Great recordings of Gypsy music are available from cdRoots
"At first, we were a little nervous about facing the world. Now it is our life. After all, we have been traveling for centuries - we have only exchanged caravans and horses for cars and planes... Now the cops are in front of us, not behind!" - Nicolas Reyes
The Gipsy Kings are members of a minority that has been persecuted for centuries, so it is ironic that they should now find themselves under fire for a perceived lack of authenticity. The loudest skeptics are generally those who know very little about them, but are irritated by the group's high profile and appalled by the unintellectual hordes who lionize them. However, it becomes apparent with only a little digging that the combo's music is a logical result of their cultural heritage as Gypsies and their family background and training. The only genuine selling out is going on at the box office. Beyond this, whether or not their style charms or repels the listener is a matter of subjective taste.
The history of the Gypsy people is a crucial matter for Nicolas Reyes, the lead singer of the band, both as a person and as an artist. The prevalent theory is that the Gypsies originated in India. Aside from a physical resemblance between the peoples, there are also similarities between the Hindi, Sanskrit and Rromanes (Gypsy) languages; about one word in three is a match, or close to it. The tribal or caste laws and taboos are also noticeably alike. Speaking through an interpreter, Nicolas Reyes agrees. "Our people left the north of India, where our race originated, between the fifth and sixth centuries." he says, "We went in different directions, which created different tribes with names like Roms, Sinti or Gipsy . We were called "traveling people" because those who lived in the countries where we went did not authorize us to live in their territories." The word "Gypsy" is a corruption of "Egyptian", and it is true that some tribes passed through there on their way west into Europe. By the 15th century, Gypsies were widely distrusted outsiders but useful as blacksmiths and itinerant musicians. Their constant wandering necessitated the creation of strong internal codes. "Our traditions are very important for us." says Nicolas, "As an ever oppressed and pursued community, our children have a particular importance. Children are Kings!"
His family migrated to Southern France during the Spanish Civil War. Nicolas says, "The Gipsy people - as usual - were not allowed to take part in the fight, other than being shot at. So, the best way to stay alive was to run away from Spain and the South of France was the nearest and best place in terms of weather and location." The Reyeses joined the Gypsy encampment at Arles and worked at anything they could get, including gathering scrap metal and various occupations at the local grape harvest. "We are from the Gitano branch," notes Nicolas, "Our dialect is a combination of the language from the north-east of Spain, where our family stayed until 1936, and the French provincial language from where we are since." They sang as they worked, improvising and trading licks. Afterward, they gathered around the campfires back at the caravans, and the men sang and played while the women danced.
The Reyes' grandfather was a horse trader and a respected leader of the tribe. Their father, Jose, worked with his father at first, but became a famous singer who performed with the guitarist Manitas de Plata at Carnegie Hall and was much admired by Picasso, Cocteau, Dali and Charlie Chaplin. While he was adept at the demanding and impassioned Cante Jondo (deep singing) style of Flamenco vocalizing, he was also at home with the more accessible Rumba-Flamenca. No party was complete until he showed up. As he had a large family of five sons and six daughters, Jose Reyes found it more practical to move into a house on the Rue Des Douaniers at Arles. From then on, the caravans were only used for travel to the annual gatherings at Saintes Marie de la Mer, where the Reyeses caught up with clan doings and paid their respects to Saint Sara, the patron of Gypsies. "We were obliged to live in a Nomadic lifestyle because no community wanted to accept us." says Nicolas, "The decision to live in houses was taken when we had enough money to do it. Let me remind you, that to send children to school you need a legal address. You cannot do it when you live in a caravan. In the past, our parents were obliged to move from place to place every 3 days. Just try to establish a real relationship with anyone during such a brief period!."
Jose's sons were interested in music at an early age. Nicolas recalls, "There is a Gipsy legend which says that, when an old Gipsy singer or guitarist understands that he is going to die, he will sing or play for a pregnant woman. Then, the first child who is born will get his talent. When we were children, we were filled with wonder while watching our fathers and uncles playing, singing and having fun together all night long. We wanted to do the same. First, we tried to play with our older brothers' guitars in order to be as happy as they seemed to be. After many broken strings and spankings on the bottom, they decided to teach us how to play. Nowadays, it is the same for our children."
After he left Manitas de Plata, Jose chose to perform with his sons. Although Canute was the singer whose promise flowered earliest, Jose was confident that Nicolas would also find his way. The group was known as "Jose Reyes And Los Reyes" and eventually, after Jose's day, simply as "Los Reyes". Nicolas explains, "'Gipsy Kings' means in Spanish 'Los Gitanos Reyes' which is a combination of our family name and the tribe's name." The current incarnation of the group was forged when the four Reyes brothers (Pablo, Nicolas, Patchai and Canute) re-encountered their Baliardo cousins (Tonino, Diego and Paco) at Saintes Marie de la Mer. The Reyes were strongest as singers while the Baliardos were master guitarists and so, after an all-night jam session, they decided to go on together. Nicolas says their new name was given to them by accident, "An American woman, after asking us our name and origin, exclaimed 'Oh, you are Gipsy KINGS!' We kept the English name."
