Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


José's Gaze

"We’d thought all our troubles would be over in Philadelphia. And then, in the end, nothing. No contact. Not a word, not a phone call."

Since the start of their adventures, carefreeness had always served the role of hope. Nothing is ever serious, from the moment that one begins making music ( though it’s always better to be working for a paying customer!), and as long as one is amongst one’s own. They know that a gypsy can never become a bum.

Canut and Patchaï are, respectively, 28 and 26 years old, Chico 25, Nicolas 22. They wonder about the way that people take an interest in them and then drop them. After all, Chico tells himself, if the Americans hadn’t come to seek out Manitas, he’d never have left his home in the Barques neighborhood of Montpellier. They’re no longer quite so young nor free of responsibilities; some of them have married -- Nicolas at the age of 17 -- and they need something more.

Night is falling. For several months, José has been tired. Much too tired for a man who is only fifty-one years old. Though he’d always been thin, he now becomes gaunt and his face is more and more emaciated. He feels pain in his back. In Switzerland, in the room where they’re waiting to record a TV program, he’s so exhausted that he throws his coat on the floor and lies down on it to rest. Neither his sons nor Chico had ever seen him before in such a state.

Upon their return to Arles, Chico accompanies him to the medical center, where he’s sent to take x-rays and then to the doctor’s office. In the car, Chico glances over the x-rays and the attached written report. But he can’t understand the medical jargon he’s reading.. "What do I have?" asks José. -- "It’s nothing really, it’s certainly not serious," replies Chico. When the doctor examines the materials, his diagnosis is immediate: lung cancer. He orders immediate hospitalization in the hospital in Montpellier.

José returns home. With Clémentine, he prepares his suitcase. During lunch, Nicolas begins to sing. He is inspired that day. José says nothing. He listens, devouring Nicolas with his eyes. He taps on the table, at first with short abrupt taps, then louder and louder, to accompany him. And he cries. A happiness too intense? the knowledge of a last time? a certainty that everything will continue? Nicolas sings and José cries.

Around the house, where the hens and the roosters strutting around will always have to protect themselves against the appetite of the dogs, he had often gone out, taking one of his sons with him. Fishing, going to flea markets, making music or simply driving around. Very often, it was Canut. And then André, the youngest of the sons, who is only thirteen in this month of March, 1979. Like Nicolas, he plays the guitar "inside out." Both are left-handed, and learned the guitar from right-handed people , and they’ve continued that way, reversing on the instrument the top and the bottom.

As if he’d never noticed it before, José looks intensely the "family trait" of the Reyes: On Martha and on Nadia, the youngest of the children, as on Nicolas, who opens his hands while singing, the pinkie is twisted. "Martians," Clémentine has often said. José also knows that they have little brown spots on their back. But that’s a secret. He knows that, when they were young, he had to scratch their back to get them to go to sleep, and that they’ve continued to enjoy that even when grown up. He knows he loves his eleven children. He knows that Clémentine has never loved anyone but him. And, now that he’s finished his coffee, he knows he must leave. He’s not on a train platform, where those remaining behind can hope for the return of the traveler. He’d gone away often, and very far. But this trip, 60 kilometers from Arles, resembles no other.

After the operation, the Reyes family, surrounded by people from all over the south of France, waits outside the hospital. It resembles a pilgrimage. The time of the festival in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer approaches, and José has never missed one since his birth. He leaves the hospital and afterwards returns there. One day, Manitas visits his cousin. Manitas is in a good mood. He’d placed bets and won on the horseraces, and tells José this. José smiles from his bed and says, "You’re very lucky."

When he dies, two months after the operation, they bring his body to Canut’s house in Tarascon. There are so many gypsies there that day, in the city and at the cemetery, for the burial of this uncrowned king, that, again, it looks like a pilgrimage.

On May 24, 1979, the annual festival at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer resembles none that has ever gone before. No José. Clémentine is dressed in black. She will remain dressed that way every day of her life. "Los Reyes" are all in mourning, and the rest of the gypsies too. He who was for them the certainty that the world is round is no longer there to sustain them.

