Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


A Passion

Translator's note: I believe that passion is used here as a play on passion/emotion and passion/crucifixion.

She no longer remembers when she began to love the gypsies, their independence, their refusal to conform. She remembers only how she would try to approach them, to know them. Born in Morocco, in Rabat, Jacqueline Tarta owes her ability to slowly penetrate their fascinating world to her career as a TV reporter. She is so fascinated that she abandons her job as a reporter to enter the record producing business.

At the time of the first big documentaries on French TV (some of which were produced by her husband, Alexander Tarta), she discovers the Camargue. A fabulous area where the sky, the earth, and the water blend together and it seems like the people and animals are moving on clouds in a constant mirage. In those years, the beginning of the sixties, there’s no electricity yet (it will be installed in 1963), and everyone uses gas lighting. Herds of bulls wander dangerously on the roads, and the gypsies camp out in the heart of the village in Saintes, on the streets and on the squares, during the pilgrimage. During the night of the 23rd-24th of May, the gypsy women sleep in the crypt of Saint Sarah, to pray for fecundity. "What always made an impression of me was their manner of praying. They would come, caress the statue of Sarah, put their arms around it, and remain silently beside it."

She had already once had the opportunity to do a report on French TV’s Channel 2 (which she’ll leave in 1974) on Coco Briaval, a little gypsy from Montargis who played the guitar like Django Reinhardt. From the dinner she shared with his family, on the side of the road, where they served her hedgehog, the gypsies’ favorite dish, and the following morning, when she discovered that the entire tribe had left the camp without remembering the appointment she’d set up with them, was born her desire to rediscover the thread that would lead to them.

In 1975, having returned to TV reporting on a show "Today, Madame ...," she suggests another documentary on the gypsies. No success. Just maybe, a small piece on the annual celebration at Saintes, they say. Henriette, the grand priestess on a farm in Sainte-Hélène (which she’ll leave later for Clarousset) organizes a meeting for Jacqueline with a gypsy in Montpellier, a nephew of Manitas: Manolo. Son of Tali, who in turn is a sister of the famous guitarist, he too plays the guitar and sings, one tells her, in an extraordinary manner. He has a terrific voice. She takes film footage of the camp of Redon in Montpellier, where gypsies and immigrants from North Africa live in deplorable conditions, and makes the acquaintance of some of the Bailardo clan: Hippolyte, one of Manitas’ brothers, his son "Canard," the women, and an uncountable number of cousins

Disappointed by the TV industry, Jacqueline Tarta sets up her own music producing studio, Sara Music, and signs Manolo to a contract. The album "Guitar of Gold" will be decently successful under the label Phonogram. More than fifty thousand copies will be sold . But Manolo has no desire for a career and is confused by his life as a ‘recording artist.’ She then tries unsuccessfully to get "Boy" and "Negrita," gypsies from Manosque. But she encounters what she calls "the latent hostility" of the industry towards the gypsies, and she herself gets bogged down trying to reconcile their style of life, their mentality, and the career that she wishes for them with the demands of the business. She is aggressive, too much perhaps, to the point of alienating already reticent folks.

But, more than anything else, it’s the wall of contempt that seems to her unbreachable and disgusting. It begins in daily life. For example, a security check on the outskirts of Paris, while she and Manolo are going to the studios at Buttes-Chaumont. "The police talked to him as if he were a dog. There was nothing amiss with his papers, and nothing unpleasant in our attitude. I protested, and asked for the policeman’s identity. I will never forget the contemptuous look he gave me. A scorn greater than what he had shown for Manolo, and that signified, "A woman sitting in a gypsy’s car with a gypsy can be only a whore." The other Jacqueline - the baroness - had the same experience one day with her "Indians" between Saint-Tropez and Monaco. Some people would be discouraged by that sort of thing. However, women - and, specifically, the two Jacquelines - were not. They know, perhaps better than the men do, that to live with passion means to accept the wounds.

Chico relates a story: "In 1982, we were once again without any engagements. I phoned Jacqueline Tarta with the idea of convincing her to record us. I’d heard about her, I knew she traveled around the south of France with an eye to finding guitarists and singers. We’d produced a video in Paris, and recorded a tape in Spain. I thus had materials to show her. She made an appointment with me at the spot where she spent most of her time during the festival in Saintes: at a store that sold books, newspapers and records that was located on the square with the church. She’d had some trouble with the church officials because she had played, over loudspeakers, the music from these records. When I arrived at the meeting, I didn’t recognize her. To me, she didn’t look like a producer. I took her for the saleslady."

Jacqueline Tarta: "I was there with my sales promotion, and was struggling. There were always a lot of foreign tourists at that time of the year, and I told myself that, little by little, all this work would amount to something. Chico arrived. He invited me to lunch at Vagues, a neighborhood bistro. He immediately made a reassuring impression on me. With him, I could talk, exchange ideas, be understood and understand him. With the other gypsies, I always had to guess at everything. Chico asked me to take an interest in his group. He took me to the trailers parked at the side of a pond. The only one I knew by sight was Tonino, whom I’d seen play at Calabrun. I liked them, and found them much more mature than the others. But there were seven of them! I felt incapable of dealing with so many musicians. I was tired, and financially strapped. I went to hear them play , and I liked their music. But I needed time to reflect. I promised only to visit them in Saint-Tropez in August.

"I saw them there, at private parties. I could see that they were the darlings of the international jet set, and that they were very well organized. I knew that other gypsies, those in Manitas’ family, had tried to be successful there and had not succeeded. The Reyes impressed me again by the quality of their music and their seriousness. In contrast to Manolo and Manitas, who, capriciously, did or didn’t share their earnings with the members of their group, Chico, his brothers-in-law and the cousins distributed everything equally. Living among them at Moréa, I could see with what finesse they protected themselves against the outside world. I met Clémentine, I immediately adored Martha and Nini ((Patchaï’s wife). They were two beautiful young women, as happy as children and as solid as rocks.

"I left for Corsica, still postponing my reply to them. I pretended I still needed time for reflection. As if I’d ever been a reasonable person! On my return, in September, I said yes. Was it the Reyes’ fierce desire to carry on the work of José (that had struck me from the beginning) that swayed me? or was it the help of friends who had invested in Sara Music to help me? I went to the south of France and we worked on demo cassettes. In November, we were in Paris, more precisely, at Pantin, at the studio "Harry Son." A marvelous man, the sound engineer, Pierre Braner, helped us make their first album, "Algeria." "

It’s the first record by the group renamed Gypsy Kings-Los Reyes. An Americanism in the eyes of some who see in it a betrayal of the name Reyes. But Chico, this time in contrast to all the others, is thinking already about promotion and marketing, and is aware of the addition to the group of cousins who don’t have the name Reyes. And, at this moment of taking a chance with an album, Chico does not want to risk being confused with the numerous groups of relatives of the Reyes who, in the Camargue, all appear at cafés and restaurants under the generic name of "Los Reyes."

Back Next