Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


The Misuderstanding

The first appearance of the Gypsy Kings on the record market does not exactly produce the effect of a bomb. When Jacqueline Tarta, in search of a label and of a distributor, goes anywhere to announce the Magi and the Messiah, the crowd rushes towards the nearest exit. At Pathé and at RCA, people look at her as if she were interrupting their naps. They dismiss her with a tired wave of the hand, with a sigh. At CBS, they explain to her in a pained manner, as if she were an ignorant provincial, that her thing about the gypsies interests no one, that, yes, they made money with Manitas, and now, Madame Tarta, that music is finished, finished!

Holding their noses, and stopping up their ears, they miss some gems. Among other pieces which will become successes five years later, there’s "Djobi Djoba," a very original kind of rumba-rock, filled with an energy that has gotten people to dance every summer at Saint-Tropez, at evening parties attended by the richest and most blasé people on the planet. In the film "I Married a Ghost," released that year, the producer Robin Davis shows that he understands: he has the Gypsy Kings appear, singing "Djobi Djoba." In the desert!

Finally, Jacqueline Tarta returns to Phonogram, where she still receives credit for the success of Manolo. Without enthusiasm, they tell her, "We’d be willing to try," and they sign a percentage contract with her. Not without calling her in before the record is released - in January, 1983 - to tell her, and Chico who is accompanying her: one, that the record jacket is ugly, and, two, that the English name of the group is heretical. When you receive such criticism from your own marketing director, imagine the promotion campaign they’ll arrange for you!

"I accepted the criticism about the jacket," Chico recalls, "but I refused to accept their criticism of the name. The others in the group said to me, "Let’s change the name. After all, we need to eat." But I held firm. Hence, the promotion ...": One evening, a reception at the Apocalypse Press, then a night club around the Champs-Elysées, and then, nothing. Under these conditions, the record’s sales quickly corresponded to the purchases by Jacqueline and Chico, at wholesale price, with the intention of distributing the records for free or selling them purely for pocket money.

At Jacqueline Tarta’s, they meet Francis Lalanne, the number one artist at Phonogram at that time with "The Little House of Happiness." For his friend Jacqueline, who had sheltered him in a time of need, and for the gypsies, whose stagnation he cannot understand, he is willing to fight. He feels that bad luck, the indifference of those in the record business, the Manitas syndrome, all this cannot indefinitely bar them from the road of success. In small galas organized by Jacqueline, he has seen their incredible power over the public as soon as they step onto the stage. A complete magnetism, magical!

Without calculation, he puts at their service all the weight that his young stardom gives him with Phonogram and with show producers. As the star of a performance at the Olympia in 1983, he calls up to the stage various friends. Some of these are quickly rejected by the young crowd that makes up the audience. But from the beginning of their first song ("Djobi Djoba"), the Gypsies cause pandemonium. The spectators stand up, sing and dance with them. Six years after their first appearance on that stage, they still are producing the same powerful effect. At the end of the show, the manager of the Olympia, Jean-Michel Boris, comes over to say bravo, thank you, ... and then good-bye.

Some members of the band are in shock. "Only Chico went on believing in us," says "Canard." "He always believed in us. He would say, " Sow! Sow! One day we will reap." "Despite failure after failure, disappointment after disappointment, he’d continue to say that, day by day, we were getting closer to our goal. I would wonder if he was dreaming. He’d talk to us about America, he treated us as if he were our father, or our mother. Whenever we’d get in the car to perform at a party, we’d be so nervous, that we’d stop the car on the side of the road and roll around in the wet grass. We all lived in a state of anguish. "Bique," who’d just recently left home for the first time, said he felt sick and that he wanted to return to see his mother. For us, everything in this adventure was painful: We didn’t understand the people we met, and could see that they couldn’t understand us either. And what’s more, sometimes we found ourselves in frightening places: one night, at Val d’Isère, we fell asleep in an isolated castle someone had offered us. There was a snowstorm, with strong winds that made everything tremble. I ran around the castle trying to escape the ghosts that I saw everywhere. What agony, what suffering!"

"One time, we went to Germany. There were four of us. The tour, organized by an unreliable businessman, promised us contracts in some night clubs, The total earnings would be a million centimes. That was before we left. Once we’d arrived, with all expenses deducted (this guy hadn’t told us that we’d have to pay the expenses), we had to borrow money to be able to return. And the car broke down on the road!"

The journeys to unknown places, the constraint of time schedules, the constraints in general are difficult for the gypsies to bear. Chico, however, wants to make them professionals in spite of themselves. Forever suffering from psychosomatic maladies, the Gypsies at that time always turn to ‘Doctor Chico.’ He always has a joke or a new argument to encourage them to go on a little longer. Francis Lalanne pulls strings to help them. In each provincial village where he shows up for a performance, he forces his friends to be included in the program, at the last moment, as a first act in the program. And, if it’s necessary, he uses force, five minutes before the curtain is about to go up. "It’s simple," he says to the director of the theater. "If they don’t perform, I don’t sing." Each time, the immediate reaction of the public - standing up as soon as the first number begins and never sitting back down, shows that Lalanne is right.

