Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


The Fox and the Chicken Thieves

Battered and kicked by fate and luck, the Gypsies weave their way: The black ball of wool has run out, a golden thread appears. But it was still necessary to catch hold of it.

"I was in a store, Souleiado, in Arles," says Chico, "preoccupied exclusively with the preparations for the Mosaics in Nîmes, in June of 1986. There, someone asked me to come play at a wedding on Saturday, just like that. The sort of thing we’d always felt obliged to refuse, since, otherwise, we’d be doing that all the time. Free concerts are for the family only. But that day I accepted, because I had a feeling. Because I knew the Demery family, the owners of Souleiado? Because I knew that Luc Peronnel, the groom, was a nice guy? We went there with Nicolas and André, the latter of whom had just joined the group. Stéphane Clavier was there, a young producer who spoke to me about his brother-in-law, Claude Martinez, a record producer. He said he was going to talk to his brother-in-law about us.

"Claude Martinez phoned while we were in Geneva recording the record financed by Didier Tornare. He asked me to come see him in Paris. I’d had enough of seeing producers in Paris! I told him he could come meet us where we resided, in the south of France. When I later repeated the name to a friend, he practically killed me! ‘Are you crazy?! Martinez is the producer of Coluche!’ I hadn’t known that. In any event, things were already decided. If he was really interested, he’d come. If not, we’d have at least saved our time and money."

Claude Martinez took a plane and came. He’d already rented a house in the region, at Eygalières, for some years. He listened to the tape, to the cuts on the new record. He insisted immediately that we shouldn’t try to sell to the Manitas de Plata market. Chico explained to him the mixture in the Gypsies’ compositions of traditional roots and modern tempos. On this point, they agreed, and Claude Martinez admitted that he found fantastic the creativity, inventiveness and power of the pieces he listened to. He hesitated only about the construction of certain songs, such as "Bamboleo," that start with the refrain instead of some introductory measures. He offered to produce them, together with Didier Tornare, if they’d just work on this small problem.

Thin, agile, humorless, Claude Martinez is an old fox in his trade. He recognizes big "finds." And he believes in them. "Without taking away from their exceptional quality, spontaneity, feeling, and constant creativity, I thought it was necessary simply to change certain structures in certain pieces in order to turn them into mainstream music, while at the same time keeping in other respects the natural state issuing directly from their tradition."

A tradition nourished, according to the Gypsy sculptor Gérard Gartner, by constant borrowings incorporated into the Gypsy sensibility, which recreates its own universe from these influences, whether in Hungary, in Andalusia, or in the Camargue. "Fundamentally creative, the Gypsy feels a natural need for expression. That’s what makes his identity, and his link with the art and the society that surround him.’ But the public can’t understand this autodidact, a former professional boxer, who exhibits his work in Nîmes during the Mosaics.

Flamenco, Hungarian music, jazz, are they gypsy inventions? No. And, nevertheless, gypsy musicians have enriched these with their magic touch, their soul which nothing inhibits from expressing emotion and sentiment. And renders their joys more intense, their sadnesses more absolute....At the end of 1986, flamenco-rock is boiling on Clémentine’s outdoor stove. Soon it will boil over and excite the world. ...

With the "payos," it always begins with a telephone call. The one that Gérard Prévost receives from Claude Martinez in January, 1987, will change his life. An already full life as a musician-arranger. In the trade, he’s been called "la Pliure" ever since Coluche (with whom he worked in the group "True Parisian Chic," and then in the Splendid Orchestra) declared that this nickname fit him like a glove. With his carved-heel cowboy boots, which give the impression that he’s under sea level waiting to take off on water skis, and his awkwardness, he doesn’t look like the lawyer that he is, nor does he look like a former student at the Conservatory of Music in Paris, a bass player. He has worked with several French singers; now he comes, as an electric bass guitar player, at just the right moment, to be a key ingredient in the Gypsy Kings’ magic potion. Martinez has asked him to supervise the recording of the first album that he’s going to produce with the Gypsies; Prévost agrees.

A first meeting with Chico ("I expected a folklore-type music, completely instrumental."), a tape in which he discovers the Gypsies’ music: like the good musician that he is, he proceeds to transcribe the entire cassette. Dominique Perrier, another arranger, is already working on "Bamboleo." He now has to look at the other pieces. "We got together with the group at the Pathé-Marconi studio at Boulogne-Billancourt. The first time they played the melodies that I’d heard on the tape, it was completely different. Nothing the same -- not the rhythm, nor the number of measures, nothing. They began again: once more, it was a completely different version. We wanted to record, but it was impossible. Nothing was ever fixed, but each time they functioned marvelously. It was their gypsy feeling."

While they are playing, "la Pliure" gives them directions with his hands. A waste of energy. They don’t look at him, they look at Nicolas or Tonino until Chico says to them, "Hey, guys! look at him, he’s making signs to us." How can they communicate? He knows music, they play by instinct, by ear. The words "break," "measure," "refrain," "notes and half-notes" mean nothing to them.. "What they called a note, I called a half-note. I tell you, when I saw Nicolas and André playing with the left hand on guitars for the right hand, while Loulou was playing a left-handed guitar ..."

""But, immediately, as well, the pleasure of penetrating the mystery of these natural musicians brought up on flamenco: Of course, all the music is directed by Nicolas’ voice, which expresses itself freely. And everyone follows with an extraordinary cohesion, even on the stage. It’s something phenomenal, hallucinatory. I especially felt this during ‘A mi manera’ ("My Way"): Nicolas begins slowly and finishes at full speed. While for us the rhythm doesn’t vary from the beginning to the end, nor does the number of measures. They are fueled by inspiration and everyone works together without problems."

"I remember, in Turkey. It was later, in 1988, during a tour. A crazy thing. Something to make you blow all your fuses. Nicolas is tired, André is to sing "Djobi Djoba" in his place. He gets set and begins "BemBem Maria." Total panic: everyone wonders for a fraction of a second how they’re going to pull it off. In that same fraction of a second, the Gypsy Kings begin singing the same refrain as André, and return to "Djobi Djoba" the following second, in the same energized seven voices. Without the batting of an eyelash, without visible emotion, they get back on track so quickly that I thought I had dreamed the whole thing. They stick together even when making a mistake, and I’ve never seen a group of musicians invent a more certain means of never erring."