Multilingual, multicultural and multitalented, Manu Chao is as self-assured, amiable and charming as you would imagine. He's also a rebel, a vagabond and the driving force behind 20 years of music called Latin Alternative. In fact, he helped create it before it was so named.
It's likely you've never seen him perform, as this tour is his first time in Charlotte. "How's the weather in Charlotte this time of year?" he asks. Speaking with him recently via a connection between Charlotte, Paris and Barcelona, he's surprisingly interested in Charlotte, asking nearly more questions than me. "How's the music scene? What kind of music's there?" As I edged in a question about his tour, he explains, "It's an opportunity for me. I've only been on the West Coast [of the U.S.]. Never been up the East Coast. It's a new place — first time there — in Charlotte [and Atlanta]. I want to see and know the people."
Starting as a busker and a punk — heavily influenced by the Clash and Bob Marley — his first well-known group was Mano Negra, named after Spanish anarchists. Growing up in France — his parents were exiled there from Spain's fascist dictatorship — explains his singing in Spanish and French. Actually, he sings in seven languages, English as well as Arabic and several more exotic tongues.
After Mano Negra broke up, Chao continued under his own name, improving his sound as the years went by.
Instead of a jarring, angular style, he moved in the direction of street music and found sounds from around the world, picking up on music and rhythms from North Africa, Jamaica, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. His band, the Radio Bemba Sound System, named for Castro's early underground radio, combines street smarts with distinctive arrangements. On recordings, he's thoughtful and mellow, while live the sound system gallops into overdrive with double-time, fist-thumping thrash.
He's sold recordings in the millions, mainly through word of mouth, played for audiences of up to 100,000 and has penned a number of classics. On "Clandestino" he sings, "My fate is to keep running, because I don't have any papers" — alarmingly similar to his own life. He won't lend his name to commercials, he totes his own bags — a true poet of the people. "We're touring because we love touring", he tells me. "We're a family. We like being on the road. It makes us happy. I'm happy to still be inspired." Asked where he lives, he responds, "I live in Barcelona in Catalonia [Spain]. My family lives in Brazil." Explaining his day at home, "We just played in a little club in Barcelona. Sure, we would do that on our tour."
Chao doesn't stop playing when the concert's over. After shows he's been known to walk the streets; in Rio and Sao Paulo he hung with the child prostitutes, in Buenos Aires he recorded with patients at the Colifata Psychiatric Hospital. "They have so much lucidity," he said in an earlier interview. "Very poetic."
Manu Chao is not the most prolific artist, often recycling his own songs and offering releases years apart. He makes up for that in consistency and quality. His most recent release is the double live CD/DVD Baionarena named for the live concert venue in France.
Earlier, essential recordings are La Radiolina and before that Proxima Estacion: Esperanza ("Next Stop: Hope") named for the Madrid metro station. And before that, his classic Clandestino. Standout tunes are "King of Bongo," "Rainin' in Paradize," "Me Llaman Calle," "Mr. Bobby," "Welcome to Tijuana," "Infinita Maleza" (Malaise), "La Vida Tombola" and "Politics Kills." On his current La Ventura Tour Manu says, "We play new songs, old songs, some from all our albums — and the live albums, too".
Like Woody Guthrie, Manu's guitar also kills fascists. Vivid, explosive and influential, he's also anti-establishment and anti-globalization. Just like Guthrie, he plays for free at rallies and strikes. But he's a crowd pleaser as well. Acoustic, electric and eclectic with mariachi horns, clever lyrics, catchy riffs, this could become a gig of the year. Could even be a gig of the decade if he wanders around town to a bar near you.