Manu Chao: World beater
Musical revolutionary and man of the people – if only everyone could be like Manu Chao. Only in the English-speaking world is he not a star, but as Peter Culshaw reports, that battle has just begun.
Sunday July 15, 2007
Observer Music Monthly
Backstage at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn there is a computer screen locked into the weather channel and it is warning that a ‘severe, dangerous’ storm is heading this way. It is the last weekend in June and, as the needle pushes 100 Fahrenheit, 6,000 fans are generating their own electricity in expectation of a kind of communion long since absent from most rock gigs.
Tickets are so hot that the Village Voice has reported the strategies adopted by people on the online network Craigslist to get theirs. There are hugs and prayers and, before they go on stage, I wish the band ‘mucha mierda’ (‘much shit’ – the Spanish equivalent of ‘break a leg’). There are five of them – including Ronaldo-lookalike Madjid on guitar and the similarly shirtless Gambit on bass – led by an elfin 46-year-old dressed in sawn-off denims, a khaki top and beret and a Yoruba shell necklace.
Musical magpie, rebel and vagabond, pied piper to the disenfranchised, a star who carries his own bags – no other act in the past decade has assumed the mantle of political engagement, passion and global empathy once worn by Bob Marley or Joe Strummer quite like Manu Chao. Outside the English-speaking world, his status is assured – his first solo album, 1998′s Clandestino, sold five million copies and in places like in Mexico City he has played to crowds of 100,000. But this is his first full tour of the United States, a country whose politics he has repeatedly criticised. ‘You cannot fight terrorism with terrorism, you should fight violence with education not more violence,’ he later yells from the stage in Brooklyn, which is draped with a banner carrying the slogan ‘Immigrants are not criminals’.
Whereas his records are full of loping, lazy rhythms, the band on stage regularly break down to a double-time hardcore thrash and midway through the opening ‘Peligro’, every fist is pumping in the crowd. The pan-Hispanic expat community in New York is heavily represented – some of them wearing Mexican wrestler masks (an oblique reference to Chao’s support of the Zapatistas) – but the Anglo element joins in to sing along in Spanish and English to the reggae thump of ‘Clandestino’ (which deals with the plight of illegal immigrants); ‘Mr Bobby’(‘Hey Bobby Marley, sing something good to me’); and the enjoyably silly ‘Bongo Bong’ (recently covered by Robbie Williams).
Here the crowd loves him, but Chao’s trek through America has not been wholly smooth. The toughest gig came first at the Coachella Festival in California in April. The band took to the stage just before Rage Against the Machine, who were making a comeback. ‘There were 90,000 impatient fans, and it could have been a disaster,’ one record exec who witnessed Manu’s performance told me. ‘But he totally won them over. And if he can do that, he can cross over to any audience.’
Chao told me that the Coachella gig had been ‘a hot spot’, but several fans had been following him on the 20-date tour since then. Two days before Brooklyn, I speak to him on the tour bus in Boston. ‘I love going to sleep in one city and waking in another,’ he says, lighting a cigarette, which strictly speaking isn’t allowed on the vehicle. ‘The band is really positive, a great family – I can imagine touring with these guys for years. We went all through the West, stopping in the desert to make fires. Deep down …. not just to the big cities.’
But why travel to the heart of the beast if you seem to hate America and all it stands for?
‘I always criticise the government, not the people,’ he says with characteristic intensity. ‘And if I am criticising, it’s better to understand what it is you criticise – more and more, for people in South America and Africa the US is like the devil. There’s a heavy cost for the way of life here in the rest of the world. When I criticise the government everyone applauds – I just don’t understand why there aren’t thousands protesting outside the White House every day.
‘Everyone always said you have to make it in the States,’ he adds. ‘But I always thought the best way was to make it in South America first.’
His insistence on playing the music business game on his own terms makes it difficult to schedule big tours – usually he only plans three months ahead. He refuses the usual round of media interviews – and he doesn’t even have a mobile phone. This unselfconsciously dishevelled figure has little interest in hanging out with his fellow stars. ‘Every time I met any of my heroes I was disappointed – the exception was Joe Strummer, who was like an uncle to me. The last time I saw him was at a festival in Japan, sleeping out in the woods, jamming by a fire and putting on little tapes he’d made to keep the atmosphere going.’
‘Joe absolutely adored Manu’s music and was a friend,’ says Strummer’s widow, Lucinda. ‘I met him once with Joe at the Shepherds Bush Empire, in 2002, and there was lots of excitement when Joe turned up before the gig – attempting to speak to Manu in his broken Spanish.’
