Gipsy Kings - Biography
By J Poet
The Gipsy Kings created a new genre, progressive flamenco, also known as rumba Catalan, by combining traditional flamenco, a Spanish gypsy music marked by sizzling guitar work, passionate Arab influenced vocals and dramatic dancing, although the Kings concentrate on the first two. An early indie label release in 1987 included “Bamboleo,” a song that became an international hit. Their first international release Gipsy Kings (1988 Elektra) was a blockbuster and quickly went gold, driven by the success of “Bamboleo.” They’ve sold more than 18 million albums to date and won a Latin Grammy for Love and Liberté (1994 Elektra.) The Kings may add a bit of synthesizer polish to their music on occasion, but their sound is deeply traditional, proving again that folk music in its purest form will always find an appreciative audience.
The core of The Gipsy Kings is composed men from two families the Reyes and the Baliardos. The Reyes – Nicolas, Andre, Canut, and Paul – are the sons of flamenco singer/guitarist José Reyes, an internationally famous flamenco artist. Their cousins, Jacques, Maurice and Tonino Baliardos, are the sons of Ricardo Baliardos, known as Manitas de Plata (Little hands of silver), one of the most successful international flamenco artists of the 50s and 60s. Manitas de Plata sold millions of albums worldwide during his lengthy career: José Reyes often performed at his side. José Reyes and Ricardo Baliardos grew up in Spain, but fled the country in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War to settle in southern France.
Needless to say, the future Gipsy Kings grew up surrounded by traditional Spanish music, even though they lived in France. The Reyes brothers played with their father as Jose Y Los Reyes until José died of lung cancer in 1979.
Their style was called cante jondo (deep song) because of its passionate performance. The Reyes brothers reconnected with their cousins, who were also playing music, at the Fete des Saints Maries de la Mer, one of the most important Gypsy feast days. They played together late on into the night and decided to begin collaborating. The first played traditional gypsy functions, weddings, parties, and funerals and busked in the streets. A fan suggested they call themselves the Gipsy Kings, since “reyes” means king. Nobody knows why gypsy is misspelled as Gipsy.
The band concentrated on the more up-tempo and slightly more pop influenced rumba Catalan because they liked watching the dancing of the women they attracted playing on the street. Their early albums were strictly traditional and most were not released in the US although Fania did release Luna de Fuego in 1983. Allegria (1989 Elektra) collected the best of their early, more traditional tunes.
The Gipsy Kings all loved Cuban and French popular music and started to incorporate some of those influences into their sound. In 1986 French record producer Claude Martínez became their manager. He encouraged them to modernize their recordings by using drums, bass and synthesizers. The first album he produced on the band, Gipsy Kings (1988 Elektra), became an international blockbuster and stayed on the Billboard pop chart for almost a year. “Bamboleo,” a song previously recorded by Julio Iglesias, got a rumba makeover and became the band’s signature tune. Although they sing in a dialect that is influenced by the Spanish of northeast of Spain and provincial French called Calo, their songs have proved to have a global appeal.
As the band’s popularity has grown, they’ve also incorporated elements of Algerian rai, reggae, rock, jazz, and dance music. Purists may carp, but their success has led to many imitators and a new interest in flamenco guitar. The Kings embarked followed up their opening salvo with Mosaique (1989 Elektra), which showed off the band’s rai and jazz influences, Live! (1992 Elektra) included traditional interludes that showed off the flashy guitar work of Tonino Baliardo, Love and Liberté (1994 Elektra) with electric bass and piano added to the mix, Tierra Gitana (1996 Nonesuch), Cantos de Amor (1998 Elektra) a down tempo collection of love songs, Somos Gitanos (2001 Elektra) a collection with a slight Brazilian and Arab influence, and Roots (2004 Nonesuch) which lives up to its name with a stripped down performance that takes the music back to the basics without a bass or synthesizer in sight. They returned to a slicker format on Pasajero (2007 Nonesuch) with dub reggae, mariachi horns and Cuban rhythms flavoring the music. The Coen Brothers used a Gipsy Kings cover of “Hotel California” in The Big Lebowski (1998) and Bananarama had The Kings back them on “Long Train Running/Alma de Noche” in 1991. Best of The Gipsy Kings (1995 Elektra) went platinum and stayed on the Billboard charts for more than a year while another compilation Volare: the Very Best of The Gipsy Kings (2000 Nonesuch) went Gold.