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CHICO and The GYPSIES
Chico, king of the gypsies looking for peace.
He founded the hugely successful Gypsy Kings, then set up a new group Chico and the Gypsies . Now, he is UNESCO's special envoy for peace. Chico Bouchikhi, alias Chico , is not in fact a gypsy but the French-born son of North Africans. With this sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic biography, Chico 's story is in many ways the story of a certain time and a certain place.
Chico was definitely not born to go to school. That infuriated his father, Mohammed Bouchikhi. He did not know what to become of him. His mother did what she could, but, she felt, there was nothing that could be done. The child's lack of interest drove his teachers to distraction because, they said, Chico was intelligent but untamable. One teacher was so exaspered that one day he shouted at him in front of the whole class : "It's a pity they shut the penal colony in Cayenne. We could have sent you to take your exams there".
It was when Bouchikhi family set up home in a municipal block in the Griffeuille neighborhood that Chico came in contact with the children of the most famous gypsy in Arles, Jose Reyes. Bouchikhi senior, a Moroccan from Oujda, had emigrated in France in 1951. His wife, an Algerian from Tlemcen, and her children joined him there. Although he was a mason, his priority was the education of his children. Their life was like that of most immigrant North African families living in French municipal housing estates.
As for Jose Reyes, he lived in a caravan, like all gypsies. He camped in the Bouchikhi's neighborhood. But his exceptional voice had made him one of the most famous gypsies in France and in the world. His only rival in talent and renown was none other than his cousin, the famous guitarist Manitas de Plata. Jose and Manitas were already playing together and gracing some of the most prestigious halls in the world when Chico came to share their daily life. He would see Jose, back from his tours, setting out for market to sell all sorts of things to support the children of the tribe.
Chico, my bike for a watermelon
Business acumen. One day when the 12-year-old Bouchikhi was hanging around the neighborhood lost in thought, Canut, one of the Reyes boys who was the same age as him, woke him out of a daydream. "Hey, Chico ! My bike for a watermelon." Chico had neither money nor watermelon. So Canut suggested that his new fried should "go and pick one." That day a watermelon disappeared from one of the market stalls and Chico, alias Chico , entered the Reyes family.
The rebel of the Bouchikhi family would spend his days at the Reyes encampment. Reyes senior immediately accepted him as one of their own. Chico ne fut pas dépaysé : "Arab and gypsy was are similar. Everything revolves around the family. The customs are the same. The role of men and women are defined in the same way. Children are held in great respect, as they are with us. I lived with them as I would with my own people. My father worked hard. We were very poor. He gave us everything. It was the same thing with the gypsies. They give everything to their children and if the adults to short of food it's not a problem."
Being with the Reyes was like being with the Bouchikhis, with the addition of freedom and music. Even if gypsies hope for a normal schooling for their children, they do not make a federal case out of failure at school. The guitar is, after all, like an extension of the child's arm. It is a modest means of making a living, but a means for all that. "Just by being with them, I picked up a guitar one day when I was 17 and I started to play. It was a gift from heaven. I found I had rhythm and I started to play with the children. In the beginning, I had no thought of making a career out of it. We were just having fun.". Not long after, (Chico became aware of the treasure that he and the Reyes possessed, and he set about turning it into their destiny. That was how the failure of the Bouchikhi family became the mentor of the Reyes children. It was to him that Jose would give that hand of his daughter Marthe and to him that he would hand over the torch of family leadership on his deathbed.
Brushes with fame. "There are those who look at an empty space and just see an empty space, while others imagine what it could become. I'm one of the dreamers, although a pragmatic one. The Reyes played for the future. But it wasn't like that for me." Chico was under pressure from his family. He was the only one of the Bouchikhi children who had no completed school and the one whose future rightly worried his close relatives. Having abandoned himself to the gypsy life and calling himself a musician, he would have to make a success of his music. That was what he had to prove to his family and he was the only one who believed he could do it. So, every summer he organized caravan trips to Saint Tropez to play on the beaches for the amusement of the stars and the idle rich. He was already a promoter at hear. Saint Tropez, with its host of stars, offered a glittering future. It was a matter of getting the interest of the beautiful people with a view to winning the hearts of the most influential. Chico knew that if they succeeded the six musicians he had dubbed to Los Reyes, in homage to Jose, could hope to reach the heights.
He was not wrong. Instead of getting turned off the beaches, like most musicians at the time who where trying to make it big, "Los Reyes"won the hearts of the stars and the lovers of the good life. They made friends with Brigitte Bardot and lots of other celebrities. But despite the influence of their fans they had not made it yet and Los Reyes returned to Arles at the end of every summer with no promise of a better future.
