People often describe Chao’s catchy, socially conscious, reggae-influenced Latin alt-rock as punk, but that influence isn’t always readily apparent. There is a punk ethos to the way internationally famous French-born, Spanish singer-songwriter goes about being a musician, for sure. From his preference for touring in the developing world, to his refusal to tour in support of his 1998 debut solo album Clandestino, he’s said his share of eff yous to the music industry.
Deeds like that reflect the integrity and idealism of bands like The Clash, who inspired Chao to start making music in the 1980s with his first band Mano Negra. But there is also lot of old-fashioned romantic bohemianism in his style. When Manu Chao goes against the grain he does it in a huge, baroque way. He’s famous for the improbable tours with Mano Negra that could have been conceived by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He’s played South American port cities by boat with a stage set in the ship’s hull, and toured a war-torn Colombia by train.
However, if you are lucky enough to see Manu Chao live, you’ll see the punk rock in the way he exerts himself with his band Radio Bemba. The songs might trot along at the pace of reggae or a Spanish ballad most of the time, but the band frequently rears up into a wild punk tempo, revealing a turbulent heart within a seemingly placid song.
His truly global audience is as multilingual as his music, which includes lyrics in Spanish, French, English, and Wolof, to name a few. But it’s the way he finds connections between different musical languages – folk, punk, reggae, alternative – that really brings people together.
Photo by Michael Alexandar