Why you should care
Listening to dusty classics might be sexy where you’re from, but listening to tomorrow’s music today is molto sexy where we’re from.
I roll into town, the town in question being Perpignan, France, and the first question I ask is, as always: What’s hot?
Wandering over to a recording and rehearsal studio there called Musicale Centrale, you hear it before you see it, and what you hear are the sounds of neo-gypsy rumba. Infectious syncopated and flamenco-flavored guitars; a rhyming hip-hop pastiche of French, Catalan, Spanish, Romany, Arabic and English; and, moreover, a sense that these kids, teenagers and 20-somethings, were groove-deep in something that was just going to go deeper.
“If this place did not have to close at nights,” says percussionist and sometimes studio engineer Jacopo Andreini, himself a French-Italian mix of tricks, “it seems pretty clear to me that they would never leave. But the key to how hypnotic it is is that, like an Indian raga, it’s meant to go on for hours. In that time frame, though, to have something so consistently…”
“Yes, funky, is quite cool. And these kids are deep into it. I don’t know if it is changing their lives, but I don’t see how it could not.”
Then coming into view past the carefully composed wall graffiti rocking a tribute to New York hip-hop pioneers, complete with Yankees baseball caps and Cazal shades: what I had only just heard. Guitars, congas, handclaps, rap, busted-up pawnshop acoustic guitars and what seems to be more true than not: that everybody in their teens and 20s in southern France is obsessed with neo-gypsy rumba. “Neo” since it departs from the gypsy rumba of the ’50s and ’60s and even more recently from what you would have heard from the 1990s sensations the Gipsy Kings, the closest musical comparison point, even if it’s only a reference to jump off from.
How so? Neo-gypsy rumba incorporates hip-hop phrasings and rapping for an altogether subversive street sound that represents nothing if not stuff you might hear in Spanish Harlem or San Juan. Or Havana. It’s cross-border and it makes you shake your ass, and no one is really asking for anything more. So afterward, out of the doors of still-open stores in Perpignan, the sounds that you’d never have noticed otherwise are here, there and almost everywhere. Forget the Cape Town tunes or the 150-beats-per-minute lunacy that is the U.K.’s Donk — neo-gypsy rumba is here and is, officially, the shit.
But why’d it come from here and not from either of the two closest big cities, Toulouse and Barcelona, about two hours away?
Guitars, congas, handclaps, rap… everybody in their teens and 20s in southern France is obsessed with neo-gypsy rumba.
Francois Cambuzat, genius rock guitarist and aspiring flamenco player, explains: “Two hundred years ago, some king told all the Romany, or Gypsies, that ‘you will always have a home in Perpignan.’” So they came and stayed in Perpignan, a city that has the reputation of being one of the warmest places in France, although on this fall day there’s a serious chill in the air. OK, it’s downright cold. Cold, but not Siberia-cold. And standing and watching and listening to the music pulse, I can see that generations down the pike after the king’s edict, their kids and probably kids of their kids, eyes closed, sometimes smiling, are just killing it.
“I prefer jazz and rock myself,” says Andreini. “But this music, this art, is as necessary for here as air and food. But that’s probably true anywhere.”