Searching for the Gipsy King

Rama Ariadi / Khmer Times 1 Comment Share:
Diego Dimarques at Kevin’s Vagabond Pub in Siem Reap. Jean-Francois Perigois

Who is the real Diego Dimarques? According to the grapevine, he is the ‘lost’ Gipsy King living in exile in Cambodia? Rama Ariadi managed to track him down in Siem Reap and no sooner had he done that, he got mesmerized by the Diego-style that vacillates from bossa nova to chansons françaises, and from catalan rumba to Sinatra.

Diego Dimarques is a bit of an enigma. He is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, and very courteous – a set of traits that no one would expect from someone who has regained somewhat of a notoriety since he arrived in Cambodia a little over five years ago, as the ‘lost’ Gipsy King: the world-renowned musical group that not only entertained the world with summertime hits like Bamboleo but also paved the way for the catalan rumba artist to break into the mainstream music industry.

Yet on the other side of the coin, Diego is also a reserved, and shy person – after all, Diego is known to have refused to be interviewed in English out of fear of “sounding like a child”.

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Photo: Jean-Francois Perigois

As he prepared his set, Diego profusely apologised if his answers would be a mishmash of English and French. But as soon as the champagne flutes started to make its rounds, it became clear that Diego really had nothing to worry about. Plus – isn’t linguistics and semantics beside the point, when the beauty of melody and rhythm is the focus of the evening?

Diego never intended for Cambodia to be his final stop, but like many holidaymakers who came here for an extended period of time, the charm of the Kingdom eventually got to him and he decided to make the country his home.

“My musician friend, Philippe Javelle, said that he could get gigs lined up for me,” he explained. “And that prompted the move – which marked the start of my life in Cambodia.”

“Initially ran my own business in Phnom Penh, but I was also playing gigs at the same time,” said Diego.

Undoubtedly this was a major sea change for Diego – after all, he had collaborated with major names from a multitude of genres, including jazz pianist Bernard Arcadio, singer Charles Aznavour’s bassist, Tony Bonfils, and renowned French jazz drummer André Ceccarelli – all of whom became his mentors that influenced his musical style.

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From bossa nova to chansons françaises, from catalan rumba to Sinatra, there simply is no questioning of Diego’s mastery of his exceptionally wide repertoire.

Photo: Jean-Francois Perigois

Songs from different genres require different techniques and vocal characteristics – and to be able to cover a wide range of musical style requires not only sheer talent, but also extensive training to expand the tessitura of one’s range, as well as the timbre of the voice.

“I think by nature I am a baritone,” said Diego.

And that could be right – his chest notes are deep with a slight drawl that allows him to croon like Sinatra, but his tessitura is kept high and light like a lyric baritone with qualities that allows him to tackle ‘breathy’ bossa nova standards and capture the essence of catalan rumba with the same level of comfort and ease.

This is much like how the natural mezzo-soprano Maria Callas kept her tessitura light, allowing her to perform the mezzo-soprano favourite ‘Habanera’ and the notoriously technical coloratura soprano piece ‘Una Voce Poco Fa’ in one season without any qualms.

Furthermore, by having a timbre that is aptly described as ‘amber’ more than ‘molasses’, it creates a sense of continuity throughout his set, despite the fact that there seemed to be no order to the playlist. From Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘La Javannaise’, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Corcovado’ and Julio Iglesias’ ‘Moliendo Café’, the segues were seamless – a major feat considering that each style requires portamentos and ornamentations that lie in stark contrast to one another.

But one question remains unanswered, even after the first intermission – that is, Diego’s affiliation with the Gipsy Kings. After all, word on the street is that Cambodia is now the home to an urban legend – a ‘lost’ Gipsy King.

A ‘Searching for Sugarman’-like episode ends in Siem Reap. The word on the street is that Diego Dimarques is the ‘lost’ Gipsy King Photo: Jean-Francois Perigois

As soon as the matter was brought to his attention, Diego responded with a cheeky laughter.

“The relationship between myself and the Gipsy Kings are not as direct and clear-cut as what people have made it out to be,” laughed Diego. “They paved the way for musicians like myself, for if it wasn’t for their breakthrough into the mainstream music industry, I wouldn’t be able to explore and interpret the rich musical traditions of gipsy music in my own way.”

It turns out, Diego earned the cred because he often started his set with Gipsy Kings hits – Bamboleo, Djobi Djoba, Volare, to name a few – to set the tone of his performances.

“Everybody knows the Gipsy Kings, and their music gets the audience excited,” he continued. “After a while, a rumour started circulating that I was a member of the Gipsy Kings!”

“At first, I took the time to explain to anyone who asked,” he concluded. “But eventually, I gave up and let everybody think what they wanted to believe – and so the urban legend lives on.”

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