|"You know.. the narrow minded are everywhere and from everywhere, unfortunately. It is natural and necessary that our music will develop new sounds with the help of new instruments. But our rhythms, our guitars and our voices will always stay, and if we have to go 'on the road again', it will be with them."|
Nicolas was most profoundly drawn to folkloric styles such as Cante Jondo while his brothers favored Rumba-Flamenca, which was easier to dance to. There was no conflict between them as the band moved in a pop direction while holding onto the raw, jagged vocals and "palmas" clapped rhythms derived from their Spanish heritage. "Flamenco," explains Nicolas, " is the purest essence of our music - we could compare it to Jazz music. It is the deep shout and tears of our community. Rumba-Flamenca is the popular expression of Flamenco - burning and passionate - an expression of our happiness and our sensual attitudes - how we face up to life. I believe that each generation has its own interpretation of how to play the Rumba-Flamenca. Today, with the coming of new technologies, faster development and diffusion and, hopefully, with the renunciation of racial and social prejudice; it is natural that traditional music will change." How does he relate to critics who scorn the hybrid? "You know.. the narrow minded are everywhere and from everywhere, unfortunately. It is natural and necessary that our music will develop new sounds with the help of new instruments. But our rhythms, our guitars and our voices will always stay, and if we have to go "on the road again", it will be with them." He is adamant that his first sources are at the center of everything he does. "It is difficult to explain something what is in your blood, your spirit and your heart. It is, that's all."
After many years as a fixture at clubs and private parties on the South of France, the band became an international sensation and Nicolas was both delighted and apprehensive. "It was really unexpected but in some way wanted." he says, "At first, we were a little nervous about facing the world. Furthermore, we were afraid that someone would take our passports and not allow us to come back home! Now it is our life. After all, we have been traveling for centuries - we have only exchanged caravans and horses for cars and planes. We miss our families, but the children like the gifts we bring them." What is the major disadvantage of fame? "Now we know about lawyers - and social security." The major advantage? "Now the cops are in front of us, not behind!"
Even inside the closely-knit and mutually supportive Gypsy communities, there is occasional discord. "Regarding our relationship with other tribes, I have to say that they do not seem to be excellent." says Nicolas with obvious regret, "I cannot explain why. Perhaps it is from ages back or it is simply as we can see all around the world today - a rivalry between clans which is quite stupid." He is also taken aback by inside attempts at cashing in on the Gipsy Kings' reputation. "The current 'Los Reyes' took our name, to try to fraudulently use the 'Gipsy Kings' name. And this group's founding member's name is not even Reyes!" Asked if working so closely with family members is sometimes a little claustrophobic, he replies, "We live in different places but not so far apart, because our mother needs to see us and our families every day and we need her as well. My mother is the best-cooking mother I know!"
The group's latest album, "Compas" (Nonesuch), was produced by Chris Kimsey. It was recorded last winter in France and mixed in London and is steadily climbing on the charts, ably supported by the group's recent tour. The material boasts a lightly applied melange of fresh influences, ranging from Samba to Salsa, but remains overwhelmingly true to the formula their fans have come to expect. Any restaurant or emporium with upscale and/or ethnic aspirations is bound to jump on "Ami Wa Wa", which packs a hook that will perk up those who have been moping since the demise of the Macarena. There are also more sophisticated pleasures, including a trio of light-fingered instrumentals and enough tumbling, red-hot Rumba-Flamencas to satisfy. Less effective is a foray into "Three Tenors" territory, a cover of the Italian danza chestnut, "Que Si Que No (Funiculi, Funicula)". This will inevitably become ubiquitous at Italian eateries.
Even though the Gipsy Kings are worshipped all over the globe the past travails of his people, which peaked when the Nazis rounded up, incarcerated and murdered an estimated half million Gypsies, still haunt Nicolas Reyes. He is philosophical about this, weighing gains and losses. "Our misfortunes brought us together and developed in our clan a need to face up to the contempt and persecution that surrounded us." he says, "Furthermore, the language and writing learned at school was refused to us, so we were forced to develop an oral communication. This has been an important contribution to our music. Today, we can transmit our history and culture in our songs." He has come to terms with a complex contemporary reality that he was not prepared for while growing up. "The lack of communication kept us away from the modern world. Today, everybody, even our 14 year old, has a cellular phone. You can see and talk with anyone through the Internet. This is something I am unable to do, but my children will and one of them is doing it already." In fact, the band now has its own website and he is curious about what fans will have to say.
The Reyes and Baliardo clans have managed to adjust and move forward while existing in the moment as Gypsies have always done. Living in one place is a recent development, but the next generation are busily finding outlets for their hereditary restlessness. Does the family encourage them? Nicholas says proudly, "Yes, for sure! We help them and push them." Asked if he has anything to say to the millions who have so affected his life and that of his family by buying Gipsy Kings records and attending their concerts, he replies feelingly, "We all love you!"
Nicolas Reyes photo by Seb Janiak
Another version of this article appeared in Rhythm Music Magazine, fall 1997.
Gipsy Kings photo by Gilles Larrain
Courtesy of Nonesuch Records
Another version of this article appeared in Rhythm Music Magazine, fall 1997.
See also: Europe, Gipsy