@ Terminal 5
Life, Love, and Immigration
Manu Chao concerts are rare in the English-speaking world but they tend to sell out. This was the case with the dates the internationally famous French-born, Spanish songwriter played at Terminal 5 in New York on his current North American tour. Anyone who got to see him was very fortunate. For one thing, Manu Chao is probably the closest his young audience will ever come to seeing The Clash — or Bob Marley for that matter.
People often describe Chao’s catchy, socially conscious, reggae-influenced Latin alt-rock as punk, but that influence isn’t always readily apparent, especially not on the album. There is a punk ethos to the way he 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 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 early British punk bands like The Clash, who inspired Chao to start making music in the 1980s with Mano Negra. But there’s lot of plain, old-fashioned romantic bohemianism in what he does. When Manu Chao goes against the grain he does it in a huge, baroque way. He’s famous for tours with Mano Negra that could have been conceived by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Italo Calvino: playing South American port cities by boat from a stage set in the ship’s hull, and war-torn Colombia by train.
However, if you are lucky enough to see Manu Chao live, you’ll see that the punk rock really comes out in the way he exerts himself with his three piece band Radio Bemba, as he did on the second night at Terminal 5. On stage at the cavernous venue, surrounded on all sides by fans who carpeted the floor and lined the two wrap-around balconies, he was a tiny, tan figure, bouncing up and down in jogging shoes. With a green Che-style army cap jammed down on his head, an open shirt, and some kind of sash accenting his baggy cargo shorts, he looked like the well-traveled tramp that he is.
The songs trotted along at the pace of reggae or a Spanish ballad but the band frequently reared up into a ’90s punk tempo, to reveal the turbulent heart lurking just underneath a song’s bucolic surface.
But then, you’ll find that kind of speed shifting in a lot of the world’s folk traditions too. That’s one way Chao manages to say so much and speak to so many people with his music. He demonstrates the connections between different musical traditions, while keeping his own music in an ambiguous pocket in the middle.
Much is made of the idea that Chao’s music has never caught on in the States, but you wouldn’t guess that from seeing the ecstatic throng at Terminal 5. Everywhere were smiling people, dancing, waving flags and t-shirts, crowd surfing, dangling their legs off the balconies, and singing along with every word. When it came time to shout along to his immigration anthem “Clandestino,” the sound was deafening, particularly on the knowing “marijuana ilegal” line. Of course, the smell of a certain “ilegal” substance was thick in the air.
The crowd seemed as tireless as him, and though there were plenty of Spanish speakers present, on the whole, the audience seemed as multilingual as his music, which includes lyrics in Spanish, French, English, and things like Wolof. Still, Terminal 5 holds only 3,000 bodies, and Chao often performs for audiences of 100,000 in Latin America.
Chao certainly didn’t act like it was an insignificant night, one wonders if he ever does. You could feel Chao and the massive audience passing energy back and forth. At times, he would sling his acoustic guitar over his shoulder and beat his breast with his microphone, while beckoning the audience to give a little more. He could take as much as they could give and he returned it to them amplified. He said, “thank you New York” after almost every song, as if each one was the finale.
Seeing Manu Chao live can also help illuminate the spiritual and historical ties between punk and reggae. Manu Chao cites Bob Marley as a huge influence. Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party” was written in tribute to The Clash, but it could just as easily sum up the entire Manu Chao enterprise. Chao brought an urgency and sense of conviction to the show that could have stemmed from either genre, or both. But he also wove in a fair amount of the swoony, old-world emotion that makes his style what it is.
Chao and Radio Bemba followed the set with two extended encores. At the end of the first, someone passed Chao a Mexican flag and he returned for the second round with it tied around his waist. The band played as if they wanted to make sure they’d worn the audience out, but the length of the encores seemed to stem from pure generosity of spirit, or maybe just a desire to keep the party going. In Manu Chao’s universe that distinction may not be important.