All roads lead to Roma

The Gypsy Kings brought Romany culture to a mass audience. Now it's the turn of Tekameli to spread the word

Just behind Perpignan's massive cathedral, you enter the gypsy quartier of Sant-Jaume (in Catalan; Saint-Jacques in French), around the old cobbled Place de la Révolution Française. Under two plane trees, barefoot children play in a fountain, watched by plump dark-skinned women. Up the narrow washing-draped rue de l'Anguille, the rare tourist attracts curious stares from men on doorsteps and women in front rooms with Monoprix wallpaper and gaudy chandeliers.

In the Café St-Jacques, the jukebox shows the musical taste of the patrons: Camaron, the great dead gypsy flamenco singer, Celia Cruz, India and Marc Anthony, New York salsa stars old and new, Peret, Los Amaya and Parrita, the biggest names of Barcelona's gypsy rumba scene, and finally two local names, Chinou, a group led by the café owner's nephew, and Tekameli.

Tekameli are currently the pride of southern France's gypsy community. With an internationally released CD and Europe-wide concert schedule, the septet is attracting attention to French gypsy music in a way that hasn't happened since the Gypsy Kings, a dozen years ago.

A Monday evening in the restaurant Le Sud. A burly man, in black except for a rainbow waistcoat and gold jewellery, comes in with a guitar case and over to the table where I'm sitting with Guy Bertrand of the Department of Traditional & Modern Music at Perpignan Conservatoire, the interface, in effect, between the city's gypsy musicians and the outside world.

Jérÿme Espinas, founder and intermittent member of Tekameli, lights a Marlboro and sits down. We're joined by a younger, svelter version of Jérÿme, his nephew, Moïse Espinas, who, with brother Salomon, shares the main singing role in Tekameli. "Most of my music comes from the family," says Moïse. "My father's religious songs, Jérÿme's playing."

Jérÿme fingers his guitar. If you're ever stuck for conversation with a Catalan gypsy guitarist, ask to see his ventilateur. No, really, missis. The ventilateur (fan) is the stylistic contribution unique to Catalan gypsydom. Jérÿme starts playing a fast, multi-finger strum, simultaneously clacking and tapping his fingertips and nails on the instrument's body, all in a circular fan motion. The ventilateur was invented in 1950s Barcelona and reached its peak in the hands of Peret, a Barcelona gypsy who became a star in the 1960s, before its second round of fame with the Gypsy Kings.

The ventilateur, and the fast hand-clapping, are the central features of Catalan rumba, which is one of the components of Tekameli's music. Its creation flows from the discovery by Barcelona's big gypsy population of Cuban-based music, due to contact with Cuba through the port in the 1950s, reinforced with the arrival of New York salsa in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Barcelona's rumba sound soon spread to the gypsy community of Perpignan, just across the border, which by the 1970s had grown to the second biggest in southern Europe.Until this time, north of the border, gitan music was still the traditional flamenco of Andalusia, typified by the Montpellier-based guitarist Manitas de Plata. Now salsa took hold: "My father and uncles were the first generation to grow up not with flamenco but rumba," says Moïse. "I had to learn flamenco later."

If Catalan rumba underpins Tekameli's sound, its most striking and original component is religious. Tekameli's first CD, six years ago, riveted the listener with the strange and powerful minor-key harmony chorus, "Eli eli lama sabactani", Christ's last words on the Cross, and the high nasal flamencised cries of "Senor Ayudame" (Lord Help Me). These songs are hymns - cantiques, the Espinas call them. They come from a repertoire created by singer-predicants whose music flourishes in a hermetic but pulsating world of gypsy Evangelism, which came into existence at the same time as the growth in rumba. In Perpignan, it arrived in the early 1950s via an itinerant preacher from Brittany, and grew via gypsy convert preachers and music-steeped services, at first in tents and flats, latterly in permanent premises.

To get to the St-Jacques church, you cross the Place de Puig, with its shuttered police commissariat and lurking crack dealers. Up the rue des Remparts St-Jacques, the sound of singing and clapping emerges from a brightly lit doorway. Inside, rows of bowed dark men in suits, faces furrowed with concentration, and women marshalling unruly children sit in front of a small altar table, and the inscription "Alpha Omega Dieu Est Amour".

If God is love, his followers are not always so: one of the reasons Evangelism spread so rapidly through the previously Catholic gypsy community, reckons Guy Bertrand, was the cold-shouldering by the congregation in the Catholic churches. "People still warn you not to go near the gypsy quartiers," he says.

The traditional chasm between gypsy and non-gypsy communities explains in part the failure of Perpignan's rumba to reach a wider audience, as does its religious nature. "We have to be careful not to play the cantiques where there's drinking and smoking," says Moïse, "We're not all practising Evangelists, but we are believers."

Tekameli's emergence into the world of international music-making is largely due to Guy Bertrand. A folk musician, researcher and regionalist from near Toulouse, Bertrand discovered the gypsy communities of St-Jacques and Vernet on taking up his position in Perpignan in 1990. He has since worked to set up training courses, workshops, scholarships to formalise the rich seam of culture he has been drawn into, and to persuade the gypsy musicians to take their activity seriously. Bertrand came up with the name Tekameli - it means "I love you" in the old gitan language of Kalo - and arranged for their second album to be produced by theneo-traditionalist Philippe Eidel. The result contains moments of extreme inspiration - a retake of the remarkable "El Cami de Damasc", an exciting combination on "Cara Santa" of Tekameli with a cobla, a traditional Catalan brass band.

With Bertrand's encouragement, the gypsy community of Perpignan has been given new confidence in its cultural identity, and the members of Tekameli seem on a roll. "Guy has opened doors for us," Salomon says. "Doors we didn't know were there."

'Ida y Vuelta' by Tekameli is re-released in May on World Up/Sony. Tekameli play at the Barbican on 1 May as part of the '1,000 Year Journey' Festival of gypsy music and arts. Booking: 020-7638 8891

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