Gipsy Kings helped me dig into my gypsy roots

Gypsies may seem to be an odd topic for a Los Banos Enterprise column. I can’t remember ever seeing any gypsies – or, more accurately, Romani people – in our town. A recent concert, however, has prompted me to think about this ethnic group. The concert, not surprisingly, was by the Gipsy Kings.

The Gipsy Kings released their first album in the United States in 1989, and it became popular immediately. In 2013 they won a Grammy for the best “world music” album. In between and afterward, they’ve recorded many albums and appeared in concerts around the world. Sandy and I saw them perform in San Diego just last month.

As Sandy and I watched them bring smiles to everyone in the audience, dancing in their seats to their rhythmic guitars and singing, I thought about their name and wondered why they called themselves the Gipsy Kings.

Reading about them, I discovered the core of the group is the Reyes family from southern France who speak and sing in Spanish. When they started performing they called themselves “Los Reyes” (The Kings). They traveled from town to town in France playing rumba-flamenco music at weddings and street celebrations. They traveled so much they felt they were gypsies in spirit, so they changed their name to the Gipsy Kings.

By using that name, they honored a term that over the years was often used derogatorily, as when some people describe families in unsettled conditions as “living like gypsies.” Part of my appreciation for the Gipsy Kings relates to my own heritage. To explain requires some background, showing the connection between gypsies and bohemians.

My grandparents immigrated to the United States from a province in the Czech Republic known as Bohemia. Once, during Shakespeare’s era, Bohemia was revered as an independent and prosperous country; Prague was its capital.

Over the centuries, however, that area was taken over by different dictators who cared little for the people, including the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until 1989 that Bohemia, as part of Czechoslovakia newly independent from Soviet control, experienced lasting freedom.

When most people in the United States, especially Californians, hear the word “Bohemians,” however, they don’t think of the Czech province; they think of people who live a carefree lifestyle – artists, writers and musicians. Beatniks in San Francisco were often referred to as bohemians (with a lower case b). North of San Francisco, an exclusive organization calls itself the “Bohemian Club.”

It was in France, the home of the Gipsy Kings, that “bohemian” got this connotation. When gypsies from Central Europe arrived in France in the 19th century, they had first traveled through Bohemia. Frenchmen decided to call the gypsies Bohemiams, and it was in France that bohemian came to mean carefree or unconventional, for example, the main character in the French opera “La Boheme.”

All four of my grandparents came from Bohemia. As a Bohemian, therefore, I’m inevitably linked to the unconventional bohemian lifestyle. There might also be a gypsy connection with my surname. Spevak, in Czech, means “singer.” Many gypsies sing and play musical instruments. My grandfather, born in Bohemia, played the concertina and the violin. It could well be that somewhere deep in my ancestry is gypsy blood.

When I explored the people who could be my ancestors, I realized that their true name is Romani or Roma. The Romani people have a long history, going back to India. They traveled into Europe, and many settled in Central Europe. Eventually, some crossed the Atlantic to settle in the Unites States and Brazil.

Unfortunately, Romani have been often persecuted. The worst persecution came from the Nazis, who tried to systematically exterminate them. Many Romani were sent to concentration camps; others were shot on sight. Estimates of the number of Romani murdered before and during World War II range from 200,000 to more than 1 million.

The Romani people epitomize the plight of so many ethnic groups, continuing to this day – people on the move in search of a better life. Most simply want to live in peace, without constantly looking over their shoulders.

I’m glad Las Reyes became the Gipsy Kings. They’ve honored a word too often used disparagingly. By doing so they respect the culture and talents of the Romani people, rich in song and rhythm with an innate appreciation of the moment, living life with gusto.

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email john.spevak@gmail.com.