Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


At the Minister’s Table

The race for success is not in the nature of gypsies. Show business is not their world. Even in Saint Tropez, where they have friends, they don’t live the same lives as the professional musical artists or producers. Their world is the south of France, their family, their music. The rest - all the rest - is foreign to them. They go through cities, parties, meetings with people in the business quickly, to return as soon as possible to their homes right outside Saintes. Intact.

If Chico didn’t exist, if he weren’t their stepbrother or their cousin by marriage, they would live as well as possible from their art, without asking for anything more, without waiting for anything -- just like José, like Manitas, whom a combination of circumstances and some "Payos" pulled out of their trailers in the ‘60’s. Whenever, for lack of a producer or a party, their original existence sets in again, they are not unhappy. Like Patchaï, like Canut, wild horses that don’t tolerate either a saddle or an imposed route, they relax, and continue to drift according to circumstances, giving the best of themselves in their marriages, in baptisms, or, in gypsies’ parties in Saintes just for pleasure.

For them, the pursuit of a goal is an obstacle to their freedom, a constant suffering. Sometimes, they are close to running away from the obstacle, knowing that, in that way, they won’t have to persevere any longer. But, under the bridge in Arles, Chico still dreams. If the name "Gypsy Kings" provokes laughter around him, he knows he has in his pocket their international passport. "He always believed in us," says Canard. For him, the obstacles are peripheral. And since he has to make money -- he now has two children -- he imagines a new project as soon as an old one fails.

May, 1985. He baptizes Tonino, his second son, during the festival at Saintes. His friend Mazen Pharaon, whom he’d met at Saint Tropez, is at the celebration. He’s an adviser to King Khaled of Saudi Arabia. "Organize a big gypsy party," his friend says. "It’ll be you who invites us, it’ll be me who will pay for it." Chico reserves "Le Pont des Banes," a magnificent farmhouse in the Camargue. In addition to the gypsies’ large families, including wives, children, luggage, and guitars, there’s also Antoine Cordesse, the publisher of the newspaper, "Le Provençal," Michel Vauzelle, the press secretary for the French president (and who’s a native of the region), and his friend, Jack Lang, Minister of Culture in the Socialist government, who takes advantage of a visit to the neighboring city of Nîmes to come to say hello to Vauzelle.

In between eating and dancing, Jack Lang and Chico exchange some words: "No one gets excited about gypsy culture," says the minister. "It’s necessary to do something." Chico replies, "If you’d give me the means, I could organize a festival of gypsy art." -- "That’s interesting, very interesting," says the minister before being monopolized by other guests.

Chico is no longer even thinking about it when, eight days later, an invitation to dinner arrives from Jack Lang, a dinner for the opening of a new exhibit, "Arles, Capital of the European Book." The dinner takes place at the home of a well-known breeder of bulls in the region, on a large private property. Tonino, Nicolas, and Chico go with their guitars.

According to local custom, the mistress of the house makes them wait in a corner of the kitchen. They’re hungry, and are getting ready to ask for something to snack on, when a member of the minister’s entourage appears: "Where are the Gypsy Kings? The Minister is waiting for them for dinner." -- "But there’s no table for them," says the mistress of the house. -- "Of course there is, since they’ve been invited to sit at the Minister’s table."

Jack Lang receives them, asks them to please sit down next to him. Which they do, without daring to look at the faces of their hosts. After dinner they get up and sing several songs. The mayor of Arles claps, as do the other guests, then thrusts a hand into his pocket. Chico watches him steadily, with supplicating eyes. The mayor takes out a one hundred franc bill and offers it to Chico, who’s embarrassed by such a large amount. He mimics a "No, thank you, it’s not necessary," but the mayor insists. Chico leans over towards him and says softly, "No, really ... You can buy me a drink one of these days, thanks." Stiff, red with embarrassment, he resumes his seat next to the Minister; the latter talks to him again about his idea for a "gypsy mosaic." Then, turning towards his secretary, he says, "Speak with Chico about this tomorrow. I need concrete ideas."

The next day, at the Palais des Congrès in Arles, Chico Bouchikhi, the gypsy, guitarist, and leader of an unknown group, presents a typed proposal to the representative of Jack Lang. Regular contact is established with Pierre Dassau, at the Ministry of Culture, to organize a festival in the arena in Arles during the summer of 1986. The mayor’s office gives its approval to the plan, though emphasizing its lack of financial means and expressing hope for help from the ministry.

Chico has posters and programs printed at his own expense, phones Paco de Lucia to invite him, and also invites other Spanish and Hungarian artists. At that moment, he learns that "without intending to deny his authorship of the idea of a festival," The mayor’s office wishes to put the organization of the festival under the authority of the artistic director of the city. It’s easier to give one hundred francs to a gypsy than to give him a chance.

At the end of the meeting in which they’ve just given him the bad news, Chico feels harried. He is alone on the square outside City Hall. At that moment, he tells himself that, decidedly, he’ll never amount to anything. "I was completely frustrated and discouraged," he says. "I got on the phone to explain to the artists with whom I’d already been in contact that the festival might be held in a different city than Arles. I wasn’t taken seriously, especially since I had no fame as an artist, and even less as an organizer of festivals."

"Why not throw oneself into the Rhône?" as one says in that region. But Chico doesn’t like forced baths. And, then, he’s used to false starts. One more or one less ...

Already, the Gypsy Kings’ trailer was on the road again. Thanks to Didier Tornare, their friend from Geneva, they’re going to be able to record a new record. Along with "Bamboleo," "Quiero Saber" and "Soy" seem like good choices to them. Didier Tornare not only finances everything, but demands nothing. "If it works out," he says to them, "you’ll reimburse me. If not, well, we’ll at least have the pleasure of hearing a new record by the Gypsy Kings."

Towards the end of that year, Pierre Dassau, Chico’s contact at the Ministry of Culture, gives him an idea: Jack Lang has to go to Grenada, in Andalusia, for a colloquium. "It would be very nice for you to meet him there, in the country of the Andalusian gypsies." With an old car, three guitars, Tonino and Nicolas enrolled in the expedition, once again they’re on the road that leads to the origins of "flamenco pura."

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