Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


Three Cousins from Montpelier

Containing "Viento del arena" ("Wind of Sand"), "Gipsy Rock," "Amor d’un dia" (Love of a Day"), "Luna de Fuego" fared no better the media than "Allegria" with "Djobi Djoba," "Allegria," or "La Dona" ("The Woman"). Nicolas, Patchaï, and Canut Reyes, nevertheless, constitute one of the most beautiful trios of gypsy voices that one could find in the Camargue. The inventive genius of Tonino on the guitar brings a glamorous atmosphere to the other guitarists, reinforced, to mark the "compas" (rhythm) only by the percussion of fingers on the instruments and the "palmas." In the south of France, holiday evenings are filled with this gypsy music, a cousin of flamenco, a sister of the rumba, and wedded to the tempos of the time. In his nightclub, in his "bodegas," Philippe Corti plays the Gypsies until sunrise.

But this epidemic doesn’t extend north of the Loire River. The energy of sincerity and emotion in the Gypsies’ music makes people cry and dance, and excites guests in private parties and in New York (where Tonino, Nicolas, and Chico are invited in 1983), and even Arabic princes, Brigitte Bardot and Charlie Chaplin, but the Paris of show business remains deaf to the sirens of the Camargue. Like Ulysses on his ship, the show business people seem to have stopped up their ears with wax and tied themselves to the mast in order to avoid the risk of succumbing.

The time is not ripe. The group falls back on its life before the time of great expectations. Only Chico keeps an eye open. He knows that success depends on a simple equation: to be in the right place, at the right time, musically prepared, and acting with common sense. "I learned to live with three hands instead of two: one for flamenco, one for other kinds of music, and the third to seize the moment of opportunity."

The three Baliardo cousins who are now in the group have laughingly nicknamed him "the Brain." After Tonino and Diego (called Loulou), now Paco (called Max) joins the Gypsy Kings. All three of them are wilder and more forbidding than the Reyes. Their life has been more difficult. In the gypsy community in Montpellier, they are disliked. Manitas has hardly helped them at all; he has preferred to promote his brothers and sons in the music industry. The three Baliardo seek vengeance. Their reserve and their timidity hide a wounded pride.

Their great-grandfather is a Reyes, as is their paternal grandmother, Antoinette. Before World War I, the family traveled around France in its caravans. After that, everyone assembled in Catalonia in Spain. Their father, Manuel "Napoleon," was born, as were his brothers, in Figueras. First cousin of Ricardo Baliardo -- Manitas -- he returned definitively to France in 1927 or 1928. Little Enrique, one of the brothers, he suffered from a deformity of the foot and a necessary operation would have a better chance of succeeding in a French hospital, the Baliardo thought. Enrique relates that, on that occasion (and therefore in the same year) Manitas’ family returned to Sète, and then settled in Montpellier. Where did they all originally come from? From Andalusia, they’ve always been told. Although Locou, one of Manitas’ brothers, maintains with a mysterious air: "Our mother, yes. Because our father was a "‘payo,’ a horse seller in Sète." Manuel is a scrap metal merchant, and plays the guitar well. He collects all kinds of stringed instruments and also becomes as interested in an Italian mandolin as in his traditional Spanish guitar.

The Baliardos move first to Juvignac, a village close to Montpellier. Teresa, whose maiden name is Maille, lives in caravans in the trailer park at Lunel before marrying Manuel. Diego, Paco, and Tonino have two sisters, Lily and Nadia, and always have a guitar in hand. Like many gypsies, they live in a house and, when the weather gets nice, regroup with the other families’ trailers. They still do this today.

Family problems cause Loulou to quickly become the head of the family. He puts himself at the service of his mother and his brothers and sisters. If he ever talks about it, it’s only to laughingly recount his adventures as window washer, scrap metal dealer, and collector of the dregs of grapes for alcohol manufacturers. Whenever the subject turns to his brothers, he lights up. He took care of them, as today he takes care of his daughter Sonia. His greatest pleasure remains to recount how he discovered Tonino’s exceptional talent.

"I’d been playing music since the age of fourteen. Max quickly made it obvious that he was going to surpass me. I followed his progress. One day, someone said to me, "Your brother, have you listened to him? He’s really very talented." I thought he was talking about Max, but he said to me, "No, I’m talking about Tonino." It’s true, I hadn’t realized it. Of course, we were all aware, and amused, that Tonino always carried his guitar to school. His teacher sometimes asked him to play during recess. But Tonino was so timid that we rarely had the opportunity to hear him play at home. He always hung back. And as soon as anyone arrived, he’d put down the guitar and go close himself off in a room, alone. After what this man had said to me, I returned home. I went and pressed my ear against the door to Tonino’s room . I listened to him for ten minutes. And, yes, then I understood that he already surpassed all of us."

Gifted with extraordinarily supple fingers, ("One would think he didn’t have any joints. Rubber fingers!"), Tonino was born a soloist. At the age of ten, he was composing. At thirteen, he was always improvising and could no longer find many musicians who could play at his level. In Montpellier, as in Saintes, news travels fast. All the gypsies begged Tonino (and Paco, who, like a shadow, knows how to accompany him) to regale them with his constant inventiveness and his dazzling technique. Like the Reyes, he doesn’t know how to read music and his only teachers have been his brothers and his uncles.

At the farms in the area around Saintes, Loulou often meets his cousins, the Reyes, and finally they happen to play together. They get along well. Tonino will be the first Baliardo whom Chico will approach. He has already left the government housing project where his family lives and has finally settled down in Mion, at Montpellier, to marry Chou-Chou at the age of seventeen and a half. When Chico comes looking for him, they are living in a tiny house, with a wood stove, and their son Michael has been born. Michael’s younger sister, Andy Cinthia, will not be born until 1985.

Never rushed, always calm, Paco is the last to get married. He marries Nénenne, whom he’s known for a long time. One after the other, in 1980, 1983, and 1984, the Baliardo brothers ally themselves with the Reyes. They bring with them their knowledge of the guitar and their seriousness. The cousins from Arles aren’t amateurs themselves, but José’s influence has oriented them more towards singing. As in the past with Manitas and José, but without rivalry, an ideal musical group emerges of gypsies from the Camargue. Nevertheless, who has any idea at that time of the career that is awaiting them? Chico comments, "Even locally, no one foresaw what would become of us."

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