Gipsy Kings - Because We Are Gypsies

by Francois Mattei


The Fantastic Cousins

The evening of November 11, 1963, on the platform of the train station in Arles, simultaneously proud and nervous, Manitas de la Plata, José Reyes, and Lucien Clergue, accompanied by his wife, waited for the train that was going to bring them to Paris. Another train took them to Le Havre on the 13th, where they embarked on the steamship "United States" to come to America. Although this trip had been planned for a while, they hadn't really believed in it, because it had been postponed many times, and, having boasted about it at the beginning, they felt they'd wound up looking ridiculous. Now, here it was, the first great adventure of the gypsies from the Camargue in the New World.

José looks around in the first-class sleeping cars where they've been taken with their suitcases as if he's been traveling this way all his life. He jokingly calls his cousin "Mau Mau," i.e. savage. Clémentine has come to see off her husband: he is leaving for one month to the ends of the earth, and everyone is crying. Three of their children cling to her. When the train leaves, she returns to their home on Douaniers Street, in the Roquette section, where she lives with José and the newspaper "The Free South" was the first to announce the trip around the twentieth of October, and all around the gypsy neighborhoods of Montpellier, Arles and Tarascon, and the beaches from Ste to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, all the gypsies in the south of France came to take the train to America. Manuel himself thought one could go there by car.

He'd been told that, according to legend, Christopher Columbus had offered the gypsies their freedom from the prisons of Seville in exchange for joining his crew; apparently, many did just that, and for the past two hundred years there has been an American gypsy community. Louis Aragon [the French author], who was writing a book describing Andalusia of old, told him that story during a get-together organized by Lucien Clergue. But that hardly interested him. Such things were beyond him.

In 1961, in New York, Lucien Clergue exhibited, in the Museum of Modern Art, his photographs of nudes, of the Camargue countryside, of dead bulls, and of gypsies at the festival of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. As Manuel's biographer [Robert Laffont, "Music in the Fingers"] tells it: "One day, an unknown man approached him and said, `Mister Clergue, I assume? Seeing your photographs, I conclude that you know the gypsies well. Is one of your photos possibly of Manitas de Plata?" Clergue showed him a shot of "the Blond" and his interlocutor revealed that he was Alan Silver, the director of a record company, the Connoisseur Society, a new company supported by the Book of the Month Club, a very important business venture equipped with very effective public relations and advertising departments.

For six years, ever since he'd heard an amateurish recording given to him by a young Frenchman, Marc Aubot, Alan Silver had been trying to find out who this guitarist was. He had sent letters to "Mister Manitas de Plata, at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer" since 1955, and had never received an answer. He was about to drop the matter - he would learn later than one of Manitas' nieces had eaten (yes, eaten) the only letter that had made it to the gypsy camp - when an article appeared in Time magazine on Saintes-Maries and Manitas.

Alan Silver thought of asking Cocteau, who frequented Arles and its bullfighting rings, to find Manitas. But, learning of the exhibit of Clergue's works, he waited to meet the photographer who was associated with the Camargue. After having confided his plans to record Manitas and to turn out a record, things took shape. Back in France, Clergue asked José Reyes to bring him to Manitas. "I warn you," José said, "they're Mau-Maus."

A few months later, in a chapel on the Boulevard des Lices in Arles, in the presence of Alan Silver, Manitas and José recorded three records containing the whole range of flamenco styles: saetas, bulerias, seguiriyas, fandangos, tarantas, etc. Shows and television followed. Then the trip to New York for the first concerts. Arranged by Lucien Clergue, meetings followed with famous people who were in Arles for the festival around Easter time ("la Feria") and to see the bullfights in the ancient arenas.

After their American successes in 1963 in Carnegie Hall, José and Manitas met Picasso, who had stayed for more than twelve years at the "Nord Pinus," an extraordinary hotel in Arles, situated on the Forum Square. The establishment's director was Nello, a former clown, and his wife Germaine. Luis Miguel Dominguin, Jean Cocteau, Antonio Ordonez, Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Ernest Hemingway, Raimu, Jean Giono, and Salvador Dali all frequented this hotel, which had earned the nickname "Hotel of Artists." Pablo Picasso signed Manitas' guitar. It was on this occasion that, struck by the beauty of Paul, who was accompanying José, Picasso surnamed him "Poulette," and used him as an inspiration for drawings, etchings , and sculptures of a little fawn with features as perfect as those of the young Paul.

Upon their arrival in Paris, November 12, 1963, José recorded a saeta [a flamenco song, a kind of shout shot, one might say, like an arrow] for a film by Lucien Clergue on bullfighting. Manitas, out of work during that time, felt bitter about this. He couldn't stand being relegated to second place for even one day, and for this he had particular reasons.

He had only reluctantly accepted José's accompanying him on his "conquest" of America. He was never convinced that a singer at his side was indispensable nor that José's genius could only add to his own. Obsessed with his star status, he remained continuously opposed to José. On the steamship, they made the acquaintance of Salvador Dali and his wife Gala. Between them, there was an immediate understanding. Later on, Dali gave José a sketch with the name Reyes on a crown. The divine Dali loved kings.

From the time of their first concert in Carnegie Hall, they were a triumph. The evening before, some New Yorkers were perhaps amazed to see, in the window of a fast-food restaurant, eating fried chicken with his fingers, absorbed in thought, the "greatest guitarist in the world," with a giant poster of himself right opposite him.

The three following concerts at Carnegie Hall confirmed the first one. The audience wouldn't leave the auditorium until long after the scheduled end of the show, so crazed with excitement they were, their hands burning from having clapped so much.

During the tour on the East Coast, José couldn't restrain himself from leaning out the window of the bus or the car, sighing at the tons of abandoned scrap iron. "But how would we bring them back to the Camargue? What a waste!"

A quarter of a century before the Gypsy Kings, José and Manitas enflamed Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Washington. December 17th, they finished by playing at the U. N. before the representatives of all the countries in the world. Salvador Dali didn't want to miss that. He jubilantly came to see them. He was the only one not to be amazed when they changed in the personal office of the Secretary General, U Thant, without apparent (or hidden) emotion.

Until 1975, the two fantastic cousins played at Carnegie Hall, The Royal Albert Hall, and other great concert houses around the world. Their rumba la Camargue and their dedication to giving the best of themselves, however, didn't dissipate their dissension, rankling that had poisoned their relationship from the start. For example, Manitas would augment the "falsettas" [improvised arpeggios that make the guitarist stand out], in order to drown out José's voice. In comparison with the guitarist, José was only a modest success; despite his enormous talent and imposing personality, he received only meager recognition. Then, Manitas brought into the group his brothers and his sons. José felt isolated. Each time they returned to the Camargue, he returned to his old life. Scrap iron, the markets. While Manitas bought himself a Rolls- Royce, which he lost gambling, José led his usual life, and sang more and more often with his sons. Poulette, Canut, Patchai, Nicolas, and a little Moroccan who was hanging around their sister Marthe, "Chico," Jahloul Bouchikhi, formed a group, "Los Reyes." "José Reyes and Los Reyes," that wouldn't sound bad.

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