Since their debut in 1987, the Gipsy Kings -- who sing not in Spanish, as most people assume, but in Gitane, a blend of European and Gipsy dialects -- have enjoyed top billing on world-music charts. Their formula for success is simple: Good music, plus talent and charisma, equals a live show that makes it impossible for people not to dance.
That the Gipsy Kings continue to sell records and pack houses is proof that real, traditional music still has relevance in today's digital age, especially when that music is played by real, traditional musicians. Consisting of brothers from two Gypsy families -- the Reyes from Arles, in the South of France, and the Baliardos, from Montpelier -- the Gipsy Kings bring a spirit of collectivism and vibrancy to everything they play. Though their numbers have dwindled from seven Kings to five, their signature style -- which mixes Spanish, French, and Gypsy folk melodies with American jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms -- seems as strong and innovative as ever.
At the center of the Gipsy Kings' music lies the undeniable sound of flamenco, brought to the forefront by the band's lead singer, Nicolas Reyes. Reyes' voice, smoky and full-throated, is full of nuance and expression. His range -- not just in pitch but in emotion -- is wide enough to cover the hills and valleys of the human experience. At points during the concert, it became so fragile that his body trembled as he sang. At other times, his singing seemed almost effortless, as it did during the band's slow numbers, when he took to the microphone with his hand tucked casually in his pocket. And though his vocal embellishments were clearly intended to mimic the ornamentations of flamenco guitar, the pain and passion in his voice was universal, at home in the music of any nation.
Playing counterpoint to Reyes' powerhouse singing was Tonino Baliardo, the group's lead guitarist, whose finger-picked lines leaped from the tangle of rhythms put forth by the rest of the band. Baliardo's tone was warm and supple, especially in the upper register, where he liked to dwell during most of his solos. But despite his blazing technique and mastery of the flamenco idiom, his talent sometimes became diluted in the band's more "Euro-poppy" accompaniments. Still, Baliardo's playing was a power to behold, the brilliant, reliable seam that held the rest of the band together.
During the much of band's first set, the audience played a passive role. Movement, it seemed, was limited to the occasional tapping of a foot. But as the Gipsy Kings played on, with catchier and catchier tunes like "Volare" and "Samba," the audience began to squirm. There was much seat wiggling. The foot-tapping grew more severe.
And then, it happened. Three women from the front row got up from their seats and began to dance. Soon, two more had joined them. Then two more. By the end of the song, half the balcony was standing, and everybody was clapping along. As the Gipsy Kings continued to play, recharged with the help of electric piano, Latin percussion, and slap bass, a woman in high heels sprinted from the back of the auditorium to dance near the front of the stage. To her right, a woman waving a Spanish flag twirled her hips with pride. To her left (and I swear I'm not making this up) a woman in a red dress danced flamenco, her hands clutching a white scarf that she placed, every now and then, like a rose between her teeth.
Then, as is customary in a place where good music and lots of dancing abound, somebody started a conga line.
It began in the middle of the orchestra seats and snaked its way along the front row, disbanding, finally, into two pulsing mobs at the corners of the stage. Camera phones held high to capture the action illuminated the grinding bodies beneath them, and the sound of palma, the traditional flamenco clapping, echoed off every wall. Dancing, at this point, was inevitable. Even the Kravis Center ushers, who during the entire first set had struggled to keep people out of the aisles, could not help but shake an arm or two.
The final song at the Gipsy Kings' concert that night was "Bambaleo," a hit from their self-titled debut album and the band's most popular tune. It's a fiery dance number fueled by rumba rhythms and an infectious melody. Most of the crowd knew the lyrics by heart. So when Nicolas Reyes opened his mouth to sing, a thousand voices sang out to join him. Only this time, they were all speaking the same language.