28/08/09

Spanish-French singer Manu Chao records album in a psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires

Singer Manu Chao teams up with psychiatric patients in Argentina

Spanish-French singer Manu Chao records album in a psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires

Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent

Manu Chao

Manu Chao is believed to be the first singer to record an album at a psychiatric hospital. Photograph: Albert Olive/EPA

Manu Chao is famous for blending musical styles but even for him his latest album is a departure: a collaboration with psychiatric patients who run an Argentine radio station called Radio Loony.

The Spanish-French singer recorded the album in Jose Borda, a psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires which is home to Radio La Colifata, a name derived from slang for lunatic.

The album, Viva La Colifata!, features 20 songs about life, love, loneliness, death, sunshine, mothers and the end of the world. It mixes some old Chao tunes with mostly new material from the singer and patients, including poetry and improvisations. The idea, according to the publicity blurb, is to « laugh, cry and meditate about life ».

The album is available for free download at VivaLaColifata.org, a website launched by Chao and the radio station, but people are asked to make a donation to help the hospital’s pioneering approach to treating mental illness.

Launched in 1991 as a way to give patients a voice, the station’s eclectic amalgam of chat, jokes, music and poetry became a hit and reached 12 million people in Argentina‘s capital. Chao, 48, who promotes leftist causes and sings in French, Spanish, English and Arabic, became involved in Radio La Colifata a decade ago after reading an article in a French newspaper. He visited the crumbling monolithic building, befriended patients, hosted music workshops and developed the idea of making an album.

The American country singer Johnny Cash recorded a classic live album at Folsom prison in 1968 but Chao is believed to be the first star to record at a psychiatric hospital. Alfredo Olivera, the station’s director and founder, said the relationship was based on mutual respect and confidence. « The process was very positive, not only because it tackled the social stigma of mental illness.. but because it helped people leave the hospital and develop their own autonomy, » he told the BBC.

The visiting celebrity knew how to engage the patients, said Olivera: « He is not a psychologist or a psychiatrist but he knows how to listen to the rhythm of each person. »

Chuao, who founded the group Mano Negra before finding solo success with albums such as Clandestino, said he learned « lucid lessons » from his collaborators. He said: « I also learned to synthesise things with fewer words, clearer words