However, invitations started coming to the entertain at private parties in countries of which they had not even known the names. Los Reyes went beyond Saint Tropez to entertain kings, princes and superstars throughout the world. But at the end of every trip they found themselves back on the beach with nothing but the lost illusions of a promising future. "I was the only one believed we would eventually make it. They were artists without even wanting to be, whereas I saw it as a gift from heaven. I never stopped pushing them. What gave me that faith was the way the audience and people I admired reacted to our music. It was incredible how there was no barrier between us and the audience, whether they were children, pensioners, Renault workers or kings. Everyone reacted the same way. People used to dance and even cry."
Chico 's best encounter was with Charlie Chaplin. It helped him hang on to his dream despite the low spirits of Los Reyes. The group was playing at the time in a restaurant in Lausanne.
"... That day the owner came to see us to say that if we came that evening we could play for Charlie Chaplin. Seeing how pleased I was, Canut asked : 'Charlie Chaplin, the tramp ? What do you expect to get from a tramp ?' That's a good one, hey ? That gypsy way of getting fiction mixed up with real life. So we went and sang at Chaplin's table. As he was listing to us, a tear ran down his cheek. We had managed to enchant the enchanter and bring a tear to the eye of someone who had made the whole world laugh. That king of encounter was a sign to show us we were on the right track..
Time of powerness
More gypsy than the gypsies. Chico 's life was strewn with such encounters. Looking back, and seeing how the affected has fate, he thinks the were inevitable. With Los Reyes, he discovered a vocation as a musician and a composer. It was he who would give the group its musical direction. He was also to be their manager, their spokesman and the one who looked after every last detail of their everyday lives. It was also he who would find a place for Jose Reyes in the group and then, after his death, Manitas. Chico 's nature earned him the nickmane Little Big Man, which was coinced by the group's biographer, François Mattei.
In 1983, confident of their imminent triumph, Chico decided to rename the groupe. The Gypsies went from being "Los Reyes" to being "Gypsy Kings". "I was convinced of the universality of our music. We needed a universal passport, hence the new name.". But producers did not agree. It was an English name and, on top of that, it did not evoke gypsy music. Chico'sobstinacy meant the group had three lean years during which they lost heart more and more often, and it threatened to bring their music adventure to an end.
In 1986, the Reyes brothers were as low as they had ever been and they went back to their ordinary lives. Chico returned to his caravan under the Arles bridge which now bears his name. More gypsy than the gypsies, he was the only one who lived in a caravan throught the twelve months of the year. Unable to survive without his dreams, he was already on the lookout for a new project as he lived with the sound of car horns and without water or a toilet.
In 1988, French Culture Minister Jack Land, who was in the region to attend the Nîmes feria, let himself be dragged off by the Elysee spokesman Michel Vauzelle to say hello to (Chico. "From that meeting was born a great friendship, along with the project to create the gypsy and Romany Mosaic Festival, dedicated to promoting gypsy music. We started talking about the situation of the gypsies and Jack Lang asked me why I was doing nothing to promote the culture. I told him that if he gave me the means, I could organize a gypsy and Romany arts festival."
A week later, Jack Lang took on the project and Chicowas appointed to organize it. "On the first night Mosaic Festival, a gypsy came to see me. He said he had come to present a trophy and a bunch of flowers. I thought they were for Paco de Lucia, who was performing that night, so I told him to come just before the performance. He was the representative of a Romany association. The trophy and the flowers were in fact for me, 'for the good you've done for the gypsies', he told me". The North African turned gypsy had thus acquired a new role, that of guardian of gypsy music.
Beginning of success... and troubles
In 1989, they sold three million albums. The "Gypsy Kings" were destined to receive 15 gold discs. "My brother Chahib was working in a retirement home in Arles at the time. That's what gave me the idea of giving our first gold disc to Jeanne Calment [the doyenne of humanity who died last year aged 122] who was living there. We played for the old people. They were very happy".
But Chico. ran into trouble. The group had been managed since 1986 by Claude Martinez. But the two fell out in 1991. "I asked Martinez for the accounts. That's quite normal, isn't it ? But he wasn't pleased. Things got worse and Martinez managed to persuade my brothers-in-law that they didn't need me and more. So I left the group".
But even the brothers-in-law do not play together in public anymore. Despite the tensions caused by the split, they sometimes play privately at family reunions to entertain Jose's widow Clementine and give her an excuse to surround grandchildren, just like the good old days in the caravans.
A new start
Chico is an optimist and life has been good to him. He has known very hard times but then events have allowed him to bounce back. 1991 was a very trying year for him. He lost his baby, the Gypsy Kingsand his father Mohammed Bouchikhi. He survived the blows of fate and started back up the hill as he had done so often before. He set up a new group, Chico and The Gypsies , with young gypsy musicians from Arles and Montpellier. As producer, artistic director and musician, he is re-creating the international hits of the early years but is not resting on his laurels. For he is also writing new pieces, still with a gypsy flavor but more influenced by the wide variety of Romany music than before. Whereas he was the originator of the Middle Eastern sounds in the Gypsy Kings hits, he now embraces his Oriental side. After Vagabundo, which reached a record 200,000 albums on top of singles sales, he has just recorded Nomade, a title taken from the exiled Algerian singer Dahman el-Harachi.
