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GIPSY KINGS SING OF OLD, SAD HISTORY : It's a Wander: Who'd Have Thought They'd Settle Into Being a Global Music Sensation?

June 17, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

It would be disappointing to actually get ahold of a Gipsy King on the first try. Though one attempts not to stereotype, Gypsies do have a certain time-honored reputation for intransigent wanderlust.

For example, when the still-fabulous French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli reminisces about his legendary departed partner Django Reinhardt, it is usually with a mixture of love and exasperation. As much as the Gypsy guitarist could be depended on to be brilliant when he played, he couldn't be counted on to actually show up for a gig. Sometimes, unannounced, he would even disappear for months to go off caravaning with his Gypsy brethren.

When we recently tried to reach Gipsy King lead singer Nicolas Reyes in France--the call was routed through manager-translator Pascal Imbert's New York office--Reyes was nowhere to be found at the appointed time. (The group generally sings in Spanish, but converses in French.) After several more tries, Imbert reasoned: "There is a big soccer game between France and Italy. He must be at that." We rescheduled for the next day.

When Reyes again couldn't be found at two different numbers, Imbert deduced, "Well, France won the match last night, so maybe he is out celebrating." A third day was scheduled, and after several hours a connection was made, though Reyes did wander away from the phone for a time, understandably to look after his young son.

Reyes may choose to act like he has a private life when he's not touring with the brothers and cousins that comprise the Gipsy Kings, but he says they take no liberties when it comes to punctuality and professionalism in their performances.

"We have a great respect for our audience and wouldn't do such a thing because we understand it would hurt us at the end of the day," Reyes says.

Not that the Gipsy Kings' music wouldn't be worth enduring any number of inconveniences. Though you can scarcely step into a restaurant or dentist's office today without hearing their music, it still reaches out with the same passion that made the flamenco guitar-strumming Gypsies the globe's most unexpected music sensation of the past decade.

As evidenced on their breakthrough 1987 hit, "Bamboleo," and at all points following, Reyes has a breathtakingly emotive voice, a gruff pepper mill of a throat from which he grinds pealing, melismatic phrases that rise and swirl like campfire smoke. His cousin and lead guitarist Tonino Baliardo is no less expressive on his nylon-stringed instrument, playing with a wind-whipped fire and a poetic intricacy.

Their sound is ringed by the other Gipsy Kings--Patchai, Paul and Francois Reyes and Diego and Jacques Baliardo--on guitar and voice. Except for the modern drum, bass and synthesizer backing they add to their shows and records, their music is like what they would sing in a Gypsy camp, though not entirely so.

"In the camp, its more like a fun time in the sense that people joke, interrupt songs, talk, drink and have fun. Life is simpler, while onstage we are rigorous and go through the catalogue," Reyes said. Despite the relative formality of their U.S. performances, Reyes said the same strong emotions still course through them when they sing.

"It is something that we learn very young. When we sing we give all our hearts and all we have inside. When people hear that, they usually feel that the expression is very powerful. It's because we give everything. (With the language differences) people maybe don't understand what we talk about exactly, but they do, I think, understand the expression of what we want to make go across. They understand that it is things from the heart," he said.

Historians say the Gypsy peoples originated in northern India, and Reyes says the Gypsies concur with that belief. "From India, some went south, some east and some west. Many came through northern Africa, and our way of singing and the rhythm on the guitar is very similar to those territories," he said.

In many societies, Gypsies have been ostracized or actively persecuted, and there is no shortage of tragedy in their history. That, too, has become a part of their sound. No matter what subject Reyes sings on, his vocals always seem touched by sadness.

"That's the way we see life," Reyes said. "We take something that is sad, and we will turn it into something we can make better, something that comes out like a ceremony at the end."

Though he personally hasn't had problems with it, Reyes said there is still discrimination against Gypsies.

"There is still a feeling of being scared of Gypsies, because we are dark. Some have big mustaches or curly hair, and people get scared of Gypsies when they are around. There is a 'mysterious' thing about us. But the fact that we are getting accepted around the world and our faces are published in magazines, it does help against the discrimination."

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