By Jacob Katel
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And so, while his music is blanketing the world today, along with a new live recording called Radio Bemba Sound System just hitting the airwaves, the man himself continues to slip in and out of reach. The best way to grab hold of Chao, former member of the influential French rock band Mano Negra and now solo alternative global star, is to look for clues. He did make some rounds to promote last year's unexpected blockbuster, Próxima Estación: Esperanza (Next Stop: Hope), for instance, so one can find some quotes here and there. And you can learn the basics, the pro-human rights, anti-racism philosophies plus plenty of history and old clips, on his own Website, www.manuchao.net. The temptation to do this story under his own terms, the same way he builds his music -- as a collage of quotes and memories collected along journeys through Europe, America, and Africa -- is too strong. So, the Manu Chao scrapbook:
In terms of philosophy, he's said what he has to say many times, over and over. The Internet is flooded with reviews and forums about his latest moves, his latest opinions, and some people are still waiting for him to speak about September 11 as if his was somehow the voice of a world leader -- which he is, to some degree. And that's exactly what he runs away from: the responsibilities of being deemed the founder of some revolutionary movement.
Who is this guy Rolling Stone calls "The New Bob Marley"?
Well, not one of Bob's sons, for sure. But one hell of a singer-songwriter-entertainer, born in France 40 years ago, who is leaving a mark across the globe not unlike his spiritual Jamaican musical father did after he was "discovered" by British rockers in the mid-Seventies. In real life Manuel Chao is one of the sons of Spanish author Ramon Chao; the other musician in the family is Antonio, who played trumpet with brother Manu in the garage rock bands Los Carayos and Hot Pants in 1980s France.
Who else is Manu Chao? Someone who has lived a charmed life. He's his own boss, has made good money, does what he wants most of the time, moves constantly, and refuses to be pinned down, including by his record label, the same Virgin France that begged Mano Negra to sign with it right after it heard the single "Mala Vida" in 1987. That hit is today one of the 29 songs you can hear on Chao's third album, a synthesis of his best musical efforts of the past fifteen years, a period of time over which he changed the face of alternative rock in France, failed to make any change on the face of British or U.S. rock, and then dropped in on Latin America, where he has become as famous as the Beatles or, well, Bob Marley.
"I am from where I am at the moment," says the electric five-foot-two gnome about his musical and physical globetrotting. "I don't see myself as being from anyplace in particular. I was born and grew up on the outskirts of Paris. I love Galicia, and I love Euskadi [the Basque area of Spain], and not just because they're my roots.... I'm rooted in Mexico too, in Río de Janeiro, and in Mali. I'm a citizen of the present."
A present that peaks, after three years on tour through three continents and more than 120 concerts, on the live album -- 70 minutes of ska, reggae, dub, and punk-rock spirit, recorded at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris in September 2001. Radio Bemba Sound System includes remixed titles from Manu Chao's two solo records, as well as a few unreleased titles and mutated covers from Mano Negra, such as a Caribbean-heated horn version of "Casa Babylon"; a 100 percent ska take on 1989's hit "King Kong Five"; and heavy reggae adaptations of the classic Mano Negra songs "Peligro" and "Machine Gun."
"Touring is totally full-on, it switches us into a kind of collective trance. It's really intense, a lifestyle all of its own," Chao says about his new experience with a nine-piece band, a huge lineup that took six years to get into shape after eight feverish years with his previous collective. "We all sleep on the bus, we all love doing that. It's our own small world, someplace to call our own," he describes. "When you're dead tired after a show, and you've had a couple of drinks and spliffs, then you get on the bus and it's like paradise. There are no mobiles on -- it's a world where we set the rules."
A DVD featuring the entire tour and unreleased films will come out toward the end of the year and, as of now, five out of six Mano Negra albums are being re-released in the U.S.: its first, seminal 1988 Patchanka (a word the group invented, playing off the Spanish word pachanga, used to describe cheesy music); the third and totally Anglo rocker-oriented King of the Bongo; the live recording In The Hell of Patchinko; the compilation Amerika Perdida; and the last Mano Negra album, 1994's Casa Babylon.