As holder of the title of the protector of gypsy culture, Chico has set up the "El Patio" center for all the world's gypsy travelers to meet. It is a festival ground that includes a bodega, a grange, arenas, a walkway, caravans and a view over the Rhône.
In the brother name
"A lot happens by chance : my joining UNESCO sums up my life. It's the story of my story." The story of Chico Bouchikhi. "In September 1994, in the middle of recording Vagabundo, the telephone rang. It was 10 in the morning and UNESCO was on the line. They were inviting my group to take part in a gala event in Oslo that very evening to mark the first anniversary of the Arab-Israeli peace signing. At first I thought it was a joke ! It seemed incredible - incredible that they could have got hold of me at the studio. Incredible that we only had a few hours to get 14 musicians together and that we managed to open the concert when we arrived...".
Chicowhen Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat signed the Peace Agreement in Oslo on September 13th 1994.
The whole world followed this politico-cultural event. The takings from the concert went to reconstruction in Gaza and Jericho. Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres went on stage to greet the artist afterwards. "That was how it will be remembered, but for me it was very different, you could say that everything had conspired, God alone knows how, to take me back 21 years. I was then only 18. My elder brother Ahmed had just been killed in Norway by Mossad. It was a mistake. I needed the events of that night to help me find inner peace and forgiveness. In some way I participated in that. Forgiveness is most difficult for those, like me, who have had a loss of their own. For me, it was more than an agreement on a piece of paper : after Oslo, I wanted to organize an evening in Arles to promote tolerance. It was important to give a dimension to the event and to its meaning. So I contacted UNESCO to act as sponsor. I'd planned an international line-up : gypsy music from the four corners of the world, but also Arab and Berber music ; UNESCO agreed and sent some representatives to attend the event. It was there, talking about Oslo, that I told them about my brother...".
The story reached Federico Mayor, the head of UNESCO. Touched by Chico's attitude and by his efforts for unity and a universal music, he decided to appoint him UNESCO's special peace envoy. That was in 1995.
A musical chain for peace
Chico is more and more active. His UNESCO appointment is not just an honorary one. His role is to organize cultural events to meet the needs of deprived peoples. He organized, among other things, the 50th anniversary of UNESCO and took the apportunity to salute the people of Algeria, its artists and its women, by inviting Khaled, the king of Rai, and Hassiba Boulmerka, the Algerian athlete.
Chico's aim its to "create a musical chain of peace by placing a link in various cities of the world. The first link was in Arles. The second at UNESCO and the, in 1996, in Ramallah. I've got a new project for Palestine. I'm waiting for UNESCO's endorsement. My aim is to promote tolerance and peace at the same time as raising funds to meet the needs of whatever country we are in . I've proposed an Algerian night that would include Algerian musicians and internationally known performers from other countries. The proceeds will go to the Red Cross or to other institutions. There is no shortage of needy cases over there. I'm waiting for UNESCO's endorsement of the project as well, because it's not worth organizing such an event and talking about other people distress if you're not sure of being to able to pass on the message of peace and, at the same time, be in a position to help people who are suffering".
Among the gypsies, music is handed down from father to son. It is the only inheritance parents have to give and the only homage that children can make to their gypsy heritage and to their family. "Jose passed the flame to me. Yes, you could say he saw me as his successor. Today my children are following me." At 17, Reda is Chico's eldest. He left school early to follow his music. Tonino-Nabil is 14 and still at school. Myriam recorded her first record at nine with two other little gypsies, a girl cousin and the son of a friend. Chico is very proud, and it is now the voices of his children which bring tears to his eyes.
When the operation revenge on Mossad mowed the innocent ones... September 5, 1972, in Munich, a Palestinian commando carries out eleven Israeli athletes. The operation is asserted by the organization Black September. Golda Meir, then Israeli Prime Minister, joins together, a few days later, the persons in charge of Mossad and gives to them a list comprising the names of several Palestinians, persons in charge supposed of Black September, all to cut down according to it. The operation revenge is started. The assassinations follow one another in clandestinity: in eighteen months, nine persons in charge Palestiniens are killed in Europe and in Beirut. In July 1973, the supposed head of Black September, Ali Hassan salameh, is localised in Lillehamer, in Norway.July 21, at 22 hours 30, it is a Moroccan coffee boy, Ahmed Bouchikhi, who is assassinated by Mossad. The men of the Israeli commando escape the escape, but they are stopped with the airport. " It was an error!... " They will bail out only sorrows symbolic systems.. Mossad will not stop therefore its tracking of Ali Hassan Salameh. This last will be assassinated six years later in Beirut.