He's Got the World Beat

It takes a global village to make Manu Chao music

So in this present he is indeed everywhere, even here in the States, and especially in Latin America, where there are stories about him wherever you knock. He first traveled south on Cargo 92, a ship full of artists from France acting as cultural ambassadors to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Europe's first foray to the New World. Along with Mano Negra, the French theater troupe Royal de Luxe, Philippe Genty's mime company, and Philippe Decouflé's dance company also climbed aboard. They took four months to perform more than a hundred times in forty cities, from Santo Domingo to Buenos Aires.

That trip changed everything for Manu Chao and for Mano Negra. They returned a year later to play in the deadly Colombian jungle. This time they took a train -- dubbed the Fire and Ice -- that crossed all the barriers imposed by the guerrillas. They did it for months, living as a crazy communal family, a traveling musical circus for the troubled countryside, playing for hundreds of people along the way. Everybody survived the experience except the band as such. The album Casa Babylon is a record of the trip, as well as a harbinger of the future for Chao. On his own he continued to travel along Latin America's roadways, recording jam sessions with street musicians, building up a musical photo album filled with sad pictures of the harsh world, incorporating reggae, cumbia, bossa nova, and singing it in easy, folk-song format.

As to why he's become so popular, he offers a man-on-the-street, or in-the-street-markets, theory. "I think initially it was those who work in the markets, playing Clandestino, who helped people hear it. The traveling people, the backpackers, they heard it this way and began playing it. So it's come about through people hearing it on places other than radio or TV." An album in transit, a travel soundtrack, as he put it back in 1998: "Clandestino was a process of internal cleansing. I settled my accounts with the past -- that record gives me a sense of rebirth," Chao repeated in as many languages as he speaks (French, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Arabic). "Clandestino is a baby, and the mother to that baby is Casa Babylon."

Intangible, unreachable, incandescent: The new Bob Marley
Intangible, unreachable, incandescent: The new Bob Marley

That baby became a huge adult. When first released it sold about 500,000 copies but has now quadrupled to 2 million, helped by the runaway success of his second effort, Próxima Estación: Esperanza. That album, where he notably repeats many of the recording tricks and pieces of songs of his first solo effort -- giving it a sense of lazy resolution but an undeniable swing and familiarity -- has sold several million.

Maybe the repetition comes, not from sitting still, but from moving too fast, an idea Manu Chao does not disagree with. "I've always seen haste as something positive. In our society haste means effectiveness. It allows you to do a lot of things in one day, and gives you a lot of things to talk about in a year." The problem, he says, is that "you never have time to tell anybody about those things."

So he would like to curtail haste in his life, but he may not be able to kick the habit. This is a man who can't stay in one place for even fifteen days; by that time he's desperate to hit the road, to try something different, preferably in a different city. Slowing it all down "would be a great way to say No! to the system. Sadly, not everybody can do it." Although, he concedes, he should be able to: "I have no excuse. I was lucky, and I made money, and the only thing that money should be good for is to free us from haste.... That really would be a luxury.

"I don't want my money to make more money. I just want it to make me happy. I just want it to give me time. Spare time. To dream without an alarm clock, to take a crap without the telephone ringing, to enjoy a meal, learn from my friends, teach my friends, and make progress in my search." And, his fans can only hope, continue to record the rhythms of the earth.

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