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Seeing the World Through Manu Chao's Eyes

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By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

Listen to an audio clip of Manu Chao

The tour bus carrying Manu Chao through North America right now must seem a very conventional means of transportation for the renowned Franco-Spanish singer and songwriter. In 1992, Chao's old band, Mano Negra, traveled to a number of South American port cities, performing on a stage built into a ship's hold, at least partly as commentary on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's landing in the Americas.

A year later, Mano Negra bought an old train and trekked along Colombia's crumbling railway system, performing free concerts at stations in remote regions for a decidedly mixed audience of peasants and drug dealers, the military and leftist guerrillas.

The audience won't be quite as exotic when Chao and Radio Bemba Sound System perform Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion with Thievery Corporation and Bebel Gilberto, but you can bet it will be an international one.

That shouldn't be surprising: Though he has a limited profile in the United States, Chao is a global rock star who sings in Spanish, French, English, Arabic, Wolof and "Spanuguese," a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and Brazilian slang. Chao's musical vocabulary is just as diverse: bracing punk rock, folkloric pop, lilting reggae, frenetic ska, sinewy salsa. When Chao played California's Coachella festival in April, Pitchfork Media dubbed him "the ringmaster of a multicultural, cross-generational, genre-busting circus that can whip tens of thousands of people into a frenzy even if they don't speak the same language."

Immigrant songs and those about the world's disenfranchised, dispossessed and "disappeared" are a key part of Chao's repertoire. On the title track of his breakthrough solo album, 1998's "Clandestino," Chao sings (in translation): "I search for better life or asylum / I walk alone with my sorrow / My doom stands alone / My fate is to keep running / because I don't have any papers."

It's not just talk. Chao's parents -- his mother is Basque, his journalist father Galician -- abandoned Spain in 1956 and immigrated to Paris to escape Francisco Franco's dictatorship. It's where Chao was born in 1961, though the family soon moved to the city's outlying suburbs, where Chao grew up surrounded by artists and intellectuals and amid varied working-class immigrant communities. After two decades of global trekking, Chao has firsthand experience with the immigration debate that has become so loud and controversial around the world.

"I'm not a specialist of what's happening here in United States, but in Europe, it's almost the same," Chao says. "It's very curious because all the governments say they are fighting against immigration and building big walls all around the first world, and that's one fact. But a second fact, also really curious, a big part of the economy is going good just because of the 'clandestinos.' That's the big hypocrisy, you know, [because] an illegal immigrant cannot integrate, cannot say if he is happy or not with his job, can be paid less than anybody else, and that's perfect for the economy."

Chao says that "in Spain 20 years ago, Spanish people were the immigrants. They used to go to find work in France, Germany and Switzerland, and now they fight against immigration -- it's quite silly, no? No memory. Even in United States, it's the same -- a country of immigrants, and now they try to avoid immigration."

Not surprisingly, Chao is a staunch critic of globalization and not a big fan of American foreign policy; at Coachella, he called President Bush "the biggest terrorist on the planet." He's no less critical of the governments of the two countries he holds passports from, Spain and France.

"Anywhere I go, I say what I think about what's going on, and we're not going to change our habits," Chao says, adding that he has always recognized distinctions between governments and their people. "We've got the same problem in France or in Spain. I think more and more the politicians are really out of [touch with] the reality of the everyday people."

Before a brief run of concerts last year, Chao hadn't performed in the United States in five years. The current tour, more than two dozen dates, is his most extensive yet, what Chao describes as an "opportunity to travel in this country, to understand better this country. It's a new country for me, and what is good for us is we make all the tour only by bus -- no planes -- so the days traveling are an important part of the experience."


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