Five years ago, when Chao was in a cafe in London’s Brick Lane, and I bumped into him, a rep from his previous label, Virgin, materialised to tell him he had secured tickets for the Brit Awards that night and could meet Sting, David Bowie and Robbie Williams. Manu couldn’t have been less interested. ‘I’ve arranged to spend the evening with some friends,’ he said.
Undeterred, the Virgin man added that he had landed the band a spot on Later …With Jools Holland, but Chao explained that he was splitting up the group that weekend and was off backpacking somewhere. For his first album since then, La Radiolina, set for release in the UK on 4 September, it was rumoured he would collaborate with Shakira and Carlos Santana. ‘But I have enough friends to be on the record,’ he says.
Another time, three years ago, I was supposed to meet Chao in Paris and, having searched in vain for where he was staying, found him sleeping on the floor of a small studio. I met him a couple of times in Barcelona, too, the city where his long-term girlfriend lives and in which he has a studio where he keeps ‘souvenirs from Mali, things people have given me’. Then, he arrived on a battered bicycle. Sometimes Chao goes busking too; the last time I was in the Catalan capital he stood up to sing several songs of a Brazilian-style album he is also working on in Bar Mariachi in the Gothic quarter. His bohemian mates, swigging Dos Equis, picked up their guitars and bongos and started joining in.
In Spain and elsewhere, Manu often performs anonymously – on tours of South America he will perform a major gig then, prior to the next, play to striking dockers, students, even mental patients. He is friends with – and has helped financially – political activists such as the masked Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, champion of the indigenous peasants of the Chiapas region in Mexico.
Radicalism was in the Chao genes. He was born Jose-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao on 21 June, 1961 in Paris. His grandfather had been sentenced to death by the Spanish dictator Franco and the family had to flee the country. His mother, Felisa, an engineer, is Basque, and his father, writer and journalist Ramon Chao, comes from Galicia. ‘Besoin de la Lune’, the sweetest song on the new album, includes the lines, ‘I need my father to tell me where I come from/ I need my mother when I am lost’.
Chao grew up in the suburbs of Paris, in Boulogne-Billancourt and then Sevres, surrounded by artists, intellectuals and immigrant communities. He played football with children of the workers at the local Renault factory.
In the Seventies he discovered the UK rock scene, being initially fascinated by Canvey Island’s Dr Feelgood – particularly guitarist Wilco Johnson (‘he was a Martian!’). As a teenager he travelled to Essex, convinced it was a musical hotbed, where he tried to find like-minded musicians. ‘They just told me to get lost, you stupid boy,’ he laughs.
Following such short-lived bands as Hot Pants, he and his brother Antoine formed the multiracial Mano Negra in 1987, establishing themselves as an important force in the French alternative music scene. The Clash and Bob Marley, then as now, were primary influences.
Although Chao was the main driving force and songwriter, the group split all proceeds seven ways. He has always rejected the use of his music for TV ads – his manager told me he recently turned down $500,000 for an HMV ad – although once when an insurance company wanted to use some Mano Negra music he was outvoted. ‘But when they asked to repeat the campaign I told them I couldn’t stand it. Democracy has its limits.’
The bus on which his band now travels represents a mundane way for Chao to tour the Americas. In 1992 he journeyed to a number of South American port cities performing on a stage built into a ship’s hold. A year later, Mano Negra bought an old train and took it round Colombia, playing to audiences of peasants, guerrillas and drug traffickers. Not everyone shared Manu’s taste for extreme adventure, and shortly afterwards the group disintegrated.
It was at this point in his life that Manu became seriously depressed. ‘I woke up many mornings thinking maybe I wanted to kill myself. I thought I had lost my instinct, I was thinking only with my reason. A cow saved my life, though.
‘I was in a bar in Rio and a cow walked in, I looked into its eyes, and I saw such tranquillidad, serenity. Then I started seeing cows everywhere. I realise why the Indians worship them.’
On his jacket hung up on the tour bus, there are two cows’ eyes. ‘India is calling me – one day I will spend time there, I will need it,’ he says. Conversations with Chao can take strange turns. He also tells me that ‘I met the devil two times – in Madrid and in Tokyo. He was like a man and a spoke to him – but I know he was the devil.’
His depression and its aftermath prompted him to write his masterpiece Clandestino on which he sings, ‘I search for a better life or asylum/ I walk alone with sorrow/ My doom stands alone/ My fate is to keep running, because I don’t have any papers.’
