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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Gipsy Kings: Accent on Flamenco

Of all the left-field pop phee-noms around these days--and there are plenty--none is more inexplicable than the Gipsy Kings.

Not undeserving. Just inexplicable.

By the screams and squeals of the 3,000 or so people who packed the Hollywood Palladium for the group’s appearance on Friday, you might have thought George Michael (with whom the Kings worked in a Diet Coke TV commercial) was expected to perform, not a band of real French/Spanish gypsies that plays what can best be described as flamenco-pop.

How did this act--which almost sounds like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, especially considering its crooned Spanish version of “My Way"--come to this popularity? Even many in the crowd, while able to come up with some verbalization of why they were attracted to the music, seemed at a loss to explain why anyone else was there.

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For Venezuela-born Maria Mercedes, one of many who came to the concert in traditional flamenco garb and danced in the style on the Palladium floor throughout the evening, the show was a celebration of her cultural heritage. But the 28-year-old who now lives in Long Beach expressed “surprise” at the cultural range of the audience, which covered the whole socioeconomic spectrum of the Latino community, but also included a cross section of world-music-conscious yuppies and Rodeo Drive types.

Observing the event was radio personality Dr. Demento, who has a degree in ethnomusicology and was equally gratified and mystified by the band’s draw.

“I knew they were popular,” said Demento, whose real name is Barry Hansen, before the show began. “But I didn’t know it was this big. . . . But this music is real accessible. Everybody’s heard some flamenco at some time in their lives, and the Gipsy Kings pump it up to a different level.”

Proving his point to some extent, nearby stood a group of about half a dozen Southeast Asians dressed in stylish, ‘40s-inspired suits. “I love the Gipsy Kings, because I love flamenco music,” said Kacy Ichi, 32, a Vietnam-born, French-schooled and now Encino-based fashion designer.

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As ex-"St. Elsewhere” star Ed Begley Jr. observed early in the two-hour performance, “We have a major demographic sweep here.”

As a result, the concert made for perhaps the most colorful and joyous musical fiesta since Los Lobos and English/Irish punk-folk band the Pogues played the same hall in December, 1986. But for all that, the music was not overshadowed.

Sexy is the only word that adequately describes the Kings’ style, anchored by a rhythmic pulse driven by a phalanx of six strummed flamenco guitars and compounded by bass, keyboard, drums and percussion backing.

Like its Brazilian cousin, the music’s melodic sense has a very European quality to it, especially in the crooning of lead singer Nicolas Reyes. But the Kings music also has a distinctly Mediterranean feel--one highlight resembled the pop music coming out of North Africa these days.

With that intensely visceral quality to it, questions about the band’s appeal (and it’s ability to outlast the undeniably novelty aspect of its current success) may prove nothing more than academic.

The answer may have been provided by one yuppie-looking woman exiting from the concert. With a wistful sigh, she said, “I want to keep dancing!”


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