It’s been 15 years since the Gipsy Kings came on to the world music scene with their multinational take on traditional flamenco music. The trick back then was to bring a sort of upbeat eclecticism to a genre traditionally heavy on caterwauling vocals and spidery, rhythmic guitars. Their innovation, then, was to let the guitars (each of the seven members plays guitar) take the rhythm and to let lead guitarist Tonino Baliardo step outside the rhythm with less-than traditional melodies and modalities. The result was a richly textured, upbeat choral music — stuff normal folks (that’s the American pop music buying public, wink wink) could dance to. Part of this hybrid sound comes from the fact that the Gipsy Kings do not come out of the most easily recognizable Andalusian flamenco tradition, but from a faster-paced French indigenous tradition called rumba flamenca.
I suspect that this experiment worked in large part because the Gipsy Kings have the Mediterranean equivalent of “street creds” to justify their departure from tradition. They are full members of this almost tribal community of “genuine” practitioners. Lead singer Nicolas Reyes is the son of famed cante jondo (“deep song”, one of flamenco’s oldest modalities) singer José Reyes. Reyes and his three brothers Canut, Pablo and Patchai, as well as their cousins Diego, Paco and Tonino Baliardo, are all descended from gypsy settlements in Arles and Montpelier in the south of France. The dialect in which they sing is the gypsy dialect gitane. And their chops — their chops are damn, damn good.
If flamenco has become a sort of national dance for the Spanish, it has only become so at the expense of widespread popularization and homogenization. For example, the Andalusian flamenco, from the south of Spain, comes from the gypsy population that intermarried with Moors, Africans, and Sephardic Jews over the centuries, and reflects the influences of those other cultures, particularly in the vocal tradition. The French rumba flamenca tradition is more insularly gypsy, differs rhythmically (that’s the “rumba”) and is of course not immediately Spanish. And many of the oldest forms used in all kinds of flamenco — such as the cante jondo — are considered purely gypsy, and are therefore somewhat disappearing as this population gives up its tribalism and begins to assimilate the local cultures. This process happened mostly in the 1970s, when dancers like Antonio Gades and guitarists like Paco de Lucia transcended local, folkloric fame to become national stars (I am thinking here of the Spanish movie Carmen, which is absolutely breathtaking). Paco de Lucia is particularly responsible for adapting traditional flamenco guitar to a more upbeat, rock-oriented sound, which in Spanish has become the genre nuevo flamenco — “new flamenco”. Flamenco purists will still tell you that even though you can go to a “flamenco club” in almost any Spanish city, the real stuff is still only to be found in private homes, at gypsy weddings and in the dusty, desolate bars of Andalusia.
If you haven’t heard the Gipsy Kings, chances are you would instantly recognize their wall-of-strum sound. On this album the Kings continue with their fusion project, but unlike their last album, 1997’s Compas, the elements combined originate closer to home. And, although their influences may be various, the Kings always manage to weld these elements together into the aforementioned signature sound. To the ethnomusicologist or to a member of the flamenco community, these sounds may represent the heresy of eclecticism — but to an untrained American ear this stuff can often sound monochromatically “latin,” with the Kings’ signature wall-of-strum functioning less as compelling fusion and more as predictable backdrop.
With that said, there are some variations worth noting. “Somos Gitanos” starts the album off with a fairly traditional upbeat flamenco number — and later on in the album, “Mi Fandango” and “Magia del Ritmo” also rely more or less upon the complex clapping rhythms and hoarse wailing of traditional flamenco. Cante jondo, or “deep song,” as I mentioned before, is only one of several traditional flamenco modalities. In contrast with the more lighthearted or even bawdy bulerias, the deep song is the gravelly, heart-wrenching keening that will (correctly) remind untrained ears of certain kinds of North African or Arabic music. On “Mi Fandango” Nicolas Reyes shows his lungs are just as leathery as his papa’s, and evokes all the deep melancholy that only a people devoted to wandering can fully understand.
Elsewhere on the album, however, these elements become too watered down into a kind of generalized “world beat”, and gets boring. “Quiero Libertad” (“I Want Freedom”) has a cante jondo-ish verse, but the chorus dissolves into anthematic pap (“I want freedom, I don’t want to suffer anymore”) and unimaginative synthesizer accents. In fact we’ve all heard Jon Secada, and in fact we’d really rather he kept his bilingual mouth shut, thank you (no offense to J-Lo and Selena, both of whom never attempted anything other than mindless pop). It’s sort of the Enrique Iglesias syndrome: in order to capture a wider audience, many traditional musical styles have thoughtlessly adopted the often far less interesting rhythms and idioms of Western pop music. As the Gipsy Kings’ best work shows, this can often be a fruitful, exciting partnership. Unfortunately, their worst illustrates its many pitfalls.