The subject of immigration still concerns him. ‘A big part of the economy is the clandestinos – it’s hypocrisy because the illegal immigrant can be paid less than anyone and cannot complain, and that’s perfect for the economy.’ His ‘Welcome to Tijuana’ has become another classic from the album. In fact, the band played Tijuana on the current tour. ‘It’s like a little point of fever on the planet – the problems are concentrated,’ he says on the tour bus. ‘From the north they come to party, for the cheap beer and girls and drugs, and from the south it’s the end of the line, it can be hell.’
Tijuana is emblematic for Chao, embodying the collision in his music of desperation, violence and hedonism. ‘Actually, I really love the place. It’s the best and the worst.’
Clandestino, mainly recorded with a small portable studio Chao carried in his backpack on his travels, and incorporating ambient street sounds, was a slow-burn success. Its follow-up, 2001′s Proxima Estacion: Esperanza (‘Next Station: Hope’ – from a recorded announcement on the Madrid underground for the Esperanza station), employed a similar musical language. Both albums feature Chao’s stylistic quirk of recycling backing tracks from different songs. A live album, Radio Bemba Sound System, had a harder sound, but was also a hit on its release in 2002.
No one claims that Chao is technically a great musician – he plays one-finger guitar solos – or even that great a singer. But he is a terrific songwriter, and knows how to connect with people. Malcolm McLaren calls him ‘the French answer to Paul Simon – a lot hipper, a lot grungier and a lot more politically credible’, while Island Records founder Chris Blackwell considers him ‘one of the most important musicians on the planet’.
Although it has been six years since his last official studio recording, Chao has not been idle. He created a limited-edition book/CD in 2004 with illustrator Jacek Wozniak – Siberie M’etait Conteee – and stepped behind the studio controls to produce Amadou and Mariam’s widely feted and enormously successful Dimanche a Bamako. Turning a pair of middle-aged blind Malians into hit artists was not the most obvious of moves, but Manu’s unerring pop sensibility and subversive aesthetic proved triumphant. ‘Making the album with Manu was the easiest thing we’ve ever done,’ says Amadou. ‘He was a great producer, as well as incredibly laid-back.’
Chao has nearly finished producing a CD with the married couple’s son, Sam. ‘It’s an extremely beautiful album,’ says Manu. ‘I like going to Bamako; I’ve got my neighbourhood and my friends there now.’ Whereupon he launches into a typically Manu-esque tale of how he has swapped identities with a guy in Bamako, who now calls himself Manu Chao, while Manu is called Modibo. As a result, he is always being told of adventures that ‘Manu Chao’ gets up to in Mali.
His ‘Brazilian’ record – he has a son who lives in Fortaleza, northern Brazil, and says Rio is his favourite city – will see the light of day in the next year or two. He has put together another album, too, with patients from the Colifata psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires. ‘They have so much lucidity; what they are saying is huge. It’s going to be a much more important album than mine, just all in very poetic Spanish – impossible to translate – about using God’s name to make wars, about everything …’
Some of the patients also feature on one of the strongest tracks, provisionally titled ‘Infinita Maleza’, on La Radiolina. It deals with the pain that American foreign policy inflicts on the world and has the patients talking about ‘the winds of Washington’. It’s one of only a few new songs to make the set-list for the American tour and carries an epic, moving chorus of ‘chore’ (cry).
Perhaps the album’s killer track, though, is ‘Politics Kills’ – it is the one which Chris Blackwell picked out as a winner when he first heard the record. Reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s work, with hints of Mexican mariachi, it is shot through with the conviction that ‘politics is a heavy dance’ which needs violence, blood, drugs, and ‘your mind’. Punk-minded single ‘Rainin’ in Paradize’ sees Chao rhyme ‘atrocity’ with ‘democracy’ and sing about Baghdad.
Another track, ‘Bleedin’ Clown’, is what Chao calls ‘an old-style’ song about unrequited love. ‘I wrote it 20 years ago and after every album my friends ask me why that one is not on it.’ It’s one of those annoyingly brilliant songs that lodges itself in your head and sounds like a quirky third hit single. The album is a kaleidoscope of brilliant ideas and global musics, full of passionate conviction, nostalgia and celebration, and as such is a more than worthy successor to Clandestino. Every second counts too: when I meet Chao he is agonising over the final mixes of the songs.
Talk of bleeding clowns leads to talk of wounded healers -Wounded Healer being the title of Joan Halifax’s classic study of shamanism, a subject in which Chao is fascinated. ‘I’ve met many shamans in my life; some of them say they are, some don’t but they are.’
