an effeminate voice, he addresses the banker: "Monsieur, I come to ask for your hand."

During the high-society parties to which she has them invited, she trembles, imagining the worst catastrophes. She has already forbidden Patchaï and Canut from indulging in their favorite pastime of putting suppositories in all the dogs. But how to prevent Canut from putting a dental prosthetic in a glass of whiskey, or blowing his nose noisily after having put into his nostrils mussels which he then catches in his handkerchief, under the flabbergasted eyes of the guests?

They are pleasant, useful, and, in her home, Canut is always the first to shake hands with the servants. A real guardian angel of the home! Since he finds the personnel at Jacqueline’s really lacking in imagination, he invents new techniques. For example, the magnificent parquet floor should, in his opinion, shine even more. So ... it’s sufficient to use a broom to sweep the outside of a slice of ham to transform the floor into a mirror. "Isn’t that a good idea, Baroness?"

Alexis, one nigh a little crazier than most, puts an ultimatum to his wife: "Your friends are adorable, but I can’t take it anymore. I’m going crazy. If they don’t leave the house, I’ll commit suicide." He points to one of the many ancient weapons that he collects.

The baroness confides her worries and the ultimatum to José, who has rejoined his sons four the recording of their first record -- "Gypsy Poet" -- in 1976. The head of the family has just combed his hair with black wax that he’d found in the basement, and Jacqueline had a lot of trouble keeping a straight face. José listens, distressed. He sinks into an armchair, hides his head in his hands, and shaking his head, he says, "Baroness, this is a terrible thing that you are telling me." Then, he raises his head, pensively: "If Alexis does this terrible thing, I hope you’ll give me the shotgun."

In 1977, still in Switzerland, the group records "Love Lasting One Day." The first two records are targeted for markets in Switzerland and Germany. And if they don’t bring in any money, still, this will open for them the doors to TV studios in Geneva and in Germany. The first television appearance of Los Reyes occurs in 1974.

They find the most encouraging occurrence happens one night in a restaurant in Geneva. They’ve performed during the lunch hour and the director has asked them to return during dinner hours. Charlie Chaplin has reserved a table for his entire family. A piece of news that doesn’t impress Canut. "Who? Charlot? But he’s a bum, he lives on the street, I’ve see it in the movies. He won’t be able to give us even one franc." Rather than embark on a long and difficult explanation about the actor and his screen roles, Chico brings his group at the agreed hour to the restaurant, promising that this will please the proprietor, who will know how to thank them for it. The Reyes approach Chaplin’s table, and play slow and nostalgic melodies for him, the kind he likes. Two tears appear in the old man’s eyes, which make Canut’s appraisal seem right. It’s a poor, unlucky vagabond who is crying, it’s Charlot. Leaving the restaurant, Chico says to himself that one day they will succeed in making the entire world cry since they have made cry the man who has made the entire world laugh.

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