A few short years ago, Didier Casnati, the lead singer, guitarist and the soul of the Gypsy Queens, could be found passing an ashtray around after busking gigs in restaurants, marinas and town squares.
“These days the band play more than 200 shows a year all across the world”
They’re offered at least 600 – and an increasing number of those shows are at ultra-exclusive private parties frequented by some of the richest and most famous people on the planet. Bearing that in mind, it’s understandable that Didier has some hard and fast rules of behaviour, the first one of which is, when there’s a superstar in the room – and at Gypsy Queens gigs, there generally is – you mustn’t play one of their songs. But what if there are two superstars? Or three? “Well, last summer we were playing a birthday show for Theo Fennell,” Didier says. “And Elton was there sat next to Rod Stewart. Halfway through our set Elton said, ‘Play a song for Rod!’ So I introduced the next one as a Rod song, then sang Crocodile Rock. And he loved it, even when he was complaining that he can’t hit those high notes anymore!” Then, of course, Rod pipes up and asks Didier for a song for Elton. “So we did Maggie May,” Didier laughs. “And we ended up singing that one together…” The story of the Gypsy Queens dizzying rise is a remarkable one, and the majority of the reason for that is Didier Casnati. This is someone who never particularly wanted, or expected, to be leading a hugely successful group, nor touring the world while doing it. Now, alongside Manuel Polin (drummer), Jack Kane (saxophonist), Fred Novelli (contrabass player) and Anders Klunderud (guitarist, former Norwegian international footballer), Didier is taking the group from being the leading lights of the private party circuit to somewhere much more visible to us all.
“Signing to Universal is a way of marking a whole new stage in the band’s life.”
This is all part of a great adventure, “This contract is not just a signature,” he says. “It’s like we’re entering a new world, like in some vast video game. I’m sure I’ll get killed a few times and beaten up here and there, but that’s OK and if the label screw me for a few hundred thousand? Fine! Who gives a shit? What’s important is that I’ll learn.” Didier is a master storyteller and, in typical Gypsy Queens style, even the way they ended up with a record deal is worth retelling. One night two years ago, the band were playing their usual gig at Nice’s Le Petite Maison when in walked Nick Raphael, then working for Sony, now the newly-installed president of a re-born London Records.
“Nick was with his wife,” Didier smiles. “And she wasn’t keen at first, she just wanted a quiet night with her husband! But by song two she was on the table dancing.”
Bono was also in the restaurant that night, and he and Didier were swapping jokes during the show. “That definitely made Nick wonder who the hell I was,” Didier says.
“I began my career as a DJ,” Nick says, “and what I saw in Didier that night was someone who thinks exactly like a great DJ. He’s always two or three songs ahead of the room. It really is an incredible talent.”
“I’m the DJ of a live band!” Didier laughs. “But it’s busking that made me so aware of what people want to hear. I can sense people’s movements and I know how to listen. I negotiate and tease people with songs, except I don’t play the hits of today, I reach back to songs they might not even know they wanted to hear.”
What drove Nick to sign the Gypsy Queens was seeing a band who are so comfortable getting amongst their audience; singing to them, with them, at them, in a dynamic, energetic and utterly charming way. “They have this wonderful sense of brotherhood,” he says. “Their companionship and camaraderie is all real. There’s been no agent or manager or set-list, just Didier.” The Gypsy Queens draw from a huge repertoire of classic songs (California Dreaming, Volare, Satisfaction, Unforgettable, Tutti Frutti) that they began by playing on the street – like another classic Klein artist, the brilliant Madeleine Peyroux. It was out there they learnt the rules of busking: never play for someone already having a good time and never speculate on what you’ll make.