Is he a modern shaman, channelling energies, travelling to other worlds and reporting on the natives? ‘No, but I try to be on my way to be a medicine man. For the moment, my passion is music, and I’m tied to it, but if this passion goes down a bit, I would like to learn more. I want to cure with my hands – but that takes years and you have to live more on the inside. Now it’s all to the outside. But I try every day to find a little place, maybe a tree or a river. I learnt how to auto-repair – there’s a lot of stress in my job.’
Does he meditate?
‘Sure, and I have little mantras. One that works is that because I’m a shy guy, getting on stage is something almost violent. But I repeat to myself « Shame Don’t Kill » – if it’s a bad concert it’s not like someone’s gonna shoot me.’
So what are the temptations of being Manu Chao? The bevies of Latina lovelies who try, and often succeed, in getting backstage after the show? ‘No, I’m too romantic. Maybe that’s stupid, or maybe that’s my salvation.’
Maybe a role as political leader then? At the Genoa G8 summit a few years ago, the Italian government asked Chao to represent the anti-globalisation protesters, and he has been present at forums in Porto Alegre in Brazil and elsewhere. ‘That would be an error, the worst mistake. We need 1,000 leaders, everybody’s got to be a leader – there’s nothing so corrupt as being a leader.’ Yet in his travels, politicians do try to co-opt him, among them Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. ‘I’m not a « Chavista »,’ he says, ‘but I would like to see some equilibrium in how things are reported. I used to go to the neighbourhoods and there was no hope. Now there’s hope. Sure, he’s closed a TV station – but he’s opened others.’
As much as being a musician, Manu is a great traveller. When I take him to a little bar in Chinatown called Double Happiness on the night before the Brooklyn gig, he reels off a series of tales involving life on the road with the repentistas – the troubadours of northern Brazil – surviving on strong cachaca (a Brazilian spirit made from sugarcane) and little else. He rhapsodises about the chorinho bars of Lapa, the forro music of Sao Cristovao market and the baile funk in the favelas in Rio. ‘It’s the only city in the world where you can go into a bar at 3am banging a drum and they complain when you stop.’ He mentions that a Candomble priestess once told him that he was a song of Shango, the fearsome Yoruba god of thunder.
When I say I like Sao Paulo as much as Rio he says, ‘because I didn’t understand the city, I spent all one night for hours walking across it – ending up talking to the child prostitutes’. Although he loves such places, his anger, which is channelled into his music, is fuelled by the misery he’s seen. ‘I’ve seen women about to give birth thrown out of hospitals, guys being tortured in the favelas screaming, « Please kill me » – and there’s nothing I can do about it.’
What lies behind his manic travelling – he once told me he couldn’t stand to be in any one place for more than two weeks. Is he hiding from something?
‘Maybe I should go to a psychiatrist to find out – but I do have a terror of routine.’
There’s nothing routine about the show in Brooklyn. I’m looking at Chao and he reminds me a little of a Latin Charlie Chaplin – a little guy taking on the big guys with a sentimental heart. The word ‘corazon’ (meaning ‘heart’) features repeatedly in his lyrics and at the end of the set he bashes his chest with his microphone. An official gets on stage and says there will only be one encore as the storm is now imminent. A couple of minutes later, there is crashing thunder and blinding flashes of lightning and the heavens open. It feels almost biblical. Chao carries on with the crowd singing ‘Proxima estacion esperanza’ – the rain functioning as a baptism of hope: hope for the politics of the country, for the future, for the day when music might be viewed as more than just a commodity.
Manu says he isn’t that concerned if the new album is a big hit in the States (or elsewhere) or not. ‘Sincerely I don’t care, I will adapt – I’ve done my meditation, I feel really in harmony with myself, so I don’t have ego deception. If it’s a huge record it will bring problems also. I know I will carry on making music whatever happens.’
As it goes, Chao’s maverick approach has worked pretty well so far, and the timing of his assault on the States, if accidental, is perfect – not just because the Hispanics are the country’s fastest growing – and an increasing vocal – minority group, but because his anti-government message finds widespread sympathy now in a way it might not have done even recently.
In the tour bus afterwards, sitting upfront, Chao agrees that Shango was in the house. I ask him if he’s coming to a Brazilian party we’ve been invited to or maybe an Ojos de Brujo bash – the Barcelona band are in town. No, he says, and brandishes a phone number. An activist meeting? A jam session? A girl? Who knows – but Manu Chao is off on his next adventure.