Kings of the Road

The Gipsy Kings were already busting the charts abroad with their Eurotrash favorite, "Bamboleo," when they first hit the United States in 1988. Standing somewhat stiffly in identical black leather pants and patterned blouses, the six husky, dark-eyed members of two gypsy families from the south of France performed at that summer's New Music Seminar in New York City, after which they took off for clubs and theaters around the nation. Subsequently the infectious flamenco-pop of their self-titled debut album provided the score for the waning years of Bright Lights, Big City yuppiedom, with the record going platinum in the U.S.

The group's rumba rhythms proved ideal for late-night dancing on the tables of trendy restaurants or as an accompaniment to more intimate get-togethers, during which guests would stomp about the kitchen in a sort of camp version of the dinner scene in the movie The Big Chill. The Gipsy Kings followed their wildly successful debut with the single "Volare" (from their second album, Mosa‹que), which worked listeners' nostalgia for the Italian classic. Then, like George Michael, Tracy Chapman, and other short-lived superstars of the era, the Gipsy Kings went out of fashion, pretty much disappearing from mainstream radio and the music press.

But just when it seemed as if the brothers Reyes and Baliardo had headed back to their respective caravans in Arles and Montpellier, the Gipsy Kings multiplied. After the release of Mosa‹que in 1989, Chico Bouchikhi, the Moroccan brother-in-law of lead singer Nicolas Reyes, left the band and decided to take the name with him. Bouchikhi formed his own group, which he also called the Gipsy Kings (he later changed the name to Chico and the Gipsies). Locally, confusion regarding the name reached its peak a couple of years ago when a duo, who turned out to be distant cousins of some of the Gipsy Kings, called themselves the Gipsies and added the line "Gipsy King Productions" to their advertisements for gigs at the Fontainebleau Hotel and other area venues.

"Gipsy this, Gipsy that, so many of these groups have popped up I wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow there was one called the Gipsy Queens," sighs the real Gipsy Kings' manager, Pascal Imbert, who initiated successful lawsuits against Chico Bouchikhi and the other Gipsy Kings imposters to stop them from using the name. "I explained to them that there is room for everyone to play flamenco rock, but there is not room if everyone is going to use the same name. If everyone uses the Gipsy Kings catalogue and plays Gipsy Kings music, nobody's going to last very long.

"It started to get so confusing," continues Imbert, who represents other international musicians, including Fela Kuti and Kassav. "Every time we announce a concert, people want to know if these are the real ones."

Rest assured that the Gipsy Kings who will perform at Bayfront Park Amphitheater on Saturday (September 2) are the genuine article. Lead singer Reyes, lead guitarist Tonino Baliardo, and most of the other original band members remain on-board. One of the Reyes brothers has left to work on a solo album and was replaced by another musician from the Reyes clan, Paul; yet another Reyes relation, Canut, has stepped in for Bouchikhi. The other current Gipsy Kings are brothers Diego and Paco Baliardo, who both play guitar and provide handclapping accompaniment.

The Gipsy Kings' U.S. tour, with stops in Atlantic City and Boston in August, supports the recent release of The Best of the Gipsy Kings on the Nonesuch imprint. A third of the eighteen songs included on the new CD are from the band's first record. The familiar guitar strains of such implausibly named popular tracks as "Bem, Bem, Maria," "Djobi, Djoba," and, of course, "Bamboleo" date back to the time when what is now commonly known as world music was just beginning to provoke widespread interest.

It was Imbert, who in the Eighties worked in the New York offices of the pioneering Paris-based world-beat label, Celluloid, who picked up on the potential of the Gipsy Kings, long before most American record executives had a clue. Back then the group recorded on CBS in France, but as Imbert puts it, "They [CBS] forgot to pick them [the band] up for the U.S. market. I knew they would be great." Imbert had heard "Bamboleo" while in France, persuaded the group to let him represent them, and ultimately shopped around their French album to record companies in New York. According to Imbert, Elektra was one of several major labels that turned him down. But a week later, a vacationing Elektra A&R executive played the tape in his car and couldn't turn it off. He called Imbert from his car phone and offered the Gipsy Kings a deal.

"'Bamboleo' was one of those songs like Los Lobos' 'La Bamba,'" says the manager, attempting to explain why the group's debut was so successful. "Some songs are just catchy, and this song had that momentum." The record sold so well that Rolling Stone later would pronounce the Gipsy Kings "the first world music superstars." While other musicians (such as Paco de Lucia) had appealed to select audiences with purer forms of flamenco fusion, and African artists such as King Sunny Ade had established a hip urban following by the early Eighties, the Gipsy Kings' accessible exoticism was more akin to that of early international music hits in the Sixties A Astrud Gilberto's "The Girl From Ipanema," Miriam Makeba's "Pata Pata," and Mongo Santamaria's "Watermelon Man." While much of the Gipsy Kings' audience was made up of European nightclubbers and partying young professionals, the group was one of the first acts really to cash in on the U.S.'s growing bilingual Hispanic population, one raised listening to both pop and ethnic rhythms.

"There are three main Latin groups in the United States -- Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Cuban," says Imbert. "The Gipsy Kings' music goes to all of their roots, so it worked in all of those markets."

A lot of hype and something of an air of mystery shrouded the Gipsy Kings' debut. They are French Gypsies, and although they often sing in Spanish, they do not speak it, notes Imbert. Their language is a dialect that record-company press releases frequently refer to as gitane ("Gypsy" in French). "I don't know who thought that one up," scoffs Imbert, who says that he doesn't know of a language with such a name. Instead, he describes the Gipsy Kings' speech as simply a mixture of Catalan and Provenaal dialects. The Reyes and Baliardo families, he explains, were among the Spanish gypsies living in the province of Catalonia who fled across the border to France when Francisco Franco took power. The Reyes brothers are sons of Jose Reyes, a flamenco singer well-known in the Sixties and Seventies among fans of the genre.

In this current decade of hyphenated rock, when music critics often pose as amateur musicologists, the Gipsy Kings -- whose post-Mosa‹que albums (Alegria, Este Mundo, Gipsy Kings Live, and Love & Liberte) have been reliable, if repetitive A have fallen out of favor, replaced by other ethnic sounds, such as Cuban son, Gregorian chants, and pure flamenco. (Last year a New York Times critic positively qualified a flamenco compilation by noting that "thankfully, it does not include the Gipsy Kings.")

Imbert admits that it's pretty hard to get the Gipsy Kings' music on the radio these days, and adds that VH1 doesn't play their videos any more, either. But he says he is currently negotiating a possible PBS special about the group to be filmed in France, a project he hopes would underscore the band's authenticity as the real Gipsy Kings and, in the process, revive their mainstream popularity. The group also plans to record a new album later this year. For the moment, Imbert isn't worried.

"The Gipsy Kings' audience is one of really hard-core fans," he says. "And we keep building new markets in places like Chicago, Seattle, and Minneapolis. When you hear them in concert, it feels like every song is a hit."

The Gipsy Kings perform at Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd, on Saturday, September 2, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets cost $21, $28, and $40.

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