Live: Gipsy Kings at the Conga Room
Culturally speaking, we're all turning into global nomads. We roam far and wide through the alchemy of cinema, TV and, if we're feeling really ambitious, foreign literature. We wander to the ends of our iTunes Genius recommendations in search of exotic new sonic encounters.
So it was fitting that the newly reconstituted Conga Room, one of L.A.'s most restlessly cosmopolitan nightspots, decided to usher in 2009 with back-to-back bookings of the Gipsy Kings, those itinerant missionaries of Rumba Catalana.
Drawing inspiration from a centuries-long musical diaspora, this band made up of two interlocking clans of French-born children of Spanish Republican exiles plays a virtuosic style of Asian-influenced pop-flamenco (with occasional reggae inflections) that has made their oeuvre as recognizable in Beirut as it is in Barcelona. Bob Marley made a masterpiece of a record titled "Exodus"; the Gipsy Kings have made an entire career out of their own up-tempo, secular hijra(Islam).
Wandering a rhythmic and harmonic trade route stretching from India to the Caribbean, the Gipsy Kings are a great party band, as was attested by the mounds of confetti, crepe paper tiaras and Champagne flutes strewn across the Conga Room's VIP lounges and cocktail tables on New Year's Eve.
But they're also the rare good-time ensemble whose technical proficiency must be treated with utmost respect. Watching the deft-fingered Reyes and Baliardo kinsmen strum their acoustic guitars en masse is, at times, like beholding a rampaging herd of Andalusian horses. There's an elegant but unbridled joy in their playing, a noble bearing in the way they command a concert stage.
And pure ecstasy reigns whenever lead vocalist Nicolas Reyes launches into one of his trance-inducing devotional arias, sounding for all the world like a Sufi mystic, even though the love he's professing is generally as much of the profane as the sacred variety.
Year's end is a season for gratitude over gifts large and small bestowed.
The Gipsy Kings were in a generous mood on New Year's Eve, not necessarily for the length of time they spent before the Conga Room's happy, squeezing-room-only crowd: two roughly 40-minute sets, interrupted by the midnight revelry, and no encore despite impassioned cries of "¡Otra!" (One more!).
The band's magnanimous spirit showed in its rousing, full-throttled delivery.
There were lovely baubles, including Canut Reyes' pull-out-the-stops rendition of the infectious "Atiki" (still, to my knowledge, inexplicably not released on any legitimate CD collection). From their ample greatest-hits stockpile, the band plucked favorites such as "Djobi Djoba" and "El Camino," delivered with trademark verve.
"Much health and much, much luck!" the band enjoined the crowd in Pyrenean Spanish just after the stroke of midnight. Then they resumed the beat with a suitably florid "Un Amor."
The Kings' presence proved to be a good test of the new Conga Room's state-of-the-art sound system. Judging by Wednesday night's results, architect Hagy Belzberg's white parametric-patterned ceiling has function to match its elegant form. Resembling the white footprints of a triangular salsa dance step, the pattern creates a lively visual rhythm while soaking up both rumbly deep bass and high-pitched notes. Even through the raucous Mardi Gras atmosphere and the press of revelers, the dynamic range and subtlety of the Kings' music, from boisterous to gossamer-tender, came through loud and clear.
No, the new Conga Room isn't as cozy and informal as the club's old Miracle Mile avatar, and it never will be. But if the space lacks a certain warmth and fuzziness, it also adds a welcome touch of class to the throbbing sensory overload and corporate hard-sell of the L.A. Live complex downtown.
As the Gipsy Kings wrapped up their second set with a majestic, solo-laden version of "Bamboleo," it wasn't hard to feel the pull of the road, calling us to new cultural destinations.
VIRTUOSO: André Reyes strums his guitar during a performance of the Gipsy Kings at the Conga Room. Credit: Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times.