From busking on the streets of southern France to winning Grammys and making Buzz Lightyear swing his spaceman hips, the Gipsy Kings have had an unbelievable story - and it's been unbelievable to no one more than them.
"We never anticipated that we could even do this for a living when we first started," said Tonino Baliardo, the group's lead guitarist. "We just continue to be amazed."
The group's roots begin with Baliardo's uncle, Jose Reyes, who had had a successful career singing flamenco and the more pop-ish rumba flamenco or Catalan rumba, which combined some of the stylistic touches of flamenco with danceable rhythms.
Two families of brothers and cousins joined together - initially with Jose Reyes and then on their own, playing wherever they could throughout their home base of southern France - at parties, on the street.
Suddenly, with a new producer and the release of their 1987 self-titled album, the band became an international phenomenon, taking a regional sound around the world. Despite some carping from flamenco purists and xenophobic rockers, the Gipsy Kings became the most-successful band of the burgeoning "world music" movement.
Asked if there were a particular moment when the members realized that they had landed in a place beyond their dreams, Baliardo said "It was when we were recognized by NARAS and our peers by receiving a Grammy. It was a monumental time for us as we never really thought about it until then. As I said, we have been amazed for 30 years."
While the group has tweaked their formula by adding untraditional elements and song choices, their basic sound has remained a recognizable constant: the rough, passionate flamenco-style singing, the powerful multi-guitar strumming and the "palmas" percussive clapping.
After the ubiquity of their initial hits "Bomboleo" and "Djobi Djoba," the Gipsy Kings continued to jump into the mainstream with unusual collaborations. They recorded songs with Ziggy Marley, Joan Baez and Bananarama; did a version of The Eagles "Hotel California" for the cult movie The Big Lebowski, and adapted Randy Newman's "You're Got a Friend in Me" for a memorable dance sequence in Toy Story 3.
The band has reportedly sold close to 20 million albums worldwide and won several Grammys and gold record designations over the years. Along with the personal rewards of stardom, the Gipsy Kings' rise also created a positive image for the Gypsy or Roma people, who have been the targets of pervasive prejudice and oppression across Europe to this day.
While the Gipsy Kings have not been overtly political, they are keenly aware of their unusual place in the history of the Roma in Europe and have been happy to be tacit goodwill ambassadors. "We believe that whatever we can get out to the world helps the Gypsy community in general, which we greatly care about."
While the band has had personnel changes over the years and has recently spun off another group, Baliardo said the family ties have kept the band together. "We are all family first and foremost, second, we are Gypsy and have always had to struggle to get where we were going, so we were prepared for the ups and downs. But really we cannot complain, we have been truly blessed."
Their last album, Savor Flamenco, was released in 2013 was their first that was made up solely of songs they wrote and produced themselves. Baliardo said the band would be releasing a new album in 2017, but added that there would be "some surprises" this summer. They are ending the first leg of a U.S. tour, then go to Europe and return to North America later this year.
"We are now bringing our sons out to the front line," the guitarist continued, "who bring a whole new vitality to what we do. They are happy and hungry to make their mark. They bring a positive life force to us, which continues to grow and make us very happy."
The Kings perform their initial hit "Bombeleo" on Dancing With The Stars
Gipsy Kings take on Pixar in Toy Story 3