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The Vancouver Sun
Tuesday, June 9, 1998

1998

Behind the Kings: The Gipsy Kings are driven by a sharp producer and a deep desire to promote gypsy culture.

From The Vancouver Sun - FINAL EDITION

A year ago, the musical tsunami that is the Gipsy Kings released its ninth album, and took another stranglehold on the world music charts. To date, the group has sold 15 million albums worldwide.

Since their 1987 debut with the hit single Bamboleo, the Kings' unbridled, soul-wrenching sound has garnered them international adoration. Yet lead singer Nicolas Reyes sounded naively joyous in relating an anecdote to the Boston Globe last year on the success of their single Ami Wa Wa.

"I will tell you a story," he said through an interpreter. "This disc had only been out about one week, and we went to a restaurant, to eat dinner, and there were gypsies playing. What did I hear? Ami Wa Wa. The record was out hardly four days. This is crazy to me, unbelievable. It's a dream."

Given that Reyes' voice has monopolized restaurant sound systems for the last decade, it's unbelievable that he would be mystified to hear his songs played in a restaurant. And it suggests the group has remained surprisingly immune to the high-gloss effects of fame and fortune.

The Kings, who appear at GM Place Thursday, are French gypsies who live in southern France, the offspring of caravan-dwelling families who fled from Spain during the Spanish Civil War. They are the merger of two families, the Reyeses and the Baliardos.

Nicolas Reyes, son of '60s flamenco legend Jose Reyes, is the lead singer, backed up by brothers Canut, Pablo and Patchai. Tonino Baliardo is the lead guitar player, joined by brothers Diego and Paco.

All but two members of the group are original. A brother-in-law was fired because of a dispute and a Baliardo brother was forced to leave four years ago due to a hearing problem.

The Kings speak and sing in the French Provencal and northern Spanish Catalan dialects in addition to the gypsies' own Romany language. None of them speaks English, which means their mentor and producer, Claude Martinez, usually speaks on their behalf.

Martinez was contacted in Las Vegas, where the group performed for two nights at the Hard Rock Hotel.

The Spice Girls had Simon Fuller. New Kids on the Block had Maurice Starr. The Village People had Jacques Morali. The Gipsy Kings have Martinez, who moulded their rumba-flamenco sound into a hugely salable commodity and who continues to oversee their production today.

Martinez says he was in Paris when a friend returned from the south with a tape of the Gipsy Kings, a traditional flamenco band that was playing weddings and small clubs. "My friend said, `Listen, I have met a gypsy group, they are playing crazy, but they don't know how to do it,'" explains Martinez with a thick French accent.

Martinez contacted the group and offered to update its old-style sound. He wisely capitalized on its strongest feature, the brisk strumming of multiple acoustic guitars. Combined with Reyes' primal, powerful voice, Martinez likens their sound to sorcery.

"They were trying to put a modern way into their music, so our meeting was a good one for them," he says. "I said, `Your strength is these running guitars, like horses running, like the sound of big waves.'"

Aside from their vibrant guitars, Reyes' voice and their combination of French, Spanish and African rhythms, the Kings are unique because their hybrid of dialects means they often end sentences with "oi" and "ou" sounds. For that reason, even Spanish singers can't mimic the group's sound, claims Martinez, who is himself at a loss to explain their appeal.

"I think this is something strange. They are very charismatic. It's a mystery."

After the Kings hit the world stage with their multi-platinum debut album, they went on to sell more than three million records in the U.S. and 700,000 in Canada alone.

Their Best of the Gipsy Kings gold album held Billboard's world-music album chart for more than a year. Other albums -- including the gold-certified Mosaique, Allegria, Este Mundo, Gipsy Kings Live, Love & Liberte and Tierra Gitana and their new album Compas -- have all made Billboard's world music, Latin or Top 200 charts.

Director Peter Weir chose the song Sin Ella from the 1991 album Este Mundo for his Fearless soundtrack. And PBS recently made two Gipsy Kings specials, one a documentary called Tierra Gitana that looks at the band's materially poor but musically rich heritage.

Music is central to every gypsy family, says Martinez. It is because of this heritage, and not because of a greedy commercial desire to infiltrate every restaurant in the world, that the Kings do what they do, he says.

"They are practising music from their own heritage, if you understand. Because first, [Romany] is spoken language, not written language, okay? So for them, this is the way to have the story of their people [told]."

The story of their people is not a particularly happy one. The gypsies who fled the Spanish Civil War for the cities of Arles and Montpellier in southern France encountered contempt more often than sympathy. Overt racism forced them into the segregated poverty of caravan (trailer) communities, where they spoke Romany.

In French schools, teachers often refused to teach them, says Martinez. As a result, the Gipsy Kings were pretty much illiterate when Martinez linked up with them.

"When I met them, Tonino was asking me if we can find a teacher for them, to let them know how to write and read well in French. He says his young children are going to school, where they learn things, and he cannot explain to them what it is."

When the Gipsy Kings started their professional music career, they ranged in age from 20 to 32. After a lifetime of poverty and illiteracy, their seemingly overnight success wasn't incentive enough to make them head for the good life in L.A.

"It's not like a pop group that's 17 or 18 years old," says Martinez. "As they said to me, `We tried to learn English but it is too late for us. Our children will do it.'"

Besides, part of their mission is to create global understanding of gypsy culture and to thereby preserve it -- and they expect their children to do the same. It's an expectation that has a lot to do with self-protection, says Martinez.

"They say, `We are like a clan. We are protecting ourselves from the outside. It's not that we don't want to meet the outside people, it's that [in some places], the outside people don't want to meet us.'"

Their hearts are still in the caravan, which is probably why each one of the Gipsy Kings still keeps an old one in the driveway. When it comes fiesta time in the south of France, they'll even use them.

"Because they want to remember that life is something and business is another thing," says Martinez.

The Gipsy Kings play GM Place Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39.50, $49.50 and $69.50 at Ticketmaster, 280-4444.

- Kerry Gold, Sun Pop Music Critic
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