Gipsy Kings Remember Playing at the Parties of Charlie Chaplain, Picasso, and Bridget Bardot

“World music” tends to be one of those terms that’s tossed around without much thought, an all-encompassing label offering a shortcut when a style of music doesn't fit into a certain box. But make no mistake: Gipsy Kings are the real deal, drawing from their ancestral heritage and a lengthy trajectory that transcends trends, bringing both authenticity and originality to their music.

“We feel the South of France is the best place in the world, where all our families and friends live,” says Tonino Baliardo, one of the group's founding members, its lead guitarist, co-writer, and producer. “We are happy there, and pleased with everything it offers — the food, the people, the culture, and the weather. It’s our home. We are indeed French, and proud to be.”

Magnifique! But things weren’t always so simple for Gipsy Kings' ancestors. Although the members of the group were born in France, their parents were mostly “gitanos,” Spanish gypsies who fled Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. Consequently, when the band first began in 1978, the music they concocted — an unlikely blend of traditional folk music, flamenco, and pop — was all but unheard of at the time.

“Our influences are from all over the world,” Baliardo explains. “Naturally, we were influenced greatly by the sights and sounds of the music we heard growing up, which not only included Paco DeLucia and Manitas de Plata, but also early Motown, rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley, and jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Django Rienhardt. There was so much to listen to from all over the world where we lived in the South of France.”

Encouraged to pursue music early on — a “baptism of fire,” as Baliardo describes it — the group came together when brothers Nicolas and Andre Reyes, sons of the well-known flamenco artist Jose Reyes, teamed up with their cousins Jacques, Maurice, and Tonino Baliardo and adopted the name Los Reyes, not only as a family reference but also because “reyes” means “kings” in Spanish. Finding success as a party band playing weddings, family gatherings, and other celebrations, they eventually changed their name to Gipsy Kings as a nod to their constant travel.

Gipsy Kings' 1989 self-titled debut album won them an immediate following at home and abroad, eventually extending their success to the U.S., where the album spent 40 weeks ensconced in the pop charts. Various soundtrack contributions and collaborations with such A-list artists as Joan Baez and Ziggy Marley helped further assure their stardom.

“We were full of energy and out to make our place in the world,” Baliardo recalls. “We never thought that it would be as big as it became. We were just happy to make a living doing what we loved. The fire that we had and the fans that encouraged us to go further all helped us get to where we are today.  It’s been a great experience and an amazing journey. We love what we do. We really care that we put on a good show and make good records every time out. We put everything into it.”

It’s paid off. Their audiences are a diverse mix, people drawn by the band’s heritage and their creative musical brew. “When we first started [as Los Reyes], there were other musicians and creative people who were always interested in our gypsy heritage and culture. Artists like Charlie Chaplain, Picasso, and Bridget Bardot had us at their parties playing for their guests. It just evolved from there. So now, we get a great mix of young and old, curious listeners, and hardcore fans who are all interested in what we are doing.”

Baliardo says the band does plenty of listening itself, citing Pitbull, Santana, Eric Clapton, and Django Reinhardt as among the band’s favorites. He also claims he’s been enamored with Vampire Weekend and Beirut of late. Nevertheless, it’s life itself that seems to inspire him and his bandmates above all else.

“We have such a great life,” Baliardo beams. “Interesting people and interesting situations are always turning up for us in our travels. Our extended families and our culture all combine to bring us some great ideas.”

Gipsy Kings
8 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at Hard Rock Live , 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $50 to $70 plus fees via
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Lee Zimmerman