San Francisco Chronicle

Manu Chao’s songs are on message

Delfin Vigil

Friday, November 16, 2007

It only makes sense that a singer who, in the course of one song, might switch from Spanish to English to French to Portuguese to Arabic and back to Spanish would eventually invent a word.

That’s exactly what Manu Chao did on his 1998 debut solo album with « Malegria, » a song title and lyric that would translate into English more or less as « sad happiness. »

Taking a break backstage before a sold-out concert earlier this year at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, the 46-year-old singer unknowingly wears an expression that would illustrate « malegria » perfectly in a dictionary.

« Malegria is very much how I feel when I see the world, » says Chao with a whispered laugh and slight smile. « It’s like the painful happiness from when you feel like crying and laughing at the same time. »

With the fall release of his fourth acclaimed studio album, « La Radiolina, » (Nacional/Becauase) Chao’s back catalog essentially adds up to his own language that speaks of the ills and thrills of the world he has traveled many times over. It’s a dialect spoken and understood from the nightclub dance floors of Barcelona to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, from the taxis of Timbuktu to the barrios of East L.A. Yet, while his solo album sales reach the 10 million mark and his concerts continue to fill stadiums, Manu Chao can walk into and out of any of those cities relatively unnoticed – much as he did on his last visit to San Francisco.

« If you go directly to the city’s most popular nightclub, you’re in the same nightclub whether you’re in Los Angeles, Paris, Barcelona or Tokyo, » Chao says in Spanish. « But if you go the bus stations, the central markets and the neighborhood streets – that’s where you open the can of life that the city actually is. »

After the breakup of his ska-punk-reggae band Mano Negra in the mid-’90s, Chao spent a few years roaming around his favorite cities with an acoustic guitar, a portable recording studio and the melodies in his head. When he wasn’t recording songs in a friend’s living room or singing on a street corner, Chao would capture the sounds of the town, often in Latin America, with a small microphone. The result was 1998′s « Clandestino, » a solo album of 16 songs that were like postcards, with lyrics like diary entries describing the « sad happiness » that is Latin America.

Suddenly, the radio waves of cities like Buenos Aires, Lima, Mexico City and Bogot�, which typically broadcast sappy love songs, were being interrupted by the messages of Manu Chao, who, in the form of catchy melody, sang of poverty, government corruption and political revolutions. The oddest part of all was how the messages came via the voice of a Frenchman.

Sort of.

Manu Chao was born Jos�-Manuel Tomas Arthur Chao in Paris in 1961 to Spanish parents who had fled Franco’s dictatorship. He grew up in an atmosphere made up of artists, musicians and writers. His father, a journalist, would preach the principles of Che Guevara to Chao and his brother, Antoine.

In 1987, Antoine, Manu and their cousin Santiago Casariego formed Mano Negra (The Black Hand), which lasted about eight years and whose high point included a traveling train tour in remote parts of Colombia. These days, Chao stores his belongings in Barcelona and spends much time in his old hood in Paris and in Cear�, Brazil, where his son lives.

But Chao insists that wherever he plays his guitar is home.

« Sometimes when I’m playing guitar in the street in Barcelona, a tourist will walk by and say, ‘You sing Manu Chao songs very well. Congratulations!’ Or another will say, ‘No. That’s not him. Manu Chao is taller,’  » laughs Chao, who seems to become less noticeable as he becomes more famous.

When not playing songs in the streets of Barcelona or perhaps a hole-in-the-wall bar in Brazil, Chao might be spotted on the subway in Paris.

« Whenever the little tough guys from the neighborhood – we call them gremlins – see me with my bicycle on the subway, they say, ‘Hey, Manu, you’re a rock star. Aren’t you supposed to have a big car?’ I can see in their eyes they think I’m crazy. But I can feel the respect, especially since working with Amadou and Mariam, » says Chao of the blind couple from Mali with whom he recorded an album last year.

Chao met the couple while they were in Paris, and after getting down on his knees and begging, persuaded them to go into a Paris studio for a day of recording fun. Before long, Chao was in Mali recording, producing and performing on Amadou and Mariam’s « Dimanche � Bamako, » an album that won a best world music album award from the BBC. The highlight for Chao was when he joined the couple’s band as a guitarist on a tour of Mali, where, as he always does, he blended into the background.

While lauded for his profound and political lyrics, Chao is often criticized for using similar song structures for different tunes.

« I love to recycle, » says Chao of the instrumental compositions that might show up twice on one album and then again on the next record. « I refuse to accept that everything has to be new. Even with my shoes, until they’re completely torn up I won’t buy new ones. There’s something in this world where we’re taught that everything has to be new, new, new! It’s like, ‘Ah, you don’t have the new recorder or the new computer?’ No. I’ll use my computer until it’s broken. I love it. It’s the same with my music. Until my toys don’t work I don’t feel the need to change. »

Several hours before the doors were to open at Chao’s concert in San Francisco, a crowd of mostly young men and women with Latin American roots grows near the singer’s tour bus. The ones who get a chance to talk to Chao don’t want just an autograph. They want to hear his answers to the problems that plague places he often sings about, like Nicaragua, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. Chao does his best to share his thoughts but prefaces them with a reminder that he is just a singer and not a leader.

« It’s a label the media slapped on me and put in their headlines, » Chao says backstage. « Sure, I’m one of millions involved in a movement that wants to change things about this world. But it’s very important that the movement be horizontal and function without leaders. There’s nothing easier to do than corrupt a leader. It’s much more complicated to fight against a mass of people. »

While comfortable in his life both financially and artistically, Manu Chao knows he can never escape the « malegria. »

If he had no conscience, Chao says, he would probably go live on the beach in Brazil with his son eating fresh seafood and enjoying nature.

« I could do that and be happy, » says Chao in English before returning to Spanish. « But within one week I would be dealing with so much guilt thinking of all my friends left behind in the hellfire of the ghettos. Could I truly be happy knowing that? No way. Until the world is a little bit better for everyone, happiness is impossible. »

To hear Manu Chao’s music, go to manuchao.net..