a ¡Vamos a Bailar! - Because We Are Gypsies

Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


Madame Rose of the Winds

The "gypsy kings," our Gypsy Kings, didn't experience the misery of the war. The oldest, Diego, is only 40 years old, the youngest, André, is 23. If they have any memory of having seen the disappearance of enormous caravans, they are every year in Saintes-Maries on the 24th and 25th of May, at a reunion of remembrance as well as of the family and of Sara. An unwritten clause in their contract obligates Claude Martinez to refuse, albeit while pulling out the few hairs he has left, any engagement during this period. In the trailers that they live in the spring and summer (houses or apartments for André, Nicolas, Diego, Tonino, and Paco are only secondary residences during the winter), they meet in the same area, on the shore of the pond at Vaccarés.

There assemble Manitas, his brothers, the whole tribe, and the tourists who come to peer at the "savages." Every night, both famous and unknown gypsies join in the music. It takes a lot of shrewdness to penetrate the holy of holies, the inn at Clarousset. The best gypsy singers and guitarists drown out the surrounding frogs and toads in this inn managed by Henriette (whose life deserves a big book), The regal Henriette surveys the scene, noticing the gypsies she met here before. And God only knows, they've been coming here for thirty years!

From Montpellier, where there are always flamboyant personalities like Manolo (whose mother, Tali, is a sister of Manitas), or Casé, a Corsican gypsy, one of his brothers. From Arles, the home of José Reyes and his descendants. No one has ever seen Django Reinhardt at Saintes-Maries. His brother Joseph has promised at least ten times that he was coming, but he has never shown up. Another gypsy, from the former capital of Provence when it was a Roman territory, made his mark in the 60's and 70's: Chico Reye, from Nice. José would enjoy meeting him "Chez Guido," a former brothel transformed into a pizzeria on the shores of the Rhone. Translator's note: Hmmm, I wonder how one transforms a brothel into a pizzeria.

Maité Dubocquet, a fine woman one can always find in "The Rose of the Winds," her antiques shop on Diderot Street, remembers these two 'monsters' with open affection. The gypsy children who know her and know that she is generous call her "Aunt Rose," the parents call her "Madame Rose of the Winds." A devout and wise woman, she remembers the handsome Chico: "He was an immense man, with the equivalent of a shop window of jewelry around his neck. He had the allure of a Hindu prince, and he knew it."

José and he were not related, but around them, "Chez Guido" and at Saintes-Maries, spontaneous jam sessions took place. "If José was our master," says Chico Bouchikhi today, "Chico was our musical godfather. Canut, Patchai, and I would often go to hear him. It was his idea to mix into his repertory as guitarist and singer flamenco airs and Latin American rhythms."

On the subject of José Reyes, Maité Dubocquet can never say enough. At noon, she is telling you that it's impossible to talk about friendship but at the end of the day you are still in her store filled with souvenirs of Van Gogh and of letters from his brother Theo. "José came to my store one day to sell some old furniture. He had a powerful presence, and one immediately felt comfortable with him. He was proud like a man, and pure like a child. He has never changed. He loved to chat on a thousand different subjects; he didn't drink alcohol. One day he arrived here irritated, frustrated, because he had once again argued with his cousin Manitas. I sat him down in front of my typewriter, a beige Olympia with red keys, and I put in a piece of paper. "Here, act out your frustrations on this," I said. He didn't know how to read or write, but he began to type letters, until the whole page was filled up. He found that amusing. He asked me (surprisingly enough for an illiterate person) why the letters weren't in order on the keys I was speechless. But less so than Manitas, who arrived at that moment with his brother Hippolyte, and who saw his cousin using this diabolical machine that only the "payos" knew how to operate."

In this town hostile to anyone outside the norm, where even Van Gogh was institutionalized by public petition, "Aunt Rose's" door was always open to the gypsies and whenever possible she helped out their families. In the domed basement of her store, without financial motives, she sponsored about ten musical evenings to which José and Manitas came. She called this basement "Sara." This was way before the international tours and fame. But even afterwards, José continued to come see me. He was the incarnation of that gypsy pride that includes an absolute loyalty to friends. I'll never be able to forget José. I loved him like a brother."

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