why Manu Chao is global pop’s most important star
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 13/09/2007
Peter Culshaw contemplates the worldwide appeal of Manu Chao
1 Few stars have such a vast and diverse audience. Particularly in South America and on the continent, Chao is huge. In places such as Mexico City, he plays to audiences in excess of 100,000. In France, his masterpiece Clandestino is one of the best-selling albums of all time. It sold more than three million copies, as did its follow-up, Proxima Estación: Esperanza (« Next stop: hope »).
2 He crosses boundaries of race and class. The only other world-music album to have sold more than Chao’s is Buena Vista Social Club. But, whereas that album’s main appeal was to middle-class Europeans and Japanese, Chao’s audience spans the social spectrum. He’s the first artist since Bob Marley (who he reveres as his « professor in simplicity ») to be a real pop star of the people – to have global reach.
3 He has revived the art of rebellious protest pop. Most pop stars who become politically engaged (from Sting to Tom Robinson) end up seeming worthy and dull, or else, like Bono and Bob Geldof, compromised by their hob-nobbing with politicians. But whether Chao is singing about the plight of immigrants on Clandestino, or Madrid prostitutes on Me Llaman Calle, or Baghdad on his superb new album La Radiolina, his humanity and lack of cynicism shine through. And they are all great, danceable tunes. It’s political pop that is also a fiesta.
4 He has arranged some of the zaniest tours in pop history. One involved going by boat round all the ports of South America, but the most extreme was when he hired a train to tour war-torn Colombia in 1992, filling it with a rag-tag group of circus artists, punks and hippies, playing to peasants, guerrillas and narcotrafficantes. The tour split his punky, Clash-influenced band Manu Negra. His father, the journalist Ramon Chao, came along and wrote a book about the trip, Un Train de Glace et de Feu (« A Train of Ice and Fire »).
5 He is a true original. Born Jose-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao in 1961 in Paris to Basque and Galician parents, radicalism was in the family. His grandfather was a refugee from Franco. His music reflects this mixed upbringing, with several languages in his lyrics, and music that mixes punk, ska, latin and myriad other influences. (Struggling for words, Entertainment Weekly described Besoin De La Lune on La Radiolina as a « bizarro spaghetti-western hoedown »).
6 He doesn’t play the industry game. Chao never toured to promote Clandestino. Music-biz types told him he should tour the US, but he decided to concentrate on South America – a strategy that means when he does play the States, as on his recent tour, he has a ready-made audience of Hispanic fans and so fills large venues there anyway. When he does play big shows he will often arrange smaller, unpublicised concerts to striking dockers, in prisons, or just in small bars. He never plans more than three months ahead, and turns down most interviews and all advertising work. He still busks regularly in the streets of Barcelona.
7 He turned a blind husband and wife from Mali into pop stars. Only Chao would think it a good career move to produce a couple of middle-aged Malians and only Chao would have created a pop hit. But that’s what he did for Amadou and Mariam – producing their brilliant album Dimanche À Bamako, which sold more than half a million copies. He is now producing an album with their son, Sam. His next project is a record with the inmates of a mental asylum in Buenos Aires (their voices can be heard on Tristeza Maleza, one of the best tracks of the new album).
8 He is an enthusiast. As a teenager, Chao was obsessed with the guitarist Wilko Johnson from Dr Feelgood. After reading in the NME about the Canvey Island scene, where the Feelgoods came from, he hitch-hiked from France to Essex and went round the pubs trying to recruit a band: « They told me to get lost, little boy. » Joe Strummer of the Clash was both a friend and an inspiration; and Strummer’s latin-punk band, the Mescaleros, showed the influence was two-way.
9 He has a streak of lunacy. Chao can do silly as well as political: his biggest hit, Bongo Bong (covered by Robbie Williams and Lily Allen), is a ditty about a bongo-playing monkey. After Manu Negra broke up, he found himself depressed and suicidal in Rio. A cow walked into the bar he was drinking in, and he says he was « saved by the tranquillity of the cow’s eyes ». His tour jacket has pictures of cow’s eyes on it, and he says he understands why they worship cows in India, where he hopes to tour soon.
10 His new album La Radiolina is fantastic. Could this finally break him in Britain and the States? The more rocky sound may alienate some of his world music audience, but the initial signs are good – he has just added a third night at the Brixton Academy to his forthcoming tour of Britain, and tickets are going fast. He certainly seems to walk his talk. In a world where music is increasingly just a commodity, and albums mere units to be shifted, La Radiolina is a heroic and inspiring shot in the arm for pop music.