Their morale is at its lowest point. By his personality, his notoriety, and his influence over the others, José had allowed them to believe that they were invulnerable. Some of them, married very young, are going to have children, and, thus, money troubles. Of course, there’s Saint-Tropez, the private parties, the small galas in Switzerland. But there are also so many mouths to feed. They stretch the budget by shopping carefully, participating in the harvest, and a thousand little things. Chico is now living with Martha. At first, at the house of a friend who sublets a studio in Arles to him, then with his parents, for lack of money. He’s not very proud of himself when he notices that after eight years in the music field, he can’t afford to attach even a small used trailer to the car. Neither José nor his own parents had looked favorably on this relationship. To try to satisfy everyone, he marries Martha in both the gypsy and the Muslim tradition. "God is big enough for all religions, and there’s no reason not to please everyone," he often says. Chico himself prefers faith to a specific religion. . The gypsies get in their trailer with him, and go on. The road is still long, but Chico is a good horse.

His first trailer he immediately parks next to Clémentine’s. The latter can’t bear not to see her daughter every day. When Martha becomes the mother of Reda, the first son, Chico feels the same anxiety that is gripping Patchaï, Nicolas or Poulette, already the father of "Titi," George (called "the Bowl" because he is so round), and Gérard.. Canut and Nadine don’t have any children, but they’ve chosen to rent a house, and for them, too, money is tight. In Saint-Tropez, where they continue to play for the jet set, and where they serve as a background and an ornament for the professionals in the record business, they have, for free, thanks to Robert Rameau and Didier Tornare, a magnificent pine-covered campground, right behind Moréa beach, where they can all set up their families and trailers. Their stay on the coast lasts more than two months. The Reyes reign in Saint-Tropez without any serious competition.

In his role as manager, pursuer of contracts, and public relations agent, Chico proves every day that he knows what he is doing. Before disappearing, José knew that Chico would become the head of the group and even of the family, and the family so completely counts on him to speak for all of them that he slowly forgets to express himself as an individual. The incredulous reaction he gets whenever he tries to explain his origins and his life history have caused him, for a long time now, to restrict these confidences to a few close friends.

He says "we," "everyone," "the Reyes," "the gypsies." Even if he’s referring to an individual initiative on his part. His brothers-in-law and he are like salt and pepper. Indissoluble. When speaking publicly, he phrases everything in a manner that reveals no family secrets; instinctively, he knows how to make himself smooth as a pebble and as impenetrable. On the one hand, he manages the field of action, with its pitfalls, in which they are engaged. On the other hand, he takes care of the odds and ends of the gypsies’ particularities. To harmonize these two often incompatible elements often resembles juggling. He believes in his gypsy family, in its talent, more perhaps than they believe in it themselves. The family lives only in the present, he alone never stops thinking about the future.

Faced with problems, vexations, disappointments, he adopts a low profile, because he aims high. Ambition? No, more like a form of faith. Like his father, in the past, traveling the road of contraband, he advances step by step, following a star. Around him, his brothers-in-law raise their eyes to follow his gaze. And they encounter, at every moment, the gaze of José.

Because of circumstances, probably because they feel weakened by the disappearance of the José, they open the group to cousins. A nephew of Manitas, the young "Canard" Bailardo, does a tour with them in 81-82. Their friend "Bique," a tall, blond gypsy with light-colored eyes, also shares some of their adventures. In 1980, Chico goes to Montpellier to get a timid child with golden fingers, who will become one of the key members of the band: Tonino Bailardo, the son of Manuel, a cousin of Manitas, and who’s only eighteen years old. He had already married Chou-Chou, a granddaughter of Manitas (by his mother Christiane, "Quicou") six months ago. He knows how to make his guitar speak, cry, and sing. A momentary defection by Poulette, who had preferred to go to find wood on a motorbike rather than go up to Paris to record a song, furnished Chico the opportunity to recruit Tonino.

Now, as will comment one day "Castor," a gypsy from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer whose talent as a storyteller was well known, "they have Platini with Nicolas, and Maradona with Tonino." A fabulous team ...

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