Humble Start Hasn't Hurt Reign of 'Gipsy Kings'

The Gipsy Kings are the John Grisham of world music. Like the megaselling author, the popular flamenco rock group frequently lays claim to more than one spot on bestseller lists.

That the band dominates charts in the US and abroad is no small achievement considering that most of their millions of fans can't understand the lyrics.

The seven cousins and brothers that make up the Gipsy Kings are from France and speak little English. Their songs are sung in Gitane, a gypsy dialect that includes Spanish and French.

But critics say it's the group's upbeat, danceable music driving their popularity.

"Their music is so much stronger than the lyrics," says Lisa Goren, manager of the HMV record store in Cambridge, Mass.

Gipsy Kings have become the darlings of trendy US restaurants and clubs, where songs like "Djobi, Djoba," "Volar," and the group's first international hit, "Bamboleo" (1988), are favorites.

Passionate vocals, powerful percussion, and acoustic guitar work are Gipsy King trademarks. The band was featured in the soundtrack to the movie "Fearless," and they were the subject of a public television program this summer. Currently, the band's 1995 greatest-hits album, "The Best of the Gipsy Kings," is the top-selling world-music record and is No. 5 on the Latin list, according to Billboard magazine. Two more of their albums are on both charts.

Gipsy Kings honed their abilities in the south of France, where their members grew up in gypsy caravans in Arles and Montpellier. Several of them, including lead singer Nicholas Reyes, are the offspring of Jos Reyes, a flamenco vocalist from the 1960s and '70s.

After performing traditional flamenco music without much notice, the group took the advice of their producer in 1986 and added electric bass, synthesizer, drums, and percussion to their fare. The goal: to take on a pop sound that would have appeal "beyond our borders," band member Paul Reyes said in an interview published last year.

The switch paid off. A decade later, the group's eight albums have sold more than 3 million copies in the US and some 13 million worldwide.

On their way to stardom, the Gipsy Kings increased the profile of world music by showing there is an audience for it. HMV's Ms. Goren observes: "Their success has helped pioneer the success of world music."

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