Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


The Encampment of the Gypsies

Chico has just returned. He has parked his Renault 25 as if he were returning from a simple day at work, and has taken from the trunk his two guitars and two enormous traveling bags. He'd taken them six weeks ago when he'd started the tour. Black as prunes, with immense eyes, Tonino (seven years old) and Reda (eleven years old) run towards their father and cling to him. They want to carry one of his bags, which is certainly filled with gifts.

In Marthe's arms, as she comes out of the trailer, Myraim, born March 24, 1989, is excited and smiles. "Jaye! Jaye! Papa has come home," exclaim the boys. ["Jaye" means grandmother.] In a sleeveless dress that reveals her tanned arms, Clémentine appears, and asks her son-in- law, "Chico, have you eaten?" That's the only question they ask him upon his return from his long trips, his incredible triumphs. It's the same question that the five other gypsy heroes hear upon rejoining their families. What a contrast to the important rich people who invite them to private parties after their concerts, who ask lots of boring questions about their career and their success. Besides, they never stay more than ten minutes there.

"Chico, have you eaten?" Without waiting for a reply, "Pneu" (a nickname that she's had since childhood) begins to cook. Everyone sits around the outside table covered with oilcloth. Six or twenty people: when one loves the people, one doesn't count. And there'd have to be many, many more to intimidate "Pneu." A woman who was the wife of the great José and who had given him twelve children (one, Lucien, died as a child), one greets each day with the calm of a war veteran.

The Reyes never let much time go by without seeing her. There's Paul, the eldest - "Poulette" ever since Picasso gave him that nickname, having found him as pretty as a girl and having immortalized him in an engraving and a sculpture. Paul, after fifteen years working hard with the group, in which there were then seven members, left them just when the group attained national and international fame. He had spoken of imaginary earaches, hiding his true desire to return to the tranquille life of Provence, its outdoor markets, his family, and local gatherings of guitar players.

There's Fayonne, the eldest daughter, who lives in Tarascon, Rosette ("Nénette") who lives in Arles, Canut and Patchai (the gifted ex-Gipsy King), Nicolas, Marthe, Annie, Olange, André, and Nadia, who is eighteen years old. Any time one or the other arrives unexpectedly, alone or with the family, Clémentine, her black hair tied up in a chignon, gets busy cooking. From the small portable stove emerge bohemian-style vegetables, potatoes with eggs, meats in sauces, grilled meats, sausages, lentils, rabbit with mustard, green beans, all accompanied by salad and cheeses which one swallows with onions or with jams. In winter, a "scudeya," a kind of stew, a gypsy soup steams in the pot. And when catches one, a roast hedgehog!

Of course, the women busy themselves, eating standing up or sitting on the edge of their chairs, a child on their knees. The traler park is their entire world. While the men are running around the world, guitar in hand, they say laughingly "Today we're going out, we're going to Washmatic" - the laundromat at the corner of the street. They were married at the age of seventeen, "gypsy style," that is, without any legalceremony. A life they had waited for, never going to school: "Why bother since they'll be mothers at eighteen."

The night before their wedding, some still go through the test of the handkerchief: their mother, grandmother, or a female relative is required to verify their virginity, then to penetrate it, and to exhibit the proof on a handkerchief.

About these traditional practices, Clémentine says nothing. One feels that she must disapprove of them. She wants her children to be married 'in the French manner', at City Hall. When André married his "paya" she saw no problem; to the contrary, she wants one thing only: her children's happiness. And people's happiness in general. She says, "There's too much misery in the world," and she does her modest bit to reduce what she sees of it around her. Her daughters Marthe and Nadia live with her and follow her rhythms. She is the center of the trailer park.

Here, as long as they are polite and helpful, wretched people more marginalized even than the gypsies find refuge. Michael, the fire- breather born in Charleville-Mézières, just like Rimbaud, always finds a plate of food and never returns to the little tent he has erected near the Rhone without bringing with him something for his supper. Though it is difficult for him to live off his art, and as he also has difficulty getting official authorization to practice it, he somehow gets along.

It's not unusual for a lame person to arrive (a malformation of the hip) with kilos of fruits and vegetables. Aother day it's a bag filled with meat that he's brought from the slaughterhouse. One day, he will have his trailer. While waiting, in the evening, when a glass of red wine and the sound of guitars attract him, he abandons himself to a highly personalized flamenco, expressing through his gestures all his dreams of bullfighting, all his solitude. These performances leave him exhausted, sweating, and happy. Fabrice, a somewhat simpleminded young man who lives in the Camargue, participates sometimes in the moments of delirium that make everyone in the trailer park joyful.

He comes to flirt with Yvonne, a beautiful blond gypsy, married and mother of two little girls, Pamela (five years old), who got up on the stage one day to dance with the Gipsy Kings in Nimes in front of 30,000 people, and Cathy. Yvonne plays along with him, and so does her husband, to make everyone happy - when Fabrice, cap in hand, timid, comes to whisper sweet nothings to her under the clotheslines where she's hanging the laundry, near the laundry of Papa Jean - five Hermès scarves! - Fabrice has already planned their marriage and the gigantic party he's going to organize for the occasion. He extends his invitations and waits for the moment when the Gipsy Kings will be available to come sing a serenade to the newly married pair, as he imagines himself and Yvonne.

If he visits in the afternoon, the women, alone in the trailer park, and who never lose an opportunity to laugh, warn him of all the hassles involved in marrying a "wild one." You know," Yvonne comments, "I'll be barefoot the day of the wedding. That might displease your family." -- "And," adds another, "she has a large family! You'll have to invite her brothers, her sisters, her cousins and their children, at least two hundred people." -- And, finally, "Do you know that Yvonne can't sleep at night unless you play the guitar to her. ... If you don't know how to play, you'll have to learn!"

Nothing discourages him! When he dances with Michel in the evening, the two men, in the middle of a circle formed by old people, women, and children, confront each other in a mock duel, encouraged by cries of "Olé" and of "palma." Elsewhere, no one pays any attention to them. One hundred years after Van Gogh painted at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer the "Encampment of Gypsies," who will paint the shadows of Michel and Fabrice on the trailers? A useless worry, according to Clémentine. With a wisdom one doesn't learn in school, she says, "Friendship, love, and death, these are things too big to lock up in books and images."

Sometimes, she comes out of the trailer and sees Poulette, her oldest son, who has come to see his family with Francois, his inseparable heir. Words don't come to her lips, but rather, emotions seize her heart, suddenly freezing her gestures, and stopping time: of all her sons, Pablo is the one who most resembles José.

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