Band of the Day

2012.01.07

Manu Chao

A mash of rock, reggae and traditional music styles by a true global citizen
Tonight I dream about fraternity, tonight I say: one day! One day my dreams will be reality, like Bobby said to me.
lyrics from Mr. Bobby

Over the last 25 years, Manu Chao has cemented his place as one of the world's most important musicians. Born in Paris in 1961 to Spanish parents, Chao is a superstar in much of Europe and South America, and an underground force to be reckoned with in the United States. An impassioned leftist, his rise has been outside of the typical path of music success. Chao has sought out venues in poor South American villages as often as large music festivals, and been more interested in befriending political revolutionaries in developing countries than Western celebrities. First influenced by UK punk rock bands like The Clash as well as reggae, Chao played in punk bands in his teens and formed Mano Negra in 1987. The band, which featured a cosmopolitan mix of musical styles, became popular in Europe and South America. After moving to Spain in the mid 90s, the collective disbanded due to friction in the band. At this point, Chao continued his thirst for travel, wandering extensively in Central and South America, forming connections with revolutionaries like the Zapatistas, and beginning work on his solo music. Clandestino, released in 1998, took some time to catch on, but established Chao as a solo superstar soon enough. Proxima Estacion: Esperenza was released in 2001, followed by Radio Bemba Sound System in 2002 and La Radiolina in 2007.

Manu Chao is as punk rock as it gets, hardcore to the bone -never mind that his music is a restlessly cosmopolitan mix of Caribbean vibes, rock, and traditional music from Mexico to France. Born in France to Spanish parents, 50-year-old Chao has been as unwaveringly true to his ideals as could be. Staunchly anti-corporate, Chao strives to be a champion of the voiceless from Rio to the Parisian suburbs, inspired to follow in Bob Marley's footsteps. But as Chao explained in an interview for the British newspaper the Guardian in 2007, he has no desire to be a leader. “That would be an error, the worst mistake. We need 1,000 leaders, everybody's got to be a leader - there's nothing so corrupt as being a leader.” If he was a leader, he'd be nearly impossible to follow; the man is an unquenchable traveler, and his music is nearly as restless as he is. Chao's latest album, La Radiolina, is an invigorating hodgepodge of styles sung mostly in Spanish, but also French, English, Italian and Brazilian Portuguese. “Rainin in Paradize” features palm-muted electric guitar power chords (think pop-punk) as Chao half sings, half chants, “In Monrovia/this is no good place to be/weapons go crazy/it’s an atrocity” and goes on to mention other troubled places including Fallujah and the Congo. “Me Llaman Calle” is straight up flamenco, with that style's festive rhythm guitar and quick, elegantly picked lead guitar. Chao's vocals aren't particularly beautiful, but somehow they're incredibly infectious, begging for a singalong. In a video for the song Chao performs in a small bar, his eyes shining so joyfully they border on maniacal. You get the feeling that this guy could walk into similar bars in countless countries and instigate a similar scene, seamlessly slipping into one of the many languages he speaks and letting the merry-making flow. Despite the mixture of sounds, La Radiolina doesn't come off as ADD, the feel is cohesive even if the styles aren't. Regardless of his message -or even if you can understand the lyrics-, Manu Chao comes off as an inspiring everyman, somehow bridging culture after culture to become a true global citizen.