Chicago Tribune


Manu Chao reaches beyond borders, politics

By Achy Obejas

Special to the Tribune

Published June 24, 2007

The empty Aragon Ballroom in Uptown trembles from the assault of amplified sound; the circle formed on the dance floor by the curved varnished slats looks like a vortex. Midafternoon, hours before the show, it’s so hot it’s hazy inside.

On the stage, six musicians struggle with the ancient room’s acoustics: electric guitar waves ricochet against the artificially starry skies in this desert fantasy. Of the six, all are shirtless but the keyboard player, who pushes his glasses up his slippery nose with a twitchy finger.

Manu Chao is dead center on stage, unmistakable: serious, tattooed and sinewy, his denim pants come midcalf and hang just off his hips, showing just the slightest slope of tanned skin in the back. He stops everyone and tries a chorus in his nasally a cappella but ends up shaking his head.

Later, backstage before the show last week, he sprawls on an imitation-black leather couch and wonders if, maybe, the sold-out crowd won’t absorb some of the rougher edges of the noise. He takes off one of his big, white athletic shoes and rubs the stiff muscle on his calf.

« I’m already worried, » he says, hobbling to the bar on his good foot to grab a bottle of water, « because I hurt myself, so I know I won’t be as active as I like to be. When I get on stage, I forget, and I hurt myself again. But this time, I haven’t taken anything for the pain, so I’ll be really aware of it. »

(After the show — a show in which he leaped and bounced with abandon — he’ll worry that the public waited more than an hour without being told the concert would start late, that beer was priced too high, that the hall was emptied out unceremoniously after the final note, that the sound never quite bent to his will. « I need to come back to play in Chicago, » he e-mails, « to get this bitter taste out of my mouth. The people who came to see us here were so kind. »)

‘La Radiolina’

More than six years after his last studio effort, Chao is on the verge of releasing what he calls his sixth « official » album, « La Radiolina, » currently slated for September. A single, « Rainin in Paradize, » is available now for free download from his personal Web site, www.manuchao.net. « La Radiolina » will feature between 18 and 20 songs in Spanish, French, English, Portuguese and, for the first time, Italian.

« It’s a continuation, like all my records, » he explains. « The songs come along and slowly form a whole. There are songs about social issues, about love, about falling out of love, about luck, about borders. »

Borders are Chao’s thing; He’s all about dealing with them, eliminating them, being honest about them.

« I grew up in a Paris neighborhood that was about 60 percent children of immigrants from Portugal, northern Africa, Armenia. … Immigration — borders — were super-important to all of us. What galls me is the political hypocrisy around this issue. In Europe, the politicians all go on TV and talk about their commitment to battling illegal immigration. But they turn a blind eye — as they must — to all the sectors of the economy that would not exist without illegal immigrants. In Spain, certainly, there would be no agriculture; there would be no construction boom, without paperless immigrants. »

In the years between his so-called official projects, however, he has produced other artists and published a book of poems with a CD accompaniment. He has an entire album in Portuguese that he wants to release sometime.

Given that he’s Paris-born of Spanish immigrant parents, why Portuguese?

« I had an opportunity to spend a lot of time in Brazil, » he says. « I think, of all the places that I’ve traveled, where I feel the most at home, besides the Sahara and northern Africa, that would be Rio. And … and my 8-year-old son is Brazilian. That’s part of that too. » And he grins, grins big.

He has also been involved with Radio La Colifata in Buenos Aires, a project run by the inmates of a local psychiatric hospital. (The morning after the Chicago show, the Buenos Aires papers reported that American film director Francis Ford Coppola will cast a Colifata patient in his next movie, to be filmed in the Argentine capital — a prospect that thrills Chao.) He has recorded songs and snippets for the station, and performed with the patients during his tours of the Southern Cone.

20,000 people silent

« The only time I’ve seen a stadium — 20,000 people — just fall silent, » he recalls, « was when this 70-year-old woman, Esterita — that was her name — just shut everybody up to tell her story. I mean, there was total silence. And then, an ovation. It was amazing. What I want to do now is bring this all up officially, their stories and our music, so they can get their recognition and collect their royalties. That’s important. »

He’ll travel to Buenos Aires later this year for that. Right now, he’s touring North America, an experience he’s finding revelatory.

« We’re traveling by bus, meeting people, » he says. « In the desert, we slept outside. Our driver had family here in Illinois, and we stopped and spent some time with his relatives in this little town. »

He has been stunned by the many cultures beyond the CNN image of the United States.

In New Orleans, an earlier stop on the tour, Chao was delighted by its familiarity. « We shared so many of the same sensibilities, the same codes, » he says. « They reminded me of my friends in Rio, in Tijuana. They have that dark wit, I love that. But, of course, New Orleans is important for other reasons now too — it’s important to see what happened, to understand how authority abandoned them, how it abdicated. »

He says Hurricane Katrina and its aftereffects have become the kind of event that radicalizes people, which alienates them.

« In Barcelona, I get upset with gringo tourists, » he admits. « There is this terrible anti-Americanism at work in Europe right now. And I tell them what I think, and they say, ‘I’m with you.’ And I say, ‘Then what are you doing here? Why are you vacationing in Barcelona instead of protesting in front of the White House?’ It’s important, though, to make the distinction between a nation’s government and its people. There’s much good here, I’m finding, so much good here too. »