A half-success at the municipal theater in Arles rekindles the interest of Jacqueline Tarta: in the cradle of their life, of their music, they fill the theater and even make a small profit. But, as usual, the professionals who’ve been invited to the show aren’t interested in following up. Besides the local newspapers and a few small radio stations, no one pays much attention to the Gypsy Kings. "Canard" breaks down. He drags his feet, forgets to show up at appointments. Jacqueline Tarta dismisses him, not without having to justify herself to representatives of the Bailardo family. Having listened to her, the family winds up agreeing with her decision. "Considering the formidable impact they had on an audience, I tried to get spots for them to perform as a first act at the performance of a known artist. I had to see all the impresarios in Paris. Jacques Marouani seemed interested for a moment, but there was no follow-up. I met Patrick Sébastien, who was getting ready to leave on a tour as a stand-up comedian, and who was looking, precisely, for a musical act to start off the show. I thought everything was about decided, but possibly his entourage and impresario intervened. In any event, they hired a Creole company."

In October, 1983, a new album: "Luna del Fuego". Diego Bailardo, the older brother of Tonino, has joined the group. The Gypsies spend three weeks at the Café de la Gare. This café-theater, where Coluche, Patrick Dewaere and so many others made their debuts, vibrates nightly to the rhythm of the Gypsies. Romain Bouteille, the founder of the place and father to a whole generation of actors, who likes the guitar and plays it himself, comes several times to encourage them. On the radio station "France-Inter," Jean-Louis Foulquier is the first announcer to support them unreservedly. "In the end," says Jacqueline Tarta sadly, "they went home with 1500 francs per person."

Even worse, Phonogram refuses to distribute "Luna del Fuego." During a luncheon, the directors of the record label explain to Chico and to Jacqueline Tarta that they no longer want to work with the Gypsies and that the Gypsies had better "look elsewhere." Once again, Francis Lalanne, magnificently generous, comes to their defense. He threatens not to renew his own contract - which is about to expire - if the record house does not distribute the Gypsies’ album. He obtains an agreement, but what can one expect from people whose hand has been forced like that? At the Midem in Cannes that year, the Gypsy Kings play for the ‘show-biz’ guests: on the steps outside the palace, in the corridors ...

The year 1984 will be just like the previous one, chaotic. Jacqueline and Chico both push on. But, instead of doing so together, they now act separately. They sense that they’re playing their last cards. In Arles and Montpellier, the children of the Gypsies are getting older. The mouths to feed and other cares are multiplying. Jacqueline sees her financial assets growing smaller, and her own apartment now replaces the too-costly hotel rooms when the Gypsies come to Paris. The failures multiply. Scheduled for an appearance on the TV program "The Bottle Sent to Sea," the Gypsies, arriving from the south of France, are told in the studio, after having been prepared with makeup, that there’s no place for them. They will leave after having been paid for not performing.

In Brittany, they sing at a large rock and folk music concert. They’re told they’ll be paid in installments. In the end, they’ll never receive a penny. A cleverer Miriam Makeba comes, rehearses, insists on being paid in advance, and leaves without performing. Probably, she’s learned about what the young Gypsies will find out about only later: a shady business transaction involving double bookkeeping that tarnishes the show. On May 23rd, in the arena at Saintes, a show organized by Jacqueline Tarta turns out badly for the Gypsies: a glacial wind and the presence of guards with huge dogs spoils the evening.

"Even with TV, where I knew lots of people," Jacqueline comments, "I felt I was importuning people with my insistence and my gypsies. Each time that someone granted me a spot on a program, it was begrudgingly, as if giving me charity. I had a great deal of trouble guaranteeing that they’d receive payment in the usual manner, by check. Gypsies are usually paid in cash. I was more and more disgusted, more and more aware of the problems that still needed to be resolved. I was at my wits’ end. Chico too. We spoke to each other less, something had broken between us."

During the summer of 1984, Jacqueline Tarta covers the south of France by car, from north to south, east to west, distributing "Luna de Fuego" to radio stations. During the same time, Chico produces a video without telling Jacqueline. She first discovers it at the video festival in Cannes. "I was in an awkward position," she says. "And, at the same time, I understood why he was doing this. I lost my mother, and I no longer had any money at all. I tried to talk with Chico, and we left each other angry. That was the end of it for me. I heard no more from Phonogram for several years. Not even at the moment when they decided to re-issue "Algeria," in 1987, when the Gypsies entered the top 50 with "Bamboleo." I was in Corsica. First there was the enormous success of "La Bamba," and then, "Bamboleo."’"

Chico remembers in the same way the end of the love affair between the Gypsies and their passionate admirer. "I understood that the group was headed towards catastrophe. We were breaking apart. Canut and Patchaï had left . They earned a better living playing at private parties, as we’d done at first, than chasing after my dreams. We had no money left, and were becoming more and more discouraged. With the six thousand francs that remained, I produced a video with the help of a photographer friend, Vincent Bertomieux, in Arles. We showed it in Saint-Tropez. It was either that, or just waiting to sink further, without, in either case, changing the final result.

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