The Gipsy Kings featuring Tonino Baliardo are ambassadors of a sound that transcends boundaries. From the cobblestone alleys of their hometown to international acclaim, their irresistible melodies and infectious rhythms have seduced audiences worldwide. The Gipsy Kings proved that music knows no borders, as they effortlessly blended flamenco, Latin, and pop genres into an intoxicating sonic tapestry. In an exclusive interview, group founder Tonino Baliardo sat down with us and, with the help of an accomplished translator, he graciously shared insights into his creative process, inspirations, and memories. You can listen to the audio of that full interview via SoundCloud here and the full video via YouTube here.
Growing up before the Internet on the fringes of small towns in rural southern Ontario, I didn’t exactly have access to the world’s music library at my fingertips. Whatever came my way was courtesy of shopping malls, radio, and my parents. Fortunately, my folks had decent taste in an eclectic range of genres – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, Roxy Music, Garth Brooks, Michael Jackson, and Sarah Mclachlan were in heavy rotation. But all of these fell to the wayside for my mum when she made a discovery early on in my childhood: the Gipsy Kings.
Their origins were always a mystery to me as a kid growing up. Learning about them today has done nothing to dispel that air of mystery about them: in a remarkable blend of fate, talent, and musical mischief, the Gipsy Kings emerged from two families deeply rooted in their gypsy heritage. The Reyes brothers and their Baliardo cousins, raised by flamenco musician fathers, and descendants of Spanish gypsies who sought refuge during the Spanish Civil War, found themselves on an extraordinary journey when they released their eponymous album in 1987. In one fell swoop, they went from playing weddings and festivals on the vibrant streets of Arles and Montpelier in France, to winning Grammys and being tapped for a host of film and television projects. And all the while, the families stayed true to their passion for playing music, infused with the zest of their gypsy ancestry, their artistic pursuits enlivened by their playful camaraderie. Picture a fortuitous collision of cultures, where the serendipitous flavours of their shared heritage ignited a musical flame that would captivate the world stage.
It’s hard to capture just how massive the explosion in the Gipsy Kings’ popularity was. Their music was a refreshing gust of wind in a stale room, a captivating mix of Catalan rumba, flamenco, salsa, and pop that defied categorization and left listeners craving for more. If you picture the world’s music stage as an office complex, the Gipsy Kings were like a fusion taco food truck turning up in the parking lot for Friday lunchtime before a long weekend. They offered a feast for the senses, leaving a trail of rhythmic foot-tapping, infectious melodies, and smiling faces in their wake.
In the realm of music, there are few artists whose melodies can traverse borders and capture the hearts of millions across the globe. One such visionary is Tonino Baliardo, the patriarch of one of the two families behind the ‘Kings. Guided by his father, Manitas de Plata, a revered flamenco guitarist, Tonino honed his skills, developing an extraordinary guitar-playing technique that would set him apart in the years to come.
While the rolling pastures of snow, fields and power lines may have been just about as far removed from Arles as you could imagine, Tonino’s (and his family’s) music possessed a universal quality that transcended borders. From the moment I heard the strumming of his guitar and Nicolas Reyes’ voice, I was instantly transported to a world filled with warmth, passion, and magic. Their music became a fixture in the soundtrack of my life, us to school, the shops, and home.
“Gypsy music is all about family. And it’s only natural for me to have my sons playing with me. And it’s a blessing… Everyone knows what their spot is, what they should be doing, how they should be doing it. It’s very natural for us; we don’t even have to think about it. And it works [like] magic.”
In the early 1980s, Tonino, along with his cousins, brothers Nicolas and Andre Reyes, and his uncle Patchai, embarked on a journey to create a band that would push the boundaries of traditional flamenco. This vision gave birth to Gipsy Kings, a group that would seamlessly blend flamenco’s soul-stirring passion with the infectious rhythms of Latin and the accessibility of pop music.
It’s hard to point to just one song that permeated. From “Bamboleo” to “Volare,” “Djobi, Djoba” to “Bem, Bem, Maria,” their hits not only dominated the airwaves but also transcended language barriers, inviting people from all walks of life to sway to the rhythm of their music.
