Seeing the World Through Manu Chao's Eyes

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."

Maybe while here Chao can ride Metro, a reminder of Mano Negra's roots (the band's early performances were on the Paris Metro). Inspired by France's nascent alternative music scene in the '70s and '80s, Chao briefly sang with rockabilly group Hot Pants before forming Mano Negra in 1986 with brother-trumpeter Tonio Chao and cousin-drummer Santiago Casariego. The band name, meaning "the Black Hand," came from an anarchist organization in Spain (the left-leaning Chao still has a penchant for Che Guevara-style red berets and Andean caps).

According to Chao, Mano Negra formed in reaction to anti-immigrant sentiments being espoused by prominent French politicians at the time, and the band's makeup clearly mirrored the changing complexion of European society. Its members were French, Spanish and North African, and the results were a mash-up of cultures and sounds. Though its two greatest poles of influence were the Clash and Bob Marley, the band took punk rock, rap, flamenco and rai (Algerian pop) and heated it all into a frenetic stew they dubbed "Patchanka," a Spanish pejorative for dancehall music. After Mano Negra's only Washington appearance at the Bayou in 1990, The Post review said "the hyperactive octet sounded like an explosion in the ethnic-music section of a well-stocked record store."

After traveling in Central and South America, Mano Negra's musical influences expanded to include varied Latin styles, and by its final album, "Casa Babylon," the songs had become more overtly political, the sound more folkloric to rock-focused. After Mano Negra's breakup in 1995, Chao traveled the world on his own with a small portable recorder in his rucksack, collecting fragments of music and conversation, radio and television broadcasts and ambient street sounds, which he then mixed with acoustic guitar and computer sound effects. "Clandestino" was meant to be a musical diary of Chao's travels, but thanks to such hits as the lighthearted "Bongo Bong" and the title track, it became one of the best-selling albums in French music history, with worldwide sales of nearly 5 million copies.

Chao then formed Radio Bemba Sound System; the name is an homage to Fidel Castro's rebel army broadcasts in the early days of the Cuban revolution, using a slang term for gossip or word of mouth. Given American radio's reluctance to play Chao's music, it's an appropriate name.

On the other hand, Chao hasn't been particularly prolific. There's 2001's "Proxima Estacion: Esperanza" ("Next Station: Hope") and a live album, but "La Radiolina," scheduled for release in September, will be his first new studio album in six years, produced with the help of mixers Mario Caldato Jr. (Beastie Boys, Jack Johnson) and Andrew Scheps (Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Mars Volta). A propulsive guitar-driven single, "Rainin in Paradize" -- rhyming "fatality," "atrocity" and "calamity" with "democracy" and "hypocrisy" -- is available free at

According to Chao, the new album will feature songs in "Spanish, English, two in French, one in Portugese -- I got too much songs! -- and Italian. I don't really speak Italian, but I had friends help me with the lyrics. And it's such a beautiful language for singing."

Whatever the language, chances are Chao's songs will be simple, direct and easy to remember even as they address serious social and economic issues. It's easy to recognize his biggest influence: In "Mr. Bobby," on "Proxima Estacion," Chao sings, "Hey, Bobby Marley, sing something good to me / This world go crazy, it's an emergency."

One of Chao's most popular songs, "Welcome to Tijuana," sounds like a stoner anthem with a chorus that goes, "Tekila, sexo y marihuana" and undeniably catchy hooks, but as one critic noted, with its scathing portrayal of both drug dealers and customs and immigration officials, it "sketches border-town vice as vividly as Orson Welles's 'Touch of Evil.' "

"When I write a song, it's not me that decides what I am going to write. Inspiration comes and the big influence is my surrounding," Chao says. "I'm so sad to say that there's not a place in the Earth when I've been traveling where things are going good, so that will always influence what I'm writing. It's almost not very easy actually to write anywhere in the world a happy song. Of course it's important to write some happy songs, but the surrounding is not happy."

Not that he's heavy all the time, of course: Chao's songbook includes tender love ballads, cheerful party songs and rousing soccer anthems. He's working with award-winning filmmaker Emir Kusturica on a documentary about soccer legend Diego Maradona.

Chao's careful to emphasize that he's a musician and entertainer, albeit one who recognizes the connection between politics and music.

"As a musician, I understand that I have access to the mike," he says. "That gives me a certain responsibility because a lot of people don't have access to the mike, so maybe my job is to share this mike with all the people that have to talk also. But I have to really take care not to be pushed ahead like a kind of icon of rebellion because I think there is a big movement all around the world of people that really want to change this world. It's an emergency and I'm part of it, and this movement gets stronger and stronger. But what is really important is that this movement keep horizontal and not vertical. . . . There's nothing more easy to corrupt than leaders, and if the movement keep horizontal, it's the best weapon we can have against establishment."

Manu Chao and Radio Bemba Sound System, Thievery Corporation and Bebel Gilberto, with DJ sets from Ursula 1000, Nickodemus and Thunderball Appearing Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion

Genes: That Chao is a self-described "musical journalist" isn't all that surprising. His father, Ramon, is a veteran journalist and novelist whose works include "Un train de feu et de glace" ("A Train of Fire and Ice"), a book about Manu's travels in Colombia.

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