June 2001. I’m lying on a thin cot propped up on a wooden plank that’s trying to pretend to be a mattress. A gentle summer air blowing across the ocean creates a splendid, starlit night, but inside my cabana, where no breeze enters, I am but a tourist disguised as an experiment in high-pressure cooking. A single sheet covers my entire body, my only armament against fist-sized mosquitoes that have entered where the breeze cannot. The sweat dripping from my skin is their version of tangy dressing. Their daggers puncture my flesh through this humble and laughable line of defense.
Perhaps it is my own fault, believing I deserved more for eight dollars a night. Tulum is a sanctuary of stone and sea, and I wondered how the skeletons in those gorgeous ruins once dealt with these pesky invaders when they were but scaffolding for flesh. Outside the thing trying to be a window in my hut, dozens of people are congregated, loudly, at the bar, the one where I tried to drown the misery of Montezuma’s Revenge with two shots of Sacrificia de Maya. As the waitress set fire to this blend of Kahlua, Anise and Tequila, I sucked the burning liquid through a straw, wondering what form of sacrifice it would demand of my intestinal system.
Like all journeys through the inferno, there must be a reward. Mine was a unique sound rising above the drunken tourists on tinny club speakers. At first it sounded like circus music; a repetitive, high-pitched single chord strummed from a guitar, over and over and over, above someone that seemed to be singing about being a king of bongs. That noise—and I was waiting for a ghoulish clown to break down the cheap plank that was pretending to be a door – reverberated endlessly, for hours, as I pretended to sober up from my drunken stupor. Ironically, it soothed, rather than maddened, me. That was my introduction to Manu Chao.
The next day I’m sitting near the paved basketball court in the sand with Ricardo, an aspiring filmmaker from Monterrey, and two girls from Texas. They’re telling me how they plan on flying to New York the following weekend just to see Chao, who was performing at Central Park’s Summerstage. Ricardo is strumming that endless, lovingly irritating chord on his acoustic guitar, and I’m wondering why the hell I’m the only person in Mexico that doesn’t know who Chao is. Over the next few years, and continuing with the release of his recent La Radiolina (Nacional), Chao would become one of my favorite musicians, a sentiment shared already, of course, by millions.
Sometimes referred to as a “modern Bob Marley”, Chao does share his love of reggae music. Yet there’s so much more to his style than just reggae. He may be one of the most indescribable artists today. Still, each of his four solo recordings, since leaving ska/ punk/ rock maniacs Manu Negra, are alike in context, tone and structure. Chao is an adherent of the idea that less is more; hence, his songs rarely extend past three minutes. They are, however, strung together so that each album plays out as one long song espousing a inspiring variety of sonic colors, and each album fits neatly into the next like a Lego block. Even Sibérie m’était contée, a children’s record he cut in France, slides right into the mix.
Sure, there are differences between his albums. La Radiolina sheds the predominance of minimalist reggae for a harder rock edge, a trend that started with his live outing, Radio Bemba Sound System, and was all over the guitar-driven blues of Amadou and Mariam, the blind Malian couple whose spectacular album, Dimanche à Bamako, he produced. There is little irony that that recording was a wider entry point for many Americans than his own albums. In the end, it doesn’t matter how you find out about his music—that you know it is enough.
Chao is the epitome of the globetrotting cosmopolitan. Born in Paris and eventually reared in his ancestral land of Spain (Barcelona to be exact), he sings in seven languages. Seven. Sometimes in the same song. He has so mastered the inflections of multilingual syllables that, like the music itself, everything meshes and coheres and dances. His guitar is always present, but happily concedes to a thunder of drums or the blare of brass, when necessary. That’s not his genius, however. When he adds subtle effects—the clown chord, elevator noises, tasteful percussive elements, the sound of cows or geese or banshees crying—he creates a sound so patented that his sonic copyright would hold in any court.
This is merely skimming the surface of Chao’s ouvre. Musically, his sound is that of the future; cosmopolitan, multilingual, fluid and yet cohesive. You never think that you’re listening to French, or Portuguese, or Wolof, or Arabic, just as you don’t divide rock from his reggae, or subtract the blues out of his bolero. All you hear is Manu. And once you get past the initial groove that he lays, and become accustomed to the fast-paced nature, you recognize a passionate soul as devoted to music as he is to political and social justice.
Born to a journalist father who had escaped Spanish dictatorship, Chao dubbed his band “Radio Bemba Sound System” in honor of an underground communication system used in the Cuban revolution. While the era of Castro and Che are not on the minds of as many young, contemporary people as, say, the reign of Bush is, Chao uses La Radiolina to remind people of the political scourge that modern “democracy” is creating. As of now, at least in America, he preaches to the choir. It is a growing and loving pulpit, though. It has been written that the major reason Chao has not achieved greater status in the States is because his dominant language is not English. What a perfect way to close this column.
Not long after Montezuma quit having his way with me, and once the Mayan sacrifice had ended in my clouded mind, I packed my meager belongings and returned to New York to catch the Central Park show. It was packed beyond capacity. An accordion-wielding madman leading an upstart punk-Gypsy outfit known as Gogol Bordello opened with blazing intensity.
Then Chao and his band took stage, his crew over a dozen deep, and performed a set that will forever remain imprinted on my heart as one of the greatest live sets I have ever witnessed. Even though, beyond the clown song – “Bongo Bong,” from his debut solo recording – I knew none of the other tracks, it felt like I had known them all my life. He screamed for freedom and equity, with lyrics, with saxophones and with bass. And the crowd throbbed, and smiled, and screamed right back.
It’s unfortunate that roughly only 20-percent of Americans have passports. We live in an age where the technological possibilities of communications offer us access to remote corners of the earth, but a computer screen is not reality. It is an aspect of our experience, one that is deepened by travel, by the sights and tastes and sounds of an entire planet. Chao represents the future of music, and the future of humanity: multilingual, multi-experienced and open to the possibilities of the world. As is often the case, now and throughout history, it is the artist taking those first steps into unknown territory, to assure us is it not only safe, but that it is good.