By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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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.
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."
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.