RADIO BEMBA SOUND SYSTEM
Manu ChaoManu Chao has something to say, and will have as much fun saying it as possible. That much has been clear since his days as singer, songwriter and first-among-equals in the world-punk group Mano Negra in the late '80s. His lyrics, sung in several languages, addressed anything from Mexico's Zapatista uprising and the plight of migrants around the world to prayers to soccer gods and, of course, laments of unrequited love. But they were sung in melodies that often seemed made up of little ditties, and the music offered a provocative, devil-may-care mix that at any given moment could veer from hard rock and salsa to reggae and brassy lounge pop to speed mambo, all sprinkled with noises and sound bits. Such a combination of punk muscle, social conscience and avant-kitsch aesthetics was irresistible.
In 1994, just about when the band was riding the crest of the wave, Chao ditched the group to travel, mostly throughout Latin America and Africa. Later he embarked on a solo career as a sort of 21st-century alterna-troubadour. "Radio Bemba Sound System," recorded live, is his third album. While the studio releases showed a folksier side of Chao, the sound of "Radio Bemba" -- dense, raw and relentlessly high-energy -- evokes Mano Negra. (Moreover, the uncredited group that accompanies Chao suggests an expanded rock group, and the set list makes the connection explicit by including old Mano Negra tracks such as "Machine Gun," "Peligro" and "Casa Babylon.")
Check the breathtaking pace of the title track ("Radio Bemba" is slang in some Latin American countries for street gossip), the catchy reggae-inflected "El Viento" or the oddly romantic "La Despedida." There is a lot of ugliness, pain and sadness in Chao's world, but he fights back with joy -- sharp-edged, in-your-face, thinking, you-can-dance-to-it joy. Any better ideas?
-- Fernando Gonzalez
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8171.)