Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


Ephemeral Love

The following summer Saint-Tropez again! Where, still on the beach, Los Reyes discover that they can make a living without passing around the hat.

"We were on the beach, as usual. This guy arrives, wearing shorts, very unprepossessing. He asks me if we play at private parties. I say yes. The price? I say: for one thousand francs. The guy reproaches me for having a swelled head: "You’re not even Manitas." I resist, and finally agree to 300 francs, for three. He makes an engagement for one evening in front of Sénéquier, on the port. At the agreed time, he arrives in a superb speedboat, a "Riva," and invites us to get on board. At full speed, we zoom to a magnificent property, a real castle. I recognize a number of big shots, like Gunther Sachs. Finally, during the party, I ask the cooks, "Whose house are we at?" It’s true, we were there performing for these people, and we didn’t even know who was paying us. Someone stingy, in any event! The cooks replied, "You’re at the Opel residence." ---- "The Opel cars?" -- "Yes, exactly. This is Mr. von Opel’s house."

I ask them to show him to me, and, of course, it’s the guy who had recruited us on the beach, wearing shorts, and who had come to pick us up. What a lesson! After that, we no longer passed the hat around and we charged fees for private parties. And we never again trusted to appearances, and we tried to insist on a fixed price.

Rundown cars continued to serve them to the motor’s last gasp, which often caused them to be stopped by the police as they were driving between one luxurious villa and another. But the gypsies always made sure that their papers were in order, so that their ID cards never caused a problem.

Troubadours for the rich, they meet producers and stars every day. Everyone adores them, but people act as if they were listening to them without hearing them. "It wasn’t making a real impression," and, nevertheless, everyone praises them and they succeed in getting even the most timid people to dance. They’re "in their place," as gypsies, with their guitars, to entertain everyone, and no one imagines them in any other way. Sometimes, a gift from heaven, something exciting, illuminates the evening.

One day (September 28, 1978), while they are buying guitar strings in a musical instruments shop, the salesperson asks them if they’re free that very evening. They accept the proposed contract, and find themselves on the beach with Brigitte Bardot, who is celebrating her birthday with twenty or so friends. Brigitte dances, and enjoys herself like crazy. In the early hours of the morning, the Reyes refuse to accept payment. "Barbot" invites them to her house for lunch and becomes a friend. Several years later, she’ll even pay them a visit at the campground at Arles for Chico’s birthday. That day, she will announce in public that "Papa Jean" is "the man in her life." Casserole will accept the compliment - he who has known and loved so many women - commenting modestly "You give me too much honor." BB asks them to appear with her in a filmed biography, "Such as She Is," that Alain Bougrain-Dubourg is dedicating to her. They, in turn, will dedicate a song to her, "La Dona," on the first album they will produce in France in 1982.

In such a life, disappointments alternate with happiness. There are delinquent payers, whom they have to pursue, even up to their yachts sometimes, to get the 500 or 1,000 francs that the customer "forgot" to pay. For some of these, they have to return twice, because they don’t have the money "on them." And then, there are the others, luckily the great majority, who don’t stint. In the memory of the Reyes (and despite whatever public opinion is of these men because of later events), Samir Traboulsi, a Libyan businessman, and Adman Kashoggi have a special place. The first because, without hesitation, he paid them royally and found private parties for them at his friends’ homes. The second because he always treated them with respect.

One night, after having dined on his yacht with four or five people to the gypsies’ music, he has the table cleared, and has a clean tablecloth and place settings laid down. Turning towards the musicians, he says, "Sirs, your dinner is served." Those are things they won’t forget when, in their place of origin, certain people can only imagine you eating standing up in the kitchen.

Also, in Saint-Tropez, in the ‘80’s, they meet the Saudi Alex Ebeid. One day, he’ll take them on a trip to the Emirates in the Persian Gulf, from palace to palace, to perform in front of royal audiences never surpassing more than ten people.

And, sometimes, the East will come to them, to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Sometimes, a strange line of long Mercedes stops nearby the gypsy festivals. Princes emerge, greet their hosts in the midst of screaming children, women doing the dishes, and lines of clothes drying. They come to pay honor from the descendants of the Bedouins of the desert to the sons of the wind. These people came long before the Gypsy Kings became famous. The three Magi pay their visit to another tribe of Magis. Nicolas sings "Viento del arena" to them, which he composed while in the Emirates.

They continue from day to day in Saint-Tropez. Meanwhile, a second album, with José Reyes, comes out in Switzerland, but who in Saint-Tropez, or in Paris, has any idea of what will happen? An American film producer, Don Moss, who is vacationing on the French coast, praises them enthusiastically. He writes to them, phones them from the U.S.. But nothing further happens. Chico makes attempts to approach Eddie Barclay, who had hired them for certain parties. He receives them in his villa one afternoon. Charles Aznavour is playing the piano. The gypsies play too. Aznavour and Barclay admire them and say so. But, again, there’s no follow-up.

Another time, after Tonino Baliardo had rejoined the group (in 1980), the gypsies play two of their compositions in front of Barclay’s table, at the restaurant of the Red Sail. His ears perk up, which is exactly what they’d intended. He asks who composed those pieces. Tonino is too young (he is seventeen) and too timid to identify himself. So Chico does it for him. Barclay claps and says, "It’s great! It’s really great!" And then, again, indifference. In the 1960’s, Barclay he’d missed a chance with Manitas de Plata, having the latter sign a contract only to have it declared null and void, because of a previous signed contract that the guitarist had temporarily forgotten about. It looks like he’ll again be too late for the next gypsy phenomenon. But he doesn’t know it, and will become interested in the Gypsy Kings only in 1987, after the success of "Bamboleo." Too late ...

America! America! Roger Choukroun, the husband of Regina, invites them to Philadelphia. He wants to produce a record, and has the means of recording one. They had met him in Saint-Tropez after having performed several times at parties at the "Queen of the Night." Chico sells his car, three rugs -- he often works at the markets with José -- and puts together 7,000 francs. The Reyes, who smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, didn’t have a franc left in their pockets the day they left, according to Chico.

In the plane, as they play for the passengers standing in the center aisle until Canut, who’s scared, tells them to sit down, saying, " You make the plane lean to one side like this." The pilot offers them champagne. Upon their arrival, the customs officers and the police cannot believe that these wild-haired characters carrying guitars are just tourists. One member of their flight crew on Air France intervenes and thus opens for them access to America.

A man easy to recognize, a short, fat man, as Roger Choukroun had described it, is waiting there to drive them to the studio. It takes them a moment to realize that there is a replacement: a thin and tall young man. The "short, fat man" had died the previous evening.

They will say two weeks in the U.S. and will record, with forty musicians, an album that will never be released.

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