Not many bands make the U.S. charts if they don't sing in English. Even the 'Macarena' phenomenon depended on some English lyrics in a remix to go to Number One. This fact helps to explain the impressiveness of the chart accomplishments of the Gipsy Kings, a group from France that sings in an old, slangy version of Spanish used in traditional flamenco music.
Saying that the Gipsy Kings live in France does not begin to describe their ethnic roots. They are indeed Gypsies, and thus have a bloodline that extends back to India more than one thousand years ago. This particular family group lived in northeastern Spain until the Spanish Civil War of 1936 forced them across the border into France. The band members speak French and Calo, a mix of Spanish and Gypsy dialect. Their singing language has tinges of the local French dialects just north of the Pyrenees Mountains.
The band began its evolution when famed flamenco singer Jose Reyes joined with his sons Nicolas, Patchai, Paul and Canut to form 'Jose y los Reyes' around 1975. After Jose died, Nicolas and another brother, Andre, met up with their cousins Tonino, Jacques and Maurice Baliardo (another set of brothers) and formed a larger group. Los Reyes made an impression in France, playing parties rather than selling tickets to concerts, but it wasn't until 1987 that the group, now known as the Gipsy Kings, had their first hit album, Gipsy Kings, produced by Claude Martinez, whose input was the turning point in the Gipsy Kings' career.
Until their collaboration with Martinez, the Gipsy Kings' style had been excruciatingly traditional. With a broader world view for their new sound, the Gipsy Kings risked alienating their established fan base for the sake of gaining a huge new group of fans. By adding nuances of musical influences they had picked up along the way - Middle Eastern, African, South American - and focusing more on the African rumba rhythm than on flamenco, the Gipsy Kings found their current sound and started selling tons of CDs and tickets.
A nearly instant hit in a dozen countries that had never heard of them, the Gipsy Kings signed with Sony Records in the United States late in 1987, and the succession of hit albums there began with their 1989 gold album, Mosaique. Their popularity in the U.S. grew quickly enough for them to be invited to perform at George Bush's inaugural ball. To the dismay of those who had tickets to the ball, the band had decided to take a rest at home in France and declined the offer.
Since then, the Gipsy Kings have rubbed elbows onstage with Eric Clapton and Elton John and developed a worldwide audience rivaled by few other musical acts. With the energy of the rumba, the drama of the flamenco and the joyous vocals of Nicolas Reyes, the live show is an intense experience that shows what can come of an openness to a mix of international musical influences.