We began with me briefly sharing my story. He seemed genuinely pleased, and said (always through translation) that he played in Canada a lot, and seemed taken with the fact that Canadians seem to really like their music. As he gives his answers to our translator, I’m careful to keep my eyes on him for the way he’s conveying his answers. He speaks with an easy, optimistic, carefree attitude. This is a man unfazed by the wild, runaway success the band has surely enjoyed the past three decades. The reason becomes clear a moment later when his answer is turned over to me by our translator: “Humility is one of the foundations of the gypsy community, and it has never changed. And this is what makes it universal, is that it speaks to everyone in a way that not a lot of others can.”
When I ask him about touring with his sons, I frame it in a way that I’m wondering how he could possibly do this without there being issues in trying to take on the roles of both father and bandmate. He speaks passionately about the importance of family and how Gipsy Kings’ music is intrinsically intertwined with their gypsy heritage.
Tonino Baliardo’s impact extends far beyond the success of Gipsy Kings. His exceptional guitar-playing style, characterized by intricate fingerpicking, soulful improvisation, and an innate sense of rhythm, has inspired countless musicians around the world. When I ask him about the signature white Gibson Chet Atkins he purchased in 1990, I learned more about why he reached out for another guitar in the first place.
“I used to obviously use the classical guitars. And when I hit the stage big time I found I needed a much more powerful guitar, in order to translate all that emotion and the power of the gypsy music on stage in the best and most powerful manner.”
I ask about how important it is for his writing, expecting a fondness a knight might have for their sword, but his answer surprises me. “It’s for stage purposes. So for writing, it has no impact, but it’s something that’s easier for me to carry on stage…and, again, much more powerful than a regular, standard acoustic guitar.”
Throughout their illustrious career, Gipsy Kings have continued to evolve and experiment with their sound while staying true to their roots. Their talents have been tapped for a wide variety of projects, including their cover of “Hotel California” for The Big Lebowski soundtrack and, more recently, their song “Bamboleo” appearing in the movie Sing. When I ask him if he has any particular memories that stand out from the various projects he’s worked on, he surprises me again, but this time I’m not alone. It’s the one time in our interview where our translator seems to go back and forth with him, and a lot of expression and laughter. I smile and wait patiently, eager to hear what they’ve been talking about.
By the time our translator gets to me, I can see he’s trying to recall how to say exactly how, Tonino told his tale, which, as it turns out, came from his time working on Pixar‘s Toy Story.
“I was sitting in the studio and the team from Pixar popped in. And I looked at these people, and I thought to myself, ‘Hold on, I know these faces…’ And that’s when I figured out, the team has the same faces you see in Toy Story – they reproduced their faces onto the characters!”
We share a good laugh about that – of all the things I had anticipated learning from our interview, Toy Story trivia was not one of them.
The group have been tapped for a variety of film and television projects, but they’ve also done a wide variety of collaborations with other musicians over the years, ranging from Joan Baez to Chick Corea. And while all of these are well known and documented, I had heard a rumour about a particular figure who emerged from quite close to home, and I finally had the chance to ask whether there was any truth to it or not.
“Have you ever met with Drake?” I ask, almost apologetically. Tonino shakes his head. But he then adds, “If he wants to meet, we can make that happen.”
You heard it here first, folks: let’s get that Drizzy/Kings collab off the ground.
I quickly pivot to the path he took to get to this point. Even after decades in the industry, the allure of Gipsy Kings’ music remains as potent as ever. With their current tour, the band has experienced sold-out shows and an overwhelming response from audiences worldwide. The fact that they are still announcing new tour dates is a testament to their enduring popularity and the universal appeal of their music.
In between asking him if he has any regrets (he doesn’t) and what he is most looking forward to (making and playing music), he offers up a piece of wisdom that resonates. When I ask him what are the most important lessons he’s learned from his journey, his response is so abrupt I feel as though I’ve maybe offended him or there’s been a communication breakdown. But the translator explains, “It’s very simple: Stay focused. Stay humble. Stay passionate.”
It’s a telling koan from a man who, through his extraordinary guitar playing, has taken flamenco, Latin, and pop music to new heights, breaking cultural barriers and touching the souls of millions. As we wind down our interview and I thank him for his time, I know that the Gipsy Kings featuring Tonino Baliardo (on this particular tour led by Tonino and his kin) will continue to serenade audiences around the world. Tonino’s legacy will endure, inspiring future generations of musicians to create music that transcends borders and resonates deep within